Find A Bra That Fits Without Breaking the Bank

I was going to launch right into an article on saving money when shopping for a bra that fits, but I realized there were too many assumptions that I couldn't take for granted! So, I'll get to that, but I'll start with a quick primer on finding the right bra shape and size. There are many resources online to help you with this, but I thought I'd take a stab (something your band hopefully doesn't do to you!!!) at summing it up.

The tl;dr Summary of Finding a Bra That Fits

Why Should I Care?

Bra manufacturers, especially those in the U.S., produce a weirdly small range of sizes, ignore a huge swath of very common sizes, and publicize erroneous measuring and fit information that convinces people that they are one of the manufactured sizes, when in fact a different size would fit them better. Many consumers are not aware that a better fit is possible.

Bra-wearers often put up with pain and discomfort every day: back pain, shoulder pain, breast pain. A better fitting bra may be more comfortable, and will certainly be more supportive. Switching from a poor fit to a good fit can improve the general appearance of clothes and make it easier and less frustrating to shop for tops that look good.

Measuring Your Size

  1. To find band size: Measure snugly around your ribcage just under your bust. The nearest even number is your band size. If you have a lot of "squish" you may be able to round down, but in general you may find it more comfortable to round up (e.g. 28.5" = 30 band).
  2. To find cup size: Measure loosely around the largest part of your bust as you are bending over. In general, the difference between this overbust measurement and your band size is your cup size: A = 1" difference, B = 2" difference, and so on. That's the basic idea, anyway, but various shape issues can make this method over- or under-estimate, and different brands have different letter sequences (double letters, skipped letters, etc.) So, you may need to try a few different sizes to find your perfect fit.
sameatschildren's tumblr has a fantastic post explaining everything.

Bra Size Calculator will give you a good size estimate based on a number of measurements.

Size Myths

  1. FALSE: 36D cups are the same size as 30D cups. Because the cup size is measured relative to the band, smaller band size = smaller cup volume. "She's a D cup" is a meaningless description; you need to know the band to get an idea of the volume of the cup. To find a "sister size" (size with the same cup volume), add a cup size for each band size you go down. For example, a 36D cup has the same cup volume as a 34DD, 32E, or 30F.
  2. FALSE: D-cup = big boobs. A D, DD, or any other cup size may appear big or small depending on the overall bra size (and, to some extent, the shape of the breasts).
  3. FALSE: If you find the right size, all bras in that size will fit. Bras have different shapes, and a shape mismatch can make a bra not fit, where another bra in the same size might fit well.
  4. FALSE: Your boobs are weird. It's not your breasts that are wrong, it's the bra that is wrong.

The Bra Band Project is a gallery of users wearing bras of different sizes. This gives you an idea of what various sizes actually look like, as well as the diversity of shape found in each size.

Also, anytime I'm worried that my breasts don't look "normal" enough, I peruse the 007b Normal Breasts Gallery (not sexual, but nsfw).

Breast Shape Terminology

  1. Shallow / Projecting Two 32DD bras may have the same cup volume, but totally different fits depending on how deep or shallow the cups are.
  2. Wide Root / Narrow Root The size of the root of the breast (where it connects to the chest) relative to the widest part.
  3. Full on Bottom / Full on Top What part of the cup you more often fill out
  4. Close-set / Wide-Set If your breasts are close together or if there is more distance between them
  5. Soft Tissue / Firm Tissue Softer breasts take on the shape of the container more and may require more support. Firmer, self-supporting breasts may need a more exact cup shape match.

The Busty Resources Wiki page on Breast Shape has more complete descriptions and illustrations.

Proper Fit Checklist

  1. Band should be firm and sit straight (parallel to the ground)
  2. Cups should be stretched taut over breasts, with a smooth line across the top where fabric meets skin
  3. Straps should sit in place without constant adjustment. They should not hurt.
  4. Gore (the bit in the middle, between the cups) should tack (sit flush against your sternum, between your breasts). It should not stab you in the chest or dig into tissue.
  5. Underwire (if any) should tack (sit flush against your ribcage, in the inframammary fold right under your breasts). It should not stab you in the armpit (or anywhere else).

