Okay! You know your size, or at least you know what to look for to determine a good fit, and you’re all empowered, and now you’re gonna do some window shopping online. And then you start reading, and there are all these crazy words, and you’re all “wtf is this madness?”
No lie, lingerie can be intimidating, to men AND women. There are lots of different bits and bobs (and boobs), and I also happen to think that in America there’s a stigma attached to it. We’re supposed to want smooth, invisible basics. Lingerie = sex = slut. If you like pretty or sexy underwear, you’re somehow decadent and wanton. Obviously I don’t agree with this ridiculous point of view AT ALL. It’s been really interesting to see my friends’/family’s reactions when I tell them about my deep and abiding love for underwear. Men get uncomfortable or giggly or smirky, which is fun. As for the ladies in my life, a surprising number of these adventurous, daring, sophisticated, intelligent women absolutely SHUT DOWN when the subject of underwear comes up. Especially if you say words like “basque” or “suspender belt”. There’s a sense of discomfort, embarrassment, shame, and “this is not for me.” And, hey, look, you don’t want all the frilly bits? Good for you! That’s totally great! Really, I promise it is. You know what makes you feel good. Clean, simple lines in classic colors and smooth silhouettes are sexy and beautiful. Edgier frill-free designs are badass. Carry on, lady friend. But do yourself a favor, and ask yourself: are you shutting down because you think lingerie is “not for you” because you’re not x, y, or z ENOUGH for it? Let’s turn that thinking around, and explore all the options.
Here are the words you may not know (okay, some you’ll obviously know), and here’s what they mean. Rather, here’s what I arbitrarily declare them to mean, based on my own experiences, and I strongly encourage the internet to correct me if and when I go wrong. Sometimes the words mean different things in different brands or companies or countries, so I’m going to go with the most widely used definitions I’ve encountered online (most links go to my beloved Bravissimo, although I bounce around some other online retailers as well).
Balconette bra or, sometimes, 3/4 cup: A balconette is one of the most common bra styles out there, and it’s also one of the most nebulously defined. Sometimes it’s just a cross between a full cup and a plunge, offering less coverage than the full cup and more support than the plunge. Most often it’s underwired with a soft fabric cup, although more and more brands are offering lightly padded or molded balconettes. Other balconette bras offer a shape and style more evocative of the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice: the center front and sides of the (usually padded) cup are more level with each other, and boobs are thrust front and center in more of a “shelf” shape. People describe the shape as “Marie Antoinette” or “cupcake” boobs, both of which are gloriously decadent. The lovely Rhea bra by Masquerade is an example of this style of balconette (although it’s close to being a demi bra too).
Basque: This is a more common garment in the UK and Europe, whereas most Americans see one and think “corset”, which is technically inaccurate. A basque is bra-sized, with boning that extends down the torso for subtle shaping, and 8 or more rows of hooks up the back. Some are designed to be convertible or strapless, and they’re popular for bridal lingerie or to wear under close-fitting, slinky dresses. I also think they’re great if you’re dipping your toes into the sexy lingerie waters but you’re feeling feel shy about your belly, because strap yourself into one of these and suddenly you’re a gloriously gorgeous dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Not that I have done this alone in my apartment. Or anything.
Body: A body is sort of like a cross between a bra, a camisole, and your briefs, a one-stop shop like a one-piece bathing suit or leotard. It generally features a thong or brief that snaps at the crotch for convenience. It offers the same slimming/shaping/support features that a basque does, but it won’t ever ride up, and frequently it’ll accommodate low-backed dresses and tops. For what it’s worth, I think they look terribly uncomfortable, but I admit I’ve never tried one.
