Bent Out of Shape
Why is it so hard to find the perfect bra? Jessica Seigel explores the bosom of the bra industry. You won’t believe what she finds.
By Jessica Seigel
If the bra fits, it won't hurt," the saleswoman insists as she pokes her head into my dressing room, sizing up my bare breasts like two chicken cutlets in the poultry section. I'm booby-trapped—that pitiful state when your last bra dies and you’re desperate for a new one. Maybe the old style was discontinued—a growing sales tactic in a cutthroat $3.3 billion industry—or it no longer feels right because of body changes (weight shifts, exercise, babies, gravity). So now I’m standing half naked, not simply inviting, but begging for the cold evaluation of the bra fitter.
"You think you're a 36D, but you're not," she says. “You’re a 34DD.” She diagnoses my problem as a near universal affliction: the inability of women to detect the dimensions of their own breasts. "Nine out of ten are wearing the wrong size bra," she explains, echoing a claim I’ll hear repeatedly during my quest over the next few days.
If you’re fighting your own battle of the bra, take heart. You’ve got plenty of company. Just consider that thousands of women worldwide have been donating their rejects to the Braball, a sculpture that California artist Emily Duffy is rolling together as a monument to women's struggles with their breasts. (For more information about the Braball, see page 140.) "Most women have 10 bras in their drawer that don't fit. One woman sent me 25," says Duffy, who has collected 18,000 bras so far, 10,000 of which now make up the sculpture. The ball is now four feet in diameter—and growing.
What's behind the dissatisfaction? It could be that, like me, many women are searching in vain for a bra that feels comfortable, and gives them the remarkably high, round, firm orbs we are constantly invited to ogle on the surgically-enhanced chests of celebrities. Even those who are content with their lot in life—be it small, medium, or large—are complaining that the bra industry has abandoned them, choosing fashion over fit and comfort.
In my case, I was down to only one style in my drawer, a soft cup Natori that's comfy, yet too high-cut to wear with low necklines. Fed up with buying bras that seemed fine in the store, but scratched or jabbed just hours later, I had gone to a New York City appointment-only shop. It specializes in high-end lingerie for celebrities, like Jennifer Tilly and the cast of TV's All My Children and The View.
After the assessment of my bra size, I waited in the dressing room as the fitter searched for styles smaller in the chest band and larger in the cup than my usual. At least I wasn’t the only one sizing up: The average bra size sold in America recently expanded from 34C to 36C.
The fitter brought out six under-wire models bearing cups big enough to serve a grande latte—34DD’s and E’s (In some styles, they’re the same size. Who knew? ) Most gaped on me. Several fit, but the wires pinched my diaphragm. The fitter’s diagnosis: "It's because your breasts are too low on your chest."
“You mean they’re sagging?” I asked. No, she said, they just sprout lower on your ribs than “normal.” Finally, a lacy Chantelle felt good in front, but the cup rode too high on the side, cutting into my armpit. Her new verdict: "You're too short-waisted." More frustrating try-ons provoked the final blow: "Your breasts are uneven…..Eeek!"
Her running critique of my body was the patter of someone who believes (or wants you to believe) that the fault lies not in the bra, but in you. I got the same drill from four fitters and two bra designers I spoke with, who all spun their own theories, including "It doesn't scratch, you only think it scratches," and my personal favorite: "Your ribs are in the wrong place."
ONE BRA FITTER SAID: ‘YOUR RIBS ARE IN THE WRONG PLACE.'
A dress size 12, I'm the size of the average American woman, though bigger in the chest. When did I turn into a freak of nature?
Troubles—from AA to DDD
"Companies have abandoned the idea of customer loyalty and service," says Braball organizer Duffy, a 42B who switched to stretch undershirts with built-in support because bras cut her mid-section. "The more dissatisfied you are, the more you'll keep buying. It's our consumer quest. It's the holy grail." (The grail, you may remember, was also a cup.)
Letters mailed with the cast-off bras relate troubles from AAA to DDD. Caught between an A and B cup, 32-year-old graphic designer Lisa Mabley from Minneapolis mailed in three castoffs that itched and pinched, including one model that "cost $50 at a custom-fit place, and was still uncomfortable as hell."
"Felt like barbed-wire," wrote Michelle Mason, a 36B from Gardiner, Maine, who sent 11 rejects with scratchy seams that "dig into my flesh." From Yokohama, Japan, Tomiko Matsumura and her two twentysomething daughters mailed 10 bras with a poetic missive: "I think bra is necessary and very precious for females, but I have become no wear bra at home because of comfortable."
"No wear bra at home" is also a growing trend in the United States, according to historian Colleen Gau, co-author with Jane Farrell-Beck of Uplift: The Bra in America. Her research found teens and retired women increasingly switching to undershirts, jogbras, or nothing at all.
To size up the problem, Gau haunted a T.J. Maxx communal dressing room speaking to women shopping for bras. Only two of 12 interviewed found one that fit, though most had tried on at least six styles each—the carry-in limit. That’s about an 80 percent strikeout. It was the same story at Macy's and Bloomingdale’s, where I saw weary shoppers like Susan Kaufman, a 40-year-old teacher from Livingston, New Jersey, wandering the bra aisles. ”It’s a nightmare,” she said, clutching an old Warner's tag (34D) taped to an index card in forlorn hope of a match. "You just don't understand."
Yes, we do.
Part of the reason you can’t find that bra you liked so much last year is because it doesn’t exist anymore. Today's cookie-cutter styles are more structurally alike and discontinued faster than in the past, according to industry insiders. “We used to do two to three styles a year. Now we do nine," says Valerie L. Heinen, who has been a designer for 30 years and now works at Lilyette, a division of Maidenform.
