Bra Shopping in New York: Some Reports from the Trenches

As part of my homework for The Fab Fit Academy, I have to fit and interview 5-10 “customers” a week.  As I don’t currently work in retail, this means scheduling some time with volunteers who will let me take them to a department store and fit them there using the store’s inventory.  This weekend saw me tackle my first “real” fittings, following the Fab Fit guidelines.  The ladies who volunteered were so lovely and generous, they asked all the right questions that helped me remember what questions I was supposed to be asking them, and we found new sizes and styles for almost everyone.  The fittees were fab, but the stores?  I have some notes.

***

I first want to talk about some experiences I had shopping recently with a bride-to-be.  We spent one epic weekend together with her maid-of-honor dress shopping, and then another day this past-weekend lingerie shopping.  We started at David’s Bridal, which I don’t mind naming, because the one in Manhattan?  Seriously, they did a great job.  They greeted her warmly, didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that the wedding is in June, looked at some images she’d printed off the website, guided her to a dressing room (and the MOH and me to comfy seats), and started bringing her dresses.  They complimented her figure.  They listened to her thoughts and wants and feedback.  They brought her veils and headpieces to try on and discussed shoe choices with her.  We had a large, open, mirrored space outside the dressing rooms where she could see herself in a large mirror and even practice walking down the aisle to see how the dress would move.  They brought her six or seven dresses to try, and she loved the way she looked in most of them.  The dresses were unusual, flattering, stylish, and beautiful.  She had been a bit nervous, as many full-bust women are when they go shopping after years of being told their boobs are problematic, but she left looking and feeling pretty and hopeful, with two gorgeous dresses at the top of her list.

***

The following day we had an early morning appointment at a very, very well-known large Manhattan bridal salon.  I won’t name it, but it’s on TV.  You know which one I’m talking about.  Roommate and I used to sit in the living room watching the show in which it features, eating peanut butter apples and cheetohs, and yelling at the television.  My friend was fairly certain the shop was way out of her budget, but she’d never had the opportunity to try on really big, grand dresses, and she thought “I’m getting married, why not?” Well, here’s why not.

They criticized her wedding date.  They criticized the dress picks she’d printed off the website.  When the fitter asked for my friend’s bra size and my friend gave it to her, the fitter wrinkled her nose and said, “Oh, well, most of these dresses are fitted to DDs at the most, so they probably won’t fit, you’ll have to have LOTS of alterations.”  Instead of bringing a few dresses to the fitting room for my friend to try, she herded us to the stock room and watched as we went through piles of dresses wrapped in plastic bags, static filling our hair.  A few dresses in hand, we went back to the dressing room, where I watched my friend’s face go from excited to anxious, as the fitter said, “Well, this one’s too small,” “well, you didn’t tell me what you wanted, so we got this one,” “this one will need alterations,” “why don’t you like this one, it’s a really popular dress?”  We were herded back to the stockroom, to look for more dresses, my friend barefoot in a bathrobe, barely holding back tears of frustration.  The fitter was cold, discouraging, and critical.  She refused to bring any accessories for my friend, saying “there’s a five-month lead time on tiaras, so what’s the point?  You can’t buy any of them.”  We fled.

***

This past weekend, we went to both locations of a prominent Manhattan lingerie boutique, to look for a longline strapless bra or basque for my friend to wear under her gown.  She’d looked online and picked out two styles she was interested in, and I found them available at this well-known store, run by a self-styled “Braducator” who recently caused a stir in the lingerie community by claiming that modern bras are vanity-sized.  I took major issue at the time with her language as well as her logic, but she’s been a pioneer in the lingerie industry, knows a great deal about fitting, and stocks a wide range of brands, so I figured her stores would be great places to seek out hard-to-find styles and sizes.

At both stores we were greeted coolly and uninterestedly.  At both stores we were told to make appointments and come back later, although at the second store it turned out they were able to fit us in right away.  At both stores we were told “Oh, we only have two styles in THAT size.”  At the second store my friend was able to try the bras on, but not in the correct sizes.  It was only when she said “this band feels loose” or “this cup feels small” that the fitter agreed that “another size would be better, but they didn’t have it in stock.”  If my friend wanted to buy the wrong size, they could alter it for her for $5.  The fitter was kind, and used encouraging, non-judgmental language, but she certainly didn’t offer much in the way of “braducation.”  My friend wears a size that is in no way unusual in terms of full-bust brands (D-G cup size, middle-of-the-range band size), but even if she did wear a more unusual size, she didn’t deserve to be treated like a problem that needed to be solved.  My friend went to a different NYC boutique, got fitted into the proper size, and spent her money there.