Bralette– A bralette is rarely cup-sized, more often sized S, M, L. (Tangent re: boobular bloopers on the boob tube: On “Bones” this season, Agent Booth went new-mother lingerie shopping for Dr. Brennan, and obviously I sat up from my popcorn bowl and put down my beer to see how well THAT was gonna go, and the sleek and snooty lingerie store lady was all “how about this lovely bralette?” And held up WHAT WAS CLEARLY A (beautiful) PADDED, UNDERWIRED DEMI BRA, and then I yelled at the laptop and scared the cats. New profession: Film/Television Lingerie Industry Fact Checker. Call me, Hollywood.) Bralettes are often made of beautiful sheer lace or patterned silks and satins, and many smaller-busted or small-framed women find them more comfortable and flattering than wired bras or camisoles. They can also be longline, with a band that is deep and retro-looking. There are some WONDERFUL vintage-inspired independent lingerie designers selling bralettes with coordinating high-waisted briefs, tap shorts, and suspenders on Etsy, and they are drool-worthy. I think bralettes are gorgeous and awesome and sexy, and I will never feel comfortable wearing them. Le sigh.
Brief: we wear them as kids, we wear them as adults. Y’all know what briefs are. In the States, “panties”.
Bullet Bra: A bra, underwired or soft cup, that is seamed (most often in concentric circles) so that the cup projects the breast forward and out into a pointed shape. Madonna, Mad Men, etc. Again, there are some crazy awesome independent designers and etsy sellers making some totally fab bullet bras. Treacle at the Lingerie Addict has a round-up of resources.
Camisole: I always think of a camisole as a prettier tank top. (Somewhere, a clothing historian is weeping.) Camisoles make great layering pieces to line sheer shirts or make an outer garment lie more smoothly on the body. The styles can range from simple and basic in stretch cotton to more luxurious silk and lace blends. Matching panty/bra/camisole sets are awesome. I just love matching underwear. After a decade of never having any, I want it all. Again, more full bust manufacturers are offering bra-sized options, both basic and flirty, including this set by Parfait by Affinitas, which I am literally saving money for to buy in red or black when it’s released so I can wear it to my pole dancing class. Priorities, I have them.
Chemise: a chemise can be anything from a slightly-long T-shirt to a sheer nightie with a built in bra. It’s generally a lingerie/sleepwear hybrid in a sheer, lacy, or silky fabric, like a slip. Some designers (off the top of my head, Elle MacPherson and Parfait by Affinitas) offer bra-sized chemises, for women who want a little more support and structure.
Convertible bra: A convertible bra generally isn’t designed to be worn entirely strapless, but instead offers options for traditional, cross-back, or halter-neck configurations. My sister has one and the straps are designed to look like a beautiful chain of flowers and it’s soooo purrrty.
Corselette: To be totally honest, I think this is a made up word for the garment otherwise known as basque, to woo women who want the look of a corset without, you know, corsetry. I’ve only seen a few of these guys, and they look exactly like basques to me, although sometimes they seem more delightfully Mad-Men-era retro, extending down to cover the tush. Internet, explain? Tush coverage = corselette? Lighter structure/less boning/more of a slip = corselette? Guide me.
Corset: Say it with me: “COARSE-it”. Never “cor-SETTE”. Now you won’t sound like a moron, and you’re welcome. Corsets have a centuries-long history, and I legitimately find them super interesting from a fashion and social history point of view, but I am neither qualified nor inclined to break them down here by century, or even by decade, so I’m going to lightly skim over what you’ll most likely find out for sale in the world nowadays. First of all, a corset should fit you perfectly, and for it to fit perfectly, it should really be custom-made and it will cost money, and plenty of it. Most likely $400 at the low end of the price range. If you see a corset advertized for less and generically sized, I’d skip it and go for a basque if that’s the look you want. The queen of lingerie blogs The Lingerie Addict contains some truly exhaustive and very interesting articles about how to shop for and fit corsets, and I found this one especially informative. A corset will either end under your bust (underbust corset) or will completely cover the nipples (overbust corset). It will be carefully shaped and seamed, anchored by a rigid center front (the busk), heavy steel boning down the sides (a basque will most likely feature plastic boning), and it will feature a lace-up closure at the back that can be tightened to shape the torso. I had two corsets made for me to wear in theater productions, and I worked in the costume shop as my part-time job, so I could watch their construction, and there is an incredible amount of work that goes into a well-made, well-fitted corset. If you want a really good one that will FEEL good to wear, you are going to want a custom-made one by a reputable designer or technician.