As conglomerates have gobbled up smaller companies, the industry's focus has switched from fit to fashion, says Marshal Cohen, co-president of the market research firm NPD Fashionworld. "The bra consumer is very frustrated," he says. As Cohen sees it, manufacturers are being driven by market leader Victoria's Secret, which has managed to define, as its ads proclaim, "What is Sexy?". Scrambling to sell seductive uplift rather than comfortable support, bra manufacturers have sometimes let such basics as lining scratchy elastic and raw edges fall by the wayside.
But this approach may be taking a toll: In the last year, bra sales sagged a dramatic 10 percent, compared to 1.5 percent for fashion overall. "Women are saying, 'I'll stay with the old bra again this year,'" Cohen adds.
However, I didn’t want the same old, same old. Not ready to give up, I tried another well-known specialty store, where a saleswoman fit me in the identical style and size I'd rejected as too tight at the celebrity shop. The sleek-molded, wired Le Mystère Renaissance looked fabulous in 34 E, but pinched my ribs. The sales sergeant insisted: "It has to stretch." OK, then. I shelled out $62, plus tax.
My new bra anchored my breasts so high, I finally understood what they mean by "knockers." I tried. I really tried. But after eight hours, I had to get something off my chest. When I did, the bra had stenciled its outline onto my body in red.
It took two days for the marks to disappear.
It was time to go to the source—the designer. In Le Mystère's 12th floor showroom on Madison Avenue, my shirt came off in a land speed record that no man has ever approached. Designer Iris Clarke ooh-ed and aahed over the uplifting fit. She told me it looked the same on me as on the model in their glossy ad. (Now that’s a remark I didn't mind.) Cleavage. Plump breasts on top. No seams. “Gorgeous,” she said.
“But it hurts after a few hours,” I told her.
"It doesn't hurt," she insisted. "It's new, you have to give it time to stretch." How long? "A week or two." By then, I'd be a bloody pulp.
Having to break in a bra is “silly” says historian Gau. "You used to be able to buy a bra that fit you.”
Wanna buys some snake oil?
Bra design has been called the rocket science of apparel, so who better to consult next than a rocket scientist? "The whole design is fundamentally flawed. It's an instrument of torture," says John Tyrer, a British engineering professor at Loughborough University, one of England’s leading tech institutes in Leicestershire. Tyrer, who advises the British government on measurement standards, adopted the lonely cause of rack reform after his then-wife returned (yet again) from the mall, fuming that nothing fit.
A solid mechanics specialist, Tyrer used state-of-the-art laser tools to test how today's wired bras distribute load. His conclusion: "The bra does not work at all. To buttress up your breasts, they have to strap you in tighter and tighter. All that does is push the steel into your flesh."
That's why women like me prefer wearing chest bands looser than the size bra fitters recommend—to relieve pressure, which can cause permanent "wire rash." Today's minimalist styling shifts the entire load onto the front wires, rather than equally around the chest, back and shoulders. The bigger the bust, the greater the pressure (and pain), which is why wires break and shoulder straps fall off or dig-in.
So according to the engineering analysis of a man who has helped design space shuttles, personal “defects” like a thin chest wall, protruding ribs, and low-lying breasts didn't cause my hooter hell. The bra did—and switching sizes made absolutely no difference. "Women are fed bizarre stories," says Tyrer. "You're told that your breasts are all different, that you have heavy tissue, light tissue. That’s snake oil. When you don't fit their idealized set, they blame you."
In fact, industry veterans can’t say how the AA through DDD system was created. "Nobody knows where it came from," says Elizabeth Smith, director of retail services at Wacoal.
According to this standard likely dating from the late 1930s to the early 1940s, you figure chest-band by measuring around your rib cage and adding five inches. You determine cup from the widest point around the bust (generally over the nipples), then add a letter for every inch difference between rib and bust circumference.
"It never made sense to me," says Lilyette’s Heinen. "I don't understand it. I don't use it."
The A,B,C,D formula bears no actual relationship to real breast size—or volume, the crucial fit element. "It's completely irrelevant," says Tyrer. "It's like measuring a motor car by the diameter of the gas cap." And without accurate measure of breast volume, there is no way to define proper fit. "This is not rocket science," he says. "It's just straight-forward science, but nobody has done it."
Science doesn’t mix with fashion, which may explain why bra companies remain reluctant to manufacture Tyrer's prototype, which he won't unveil publicly, but describes as front closing with more vertical orientation and adjustable cups. "It's a proper chassis design," explains Tyrer. "It's how I'd hang an engine from an aircraft wing."
So what’s a woman to do? Apparently, take matters into her own hands. I have, by altering my own bras—a piece of stretch velvet beneath the underwires works wonders. (If you don’t sew and you have an expensive bra, ask a tailor to modify it for you.)
Other women struggle by with their own solutions. “I wear camisoles or tank tops with extra support,” says a 22-year-old New Yorker. Many report wearing sports bra full-time. “I think of it as an ace bandage,” says a St. Louis graphic designer. “It flattens me out, but at least the straps don’t fall down.”
A Maryland mother of two, who says it would take “an intricate network of tiny steel girders” to get her breasts back to where they once were, has discovered the ultimate in practicality. “I buy cotton stretchable bras at a discount store for about $7 a piece, because they’re cheap and fit,” she says. “When they start looking ratty, I cut off the straps, and they make very nice dust rags.” We say: If you find a style you love, buy a five-year supply.