***

I spent much of the weekend on the lingerie floor of a major NYC department store, fitting friends with a nice diversity of sizes and body types.  During the maybe seven hours I spent at this store, I was approached once by a sales associate to ask if I needed any assistance.  I saw a sales associate in the fitting room a total of one time.  Another customer flagged me down because she’d heard me fitting my friends and wanted help, but she couldn’t get a sales associate to assist her.  I overheard more women asking for 36Bs than is statistically likely, and if I had to size them on site I would have put ALL of them in significantly smaller band sizes and significantly larger cup sizes to get a better fit.  The sales associates, when asked for these sizes, never inquired if the customer had had a bra fitting or if she’d be interested in one; one sales associate responded “I wear a 36B too!  It’s the most common size.”  Sales associates did not know the differences in international cup sizing systems, let alone the cup size progressions for each brand (so they couldn’t have advised a customer on fit adjustment even if they’d tried), and they didn’t seem to understand me when I’d approach to ask if a sister size was in stock (ex., I’d ask for a 32G instead of a 34FF, and they’d say “oh, but if it’s too big you’ll want a 34E.”)  This department store is better than many in New York, in that it stocks a few styles from the Eveden full-bust brands and a few from Panache, but the size runs were bizarre: three 36DDs, five 38GGs, four 38Ds, one 32G, one 36F.  A customer has no opportunity to try on sister sizes to get the best fit, as in all likelihood her sister size isn’t available.  G+ cups below a 36 band?  Rare.  28 and 30 bands, in any cup size?  Nonexistant– this store doesn’t stock them at all.  We all agreed afterwards: if you wear a 34C or 36B, you can find anything you want here.  If you wear ANY other size, larger or smaller, you will be disappointed.

***

This weekend was a really important wake-up call for me.  I KNOW how hard it is to find my particular size in store, but I also know an enormous amount about the brands, sizes, and styles that are available in the United States (TANGENT: have you been reading Miss Underpinnings’ reports from her recent trip to Poland to explore Polish full-bust brands?  Because you should).  I’ve been fitting myself and doing it well for a good four years now, and I choose to shop primarily online, where I am guaranteed to find a wide selection of styles in my size that suit my taste and budget.  I forgot that it’s hard out there for a lady, no matter her size.

I keep saying “Oh, it’s so much better now than was five years ago,” and to some extent it’s true.  Major US department stores like Nordstrom, Saks, Bloomingdales, and Lord & Taylor are starting to stock petite, full-bust, and (pretty!) full-figure brands in their stores, and some are even– GASP– starting to stock them online as well.  Whereas the statistic used to claim that the average bra size was a 36C, now it claims that the average size is a 36DD.  I think it’s great that we’re coming around to the idea that the average bra size might be a size outside the “Bra Matrix” (32-38 A-D), but I suspect 36DD is still an inaccurate reporting.  If the bulk of American lingerie sales are taking place in department stores and That One Mall Store That Shall Not Be Named, then I suspect the bulk of American lingerie shoppers are buying the wrong size.  The average American doesn’t always know to turn to the internet or her local independent boutique– she goes to Dillard’s or Macy’s or J. C. Penney’s or Target. If our department stores aren’t leading the way, we’re still falling behind.

***

I fitted a very slim woman with a very petite bust, a fuller-figure full-bust woman, two average-to-full-bust women, and one full-bust woman (D-G).  Three women found new bras they love, one found her new size but nothing that suited her shape or personal style, and the woman with the petite bust was completely sized out.

In all fairness, we didn’t specifically ask for fitting advice in any of the stores we visited.  We didn’t make appointments to spend time with a fitter to evaluate her skills.  At the second boutique location the fitter did measure my friend’s underbust, but in my opinion the measuring tape was neither firm enough nor high enough under her bust, and then of course the fitter brought her the wrong sizes when the right ones weren’t in stock.  I would be interested to go back and evaluate the stores’ fitting services more carefully.  My friend and I may have given the impression that we already knew what we were doing, so perhaps we didn’t give the fitter a chance to show her stuff.