Fit Guide on the subreddit /r/ABraThatFits

Okay, Here's the Part on Saving Money

Admittedly, there's nothing frugal about finding the right bra size, especially if you're in the U.S. Most U.S. brands carry an extremely limited size range, including high-end department stores and dedicated lingerie stores like Victoria's Secret and La Senza. In the likely event that you find your size is not "on the matrix," you will probably have to branch out to European brands in order to find a good fit. This can be expensive, whether you order them from domestic specialty retailers or directly from oversea manufacturers.

I spent several months and hundreds of dollars before I found my perfect bra. Here is what I learned, so that you may do it more smartly.

Use Bratabase

Bratabase is an amazing labor of love by users and, as far as I can tell, one developer. It's a repository of crowd-sourced measurements, images, and reviews for numerous bra models. This can help you in several ways:
  • Reading reviews of a particular bra model can help you get an idea of what shape it fits the best. 
  • Once you have one or more bras that fit, you can search for other bras with similar fit and measurements. 
  • If you can find another user who seems to have the same size and shape as you, you can follow them and try the bras they like.
  • It's a place to keep your own notes. Which brings me to...

Keep Notes

Whether you use Bratabase or not, you need to keep notes. Write down the brand, model, and size of each bra you try, along a description of any fit issues. (For example: "Band too tight", "quad-boob", "cups too wide".) This can prevent you from trying the same model twice, and it also helps focus your search; knowing how one model didn't work can suggest other models that may work, and eliminate similar models that will have the same problems. If you don't know where to go at any point in your search, you can post on Bratabase or /r/ABraThatFits and say something like, "I tried the Cleo Marcie it was too shallow, I tried the Freya Rio and it was too deep, I also need a wider gore," and so on. The helpful folks on those sites can use that type of information to help you figure out next steps.

Take Pictures

Whether you post them on Bratabase (publicly or privately) or just use them for your own reference, it is surprisingly helpful to take pictures of yourself wearing each bra. I frequently saw fit issues more clearly in the images than in person. Stellar fits were also more obvious to me in photographs.

Put On New Bras "By The Book"

This sounds patronizing, but the way you put on a bra can be the difference between thinking it fits and thinking it doesn't. I typically put on my bra in the morning pretty fast without thinking about it, but extra care should be taken when evaluating the fit of a new bra. Be sure to "swoop and scoop": sweep all breast tissue that may be pushed back into the armpit or under the band and scoop it into the cups themselves.

Always try a new bra on the loosest hook; if the loosest hook doesn't work, go down a band size. Starting on the loosest hook extends the life of the bra by leaving the tighter hooks available for when the elastic in the band begins to stretch out.

Return, Return, Return

Particularly toward the beginning of your journey, when you're not sure what will fit, focus on online retailers that accept returns. Amazon has some UK bras; some are even eligible for free shipping and free returns. Many eBay sellers accept returns, although their policies vary, and you typically have to eat shipping costs. HerRoom, Bare Necessities, BraStop, and Figleaves accept returns, although you usually pay return shipping.

Expect to return. Don't remove tags. Be gentle in your handling of the bra, but ruthless in your evaluation of its fit. A bad fit isn't a failure--it's a data point. Learn all you can from it.

Buy In Batches

Buying a lot of bras at once has a higher up-front cost and can be expensive if you are not good about return follow-through, but it can save you money in shipping and return shipping, and it's often easier to compare fits to each other than individually. (Just make sure that you don't keep something that doesn't fit right merely because it's the best of a bad batch.) It can be especially useful to compare several sizes of the same model against each other.

Buy Secondhand

If you can't find a good fit among the low-hanging fruit--bras available for sale with free returns at major online retailers--you may find you need to branch out to more specialty brands, such as my beloved Polish company Ewa Michalak. Importing from overseas can be a hassle, and there is risk involved if you are not sure that the bra will even fit. It can be impossible or expensive to return these bras. Poland in particular has really strict return policies (KEEP THE ORIGINAL PAPER RECEIPT!!!)