Full cup: a full cup bra offers the most coverage and the most support. The cup completely encases the breast tissue, and often ends much higher up on the chest than a balconette or plunge. Some full-figure and full-busted women prefer these bras because of the outstanding support and bounce reduction they offer, with the caveat that they are much more likely to peek out under certain necklines.
Half-cup or Demi: a demi bra is cut very low all the way across the breasts, sometimes just barely clearing the nipple line. They’re great for deeply scooped necklines, and they’re obviously super sexy, but if you’re full busted, depending on how your weight is distributed, they may not offer you the best support. I personally always feel like I’m falling out of them, but that’s just me and my shape. Many small-bust customers find that a demi bra offers a better fit than other styles and eliminates any puckering or wrinkling in the cup (and is also one of the few “sexy” options available that isn’t padded all to hell).
Longline: a longline bra has a much deeper band than a regular bra, sometimes extending all the way down to the waist, with as many as 6-12 rows of hooks instead of two or three. They’re starting to creep back into all lingerie markets, from small-to-full bust, and I’m so glad to see them, because A) they’re lovely and B) they offer EXCELLENT and flattering support for the full-bust customer (repeat after me: support comes from the band). Longline strapless bras are allegedly much more comfortable for some than their traditional sisters, again because of the support and staying-up-without-tugging-power they offer.
Minimizer: DON’T BUY THESE. I’m serious. They are INTENDED to capitalize on the shame fuller-bust women may feel about their breasts or about the size on the label. They are designed to shift your breast tissue out to the sides to flatten the appearance of the bust, rather than actually shape and fit the natural form of the breast, and they frequently do not fit well. You will be much better served by a well-fitted balconette bra. Let us never speak of them again.
Molded: I used to confuse molded bras with padded ones. Molded cup bras are stiff, well, molded bras that have no seams, but are specially contoured to fit the shape of a breast. They’re sometimes called “T-shirt bras”, especially in the States, because of the smooth line they offer under thin or clinging tops. There are a few soft seamless molded bras, but more commonly you find ones made of a stiff foam-like material that hold their shape even when you’re not wearing them, like the Freya Deco or Panache Porcelain. They need to be stored and packed and washed carefully, because once the shape is crushed it can compromise the structural integrity and support.
Nursing Bra: Nursing bras are usually soft cup (wire-free) bras that feature a cup that clips and unclips, so a new mother doesn’t have to completely undress every time she has to nurse. Which is pretty damned often, so yay nursing bras!
Padded: okay, a padded bra is constructed of outer layers of soft fabric containing a layer of cotton or fiber padding. In the small bust market, some women like to wear bras that are padded (and/or molded) to increase the appearance of fullness in the breast or to alter their silhouette in a particular garment. In the full-bust market, the padding generally isn’t designed to increase cup size; a slim layer of padding in a bra will prevent nipple show-through in thin or clinging shirts and dresses, and some women feel more supported and structured with a layer of padding. In addition, padded bras can be great for women with noticeably different-sized breasts.
Plunge: A plunge bra is so named for its plunging center front. The underwires that meet in the center are short, and the cup is generally cut lower in the front and slightly higher on the sides. It’s a great options for wearing under clothing with deep V-necks. Different plunge styles will give you different effects. The Deco bra by Freya will give you luscious mounds of cleavage. The Tango plunge bra by Panache offers a low profile with more discreet cleavage, and as such is great for a lower cut neckline in a professional or corporate setting.
Short: Shorts have a lower-cut legline than briefs and will also combat “VPL” if you really care about it all that much. Retro-inspired high-waisted shorts are creeping back into collections, and I have a pair, and they are CRAZILY comfortable. I lurve them.
Slip: A slip is a bit of an old fashioned garment, and a lot of women of my generation don’t really understand them, but they can be a really useful addition to your wardrobe. They’re frequently soft and silky and bias-cut, and they’re designed to fit slim and close to the body. They allow a dress or a skirt to skim over the body, and they help fight static cling in the winter. Bring back the slip! Slips are great.