At the end of the day, I’ll forgive a boutique’s receptionist for not pounding her chest and shrieking her fitting knowledge at me the moment walk in the door.  I’ll forgive a department store sales associate who gets flustered trying to figure out the cup size progression for Chantelle when compared to Natori.  I’ll even forgive a store for not stocking a full size run– hey, money is money, and unsold inventory is money poorly spent.  I will NOT forgive bad service.  I will not forgive using shaming tactics to make a sale (i.e. this is the only one that fits, and you’re such a strange size you should just settle for it).  I will not forgive rudeness or a lack of interest.  I will not forgive body shaming or body snark.  I will not forgive a store that claims to offer a fitting service and then trots out the same old Plus Four routine.  I tried both Plus Four and the Fab Fit Technique (terrible oversimplification: measuring the underbust as a starting point and working from there to make sure the bra fits well in the band, strap, cup, center gore) on last week’s volunteers.

Pssst-- this is Plus Four (or five, in this case)

Pssst– this is Plus Four (or five, in this case).  It’s wrong in any case.

I got the results below:

Plus Four:

  1. 34B
  2. 36B
  3. 32A
  4. 38C
  5. 42DD

Fab Fit:

  1. 32DDD/E, 30F
  2. 32DDD/E
  3. 30A (estimate)
  4. 34FF/32G
  5. 36FF

This is why good bra fitting matters.  It matters in terms of comfort and support for the customer, of course, but it also matters in terms of how our stores are run.  We had no problem finding bras in the wrong sizes.  We had a great deal of trouble finding bras in the right ones.  We shouldn’t make ourselves fit the clothes that are available; we deserve to have clothes that fit us.  Bad bra fitting and bad customer service is bad for sales, and it’s bad for the customer.  Until mainstream bra fitting practices change, and until our fitters are educated in order to educate us, we’re going to have a hard time finding bras that make us feel comfortable, pretty, and good about our bodies.

9 Comments on Bra Shopping in New York: Some Reports from the Trenches

  1. Erica of A Sophisticated Pair
    March 28, 2013 at 3:49 pm (6 years ago)

    I can’t believe the service you and your friend received at both the bridal salon and the boutiques. It’s customer service like that which further cements to me that when it comes time to hire an employee that they WILL be trained to treat all customers as politely and sweetly as possible. Sometimes a person comes into our shop who really is an oddball size for us, and there’s only so much we can do. With well over 150 potential bra sizes, it’s hard to carry all of them, but that doesn’t mean the customer should leave upset or frustrated. Stores need to focus on fostering a positive EXPERIENCE instead of aiming for a sale. Sometimes you can better serve yourself as a business by sacrificing the sale and building a positive image in your customer’s mind instead.

    Reply
    • Sweets
      March 28, 2013 at 3:56 pm (6 years ago)

      I’m so glad to hear you say that, because it makes so much sense to me from a customer point of view. I’d much rather leave having been helped than leave with something that doesn’t fit. I’ve definitely bought things in stores and made a mental note never to return, and I’ve left other stores without having made a purchase, but knowing I’ll be back many times in the future, with friends in tow.

      Reply
  2. Hypnotic
    May 3, 2013 at 12:25 pm (6 years ago)

    GREAT POST. I live in NYC and still end up shopping online for bras. Even at reputable places you can end up feeling pressured to buy a bra that isn’t perfect. I now need a new strapless bra after the sales woman convinced me that the one I purchases was as good as it was going to get. I am a 32g which to me seems common in the big boob world. Stores not only need to stock more sizes but also various brands. Not all brands work for all boobs.

    PS
    I am also getting married where did you friend end up buying her dress? I haven’t started hunting yet.

    Reply
    • Sweets
      May 3, 2013 at 12:34 pm (6 years ago)

      We really loved a LOT of the dresses she tried at David’s Bridal. She was able to find things that were unusual, interesting, and pretty, and she had a shortlist of around 5 that she wound up choosing from. We had an early appointment on a Saturday and got great service! Good luck hunting!

      Reply
  3. lil
    December 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm (5 years ago)

    I had a similar experience when I walked into “THE” Bra shop (they own 2) and asked for a fitting for my mother. The sales person was so uninterested in what she was selling and the fit. so frustrating.

    Reply

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