The best thing to do if you're not sure is to try to find someone in your own country who has already tried the bra(s) you're thinking of trying in your size, and is now passing them on. Maybe they didn't fit or they're a little worn out. (If shopping bras that were actually used, rather than just tried on, the band elastic is the most likely point of wear, so you might want to search for a sister size with a smaller band [and therefore larger cup] than you normally wear.)

It's not as hard as you might think to find lightly used bras. Bratabase has a marketplace, and the /r/BraSwap subreddit has an active community of swappers, traders, and givers-away. UK and Polish brands are common in both communities. These are users who care about bras and keep them in good, clean condition. You can't return, but you can always resell to someone else on the same market.

Sometimes Good Enough is Good Enough (Especially In the First Year)

Despite everything I've said so far about searching for Your Perfect Fit, sometimes you just need to go with "good enough." If you find a bra that fits fine, and you like it, keep it! The perfect fit may not exist, or it may be prohibitively expensive or difficult to find it, and even if you are committed to finding it, you need something to wear in the meantime.

It took me a year and hundreds of dollars find the bras I now love, but if I had stuck with the first three bras I tried--all recommended to me by the /r/ABraThatFits community--I would have a fit that was about 80% as good for a fraction of the cost. I was hung up on finding a perfect fit, and I also wanted bras that sparked joy and had a "buy it for life" quality. The problem is, bras are not "buy it for life" items. Most wear out within a year, depending on how often you wear them (frugal tip: never wear the same bra two days in a row. The elastic needs time to rest. The more bras you rotate in your bra-drobe, the longer each one will last.)

Your size may also change. For me, after wearing bras that fit for a year, those same bras stopped fitting. The bands hadn't worn out; the cups were suddenly too small! It turns out that this is common and it's called tissue migration: after wearing actually supportive bras for awhile, breast tissue that had been squashed down by poorly-fitting bras migrates back to where it should be, and you go up a cup size (or two). So, I had to replace all those bras anyway.

The second time around replacing my bras was no problem, because I knew exactly what brand, model, and size I needed, and I just ordered them and got them and it was fine. Still, it was tough to pass on bras that I'd spent money for and that had a lot of life left in them. (I did recoup some of the cost by selling them on Bratabase!)

Bonus Tip: Rehoming Your Old Bras

As I've mentioned, it's fairly easy to sell UK/European bras in extended sizes on secondhand markets on Reddit or Bratabase, especially brands like Cleo, Panache, Freya, Fantasie, Elomi, Ewa Michalak, and Comexim--anything you'd encounter on your "finding a bra that fits" journey. As your definition of "great fit" evolves, and/or your size changes, you may find yourself taking the role of buyer, seller, and swapper in these markets.

But what about your old "on the matrix" US bras that you now know don't fit? In general, the Reddit and Bratabase markets have no interest in these; these are the same bras they are trying to get away from. I have had some luck selling Victoria's Secret bras that were almost new on eBay. (Similarly, I wouldn't list on eBay for brands like Cleo and Freya that are popular on Bratabase and Reddit. It can be hard to attract buyers because general population doesn't know how great they are.)

Many bras can't be sold. Bras that are significantly worn probably need to be just thrown out. Bras that are perfectly good but not name-brand can be donated, although you'll have to branch out of the usual donation channels, since Goodwill can't sell used undergarments. Here are the orgs I know of:

Free The Girls trains women freed from sex trafficking to sell secondhand bras. (Sure.) I've sent bras here, and you do pay for your own shipping, but they send you a tax receipt.

Bra Recyclers seems to do a variety of things with donated bras, including donating them to homeless shelters and exporting them to overseas markets.

Bra Appeal has sort of a confusing business model, at least to me, but it claims to somehow both donate bras and raise money for breast cancer research.

Uplift Bras sends gently used bras to people who cannot afford or obtain them easily.


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