Soft cup: The description “soft cup” can describe two different kinds of bras. Less commonly, it’s used as an alternative to molded or padded, to describe an underwired bra with a cup that is just layers of seamed fabric without padding. More commonly, though, it refers to a bra that does not contain an underwire. Many sports bras are soft cup, and many nursing and maternity bras are soft cup (I feel like I read somewhere that wearing underwires during certain stages of pregnancy and early motherhood isn’t good for breast tissue or breast feeding? Am awesome at research. Will try to find the reference again). Many small-busted and slim women find soft cup bras much more comfortable than underwired bras, and many full-busted women like to sleep in soft cup bras for a little extra support at night.
Strapless bra: Strapless bras are bras without straps. HAHAHAHA, I slay me. Okay, in all seriousness, strapless bras are bras with adjustable and removable straps, and give you an option to wear a bra under strapless, one-shoulder, or halter-neck style clothing. They’re becoming more and more available to the full bust market, and I believe Simply Yours in the UK are working on and/or have released a strapless bra up to a K cup, but the fact of the matter is a strapless bra will never give you the support and stability of one with straps. There are lots of great options out there, and even though it seems to enlarge my bust measurement a bit, the strapless molded Freya deco bra is fantastically supportive for a strapless full bust bra.
Suspender or garter belt: Oh man y’all, I think these things are awesome. Are they the most comfortable things ever? No. But when you’re walking through Port Authority to your secretarial job and it’s 8:00 a.m. and someone is yelling at you to repent because you’re a sinner and you haven’t had coffee for two months and you’re trying to be good but today you might break even though you know it’ll make you feel terrible later, and then you notice that you can feel the suspenders sliding just a bit on your bare thighs with every step, you feel a little better inside. They’re like a fun little secret sexy thing no one but you need know you’re wearing, unless and until you start teasing off your clothes for a special someone. The belt fastens around the waist, either with hooks and eyes in the back like a bra or lace up like a corset, and generally features four (or six, but usually four) hanging suspenders with little clips to hook your stockings into (NOT thigh highs/hold ups; you have to buy the stockings designed for garters/suspenders). You can also get really cute briefs, thongs, and shorts with detachable suspender straps, which I will confess are more comfortable for a full day’s work. Or for pole dancing. Just, you know, for example. While they are almost ALWAYS photographed for editorial purposes over a brief or a thong, for practical purposes I have found it makes so much more sense to wear a brief or thong over the suspender belt. That way you don’t have to un-clip and clip your stockings every time you visit the ladies’ room, you follow me?
Thong: Sigh. Thongs eradicate VPL, the annoying moniker we’ve given to Visible Panty Lines, which are in my opinion a totally made-up problem designed to sell thongs. Like, seriously, who cares? I’m sorry, I’m wearing underwear, just like everyone else. I apologize for my humanity. Deal with it. I feel the same way when people tell me they don’t want pretty/lacy bras because “they might show” under clothes. I’m sorry, I’m wearing underwear, just like everyone else. I apologize for my humanity. Deal with it. ANYHOODLE, thongs are cut so slim across the seat that they’re really just 1/2 inch of fabric, which then rides around in your butt crack all day. Am I communicating clearly enough how little I care for thongs? I don’t care for them. I know some women find them the most freeing and comfortable thing ever, and that’s totally awesome, and I admit I haven’t tried Hanky Panky ones which are apparently the apotheosis of all a thong should be, but whenever I wear one I can’t help but notice that there is FABRIC IN MY BUTT all day long. That said, thong + suspender belt + stockings = super hotness.
Waspie: Waspies (I imagine the word is derived from the silhouette “wasp waisted”) are delightful. They’re like little twee useless corsets/basques that only focus on the waist (also called, less delightfully, waist-cinchers). I think they look hideously uncomfortable for long-term wear, but damn if they aren’t so freaking cute. Agent Provocateur gets them done right.