When I laid out my personal ground rules for lingerie boutiques a few weeks ago, I was pleased to hear that many women, customers and store owners alike, agreed with me. One commenter, however, pointed out that I hadn’t mentioned at all that there were things the customer could do to ensure a good experience. She was right! Look, as delightful as it would be to live in a world where no matter your size, you could walk at any time of the day or night into a beautiful, calm, elegant boutique that carried every variety of bra in every size you could conceivably wear in every color or fabric that you adored and where each bra cost $15 or less, the reality is that idea is ABSURD. Boutiques have to make money in order to stay alive, and they simply can’t stock every size and every brand and every style. So while a good boutique will take steps to ensure you have a positive and healthy fitting experience, there are LOTS of things you can to do and ways you can prepare to make sure you get the most out of a bra shopping experience.
Do Some Homework
1. Measure your underbust. Grab a soft measuring tape, take off your bra, and wrap the tape around your underbust, keeping the tape parallel to the floor all the way around your body. Look at the number (in inches), and write it down. Maybe you’ve never been fitted before in your life. Maybe you are 100% certain that your Victoria’s Secret bra is the right size. Maybe you suspect that your bra is terrible, but you’re not sure how to go about making it better. Maybe you DO know quite a lot about bra fitting, but you’re not happy with your current bra and you’re not quite sure why. Maybe you’ve recently lost or gained weight or you’ve gotten pregnant or you’ve just had a baby or you’ve added a new exercise routine, and everything just feels a little OFF. Whatever the reason, it’s a good idea to go into a fitting with an idea of your raw underbust measurement. As we know, the band supplies 80-90% of your bust’s support. If your band doesn’t fit, there’s no way the rest of the bra can be made to fit. Now, the measurement doesn’t mean that it’s definitely, 100% your band size. Many women need to try smaller numbers, and many women, particularly slim women with petite busts, do find that they need to add inches (Claire at Butterfly Collection wrote a great post explaining why, in fact, adding inches can be beneficial for SOME women). However, a store that automatically starts you off in a size several numbers higher than your measurement, especially if you think you may be a full-bust (D+) customer, is a store to be wary of. Knowing your raw underbust measurement empowers you to get a sense of the store’s fitting abilities right off the bat.
2. Check your labels. Do you have a bra that fits you well (or pretty well) and feels good that you like the look of under your clothes? Make sure you know the (1) brand name and (2) the size. You’ll be able to ask to see other styles from the same manufacturer, and you’ll have a starting point size that you can adjust as you go along.
3. Use the internet. Google the brand name of any bras you like. Look at the other styles available. Go to the brand’s official websites, look for their store locator or distributor information (and at the styles they have available that you might like), and find a boutique in your area that carries that brand. Try to get a sense of a boutique’s target customer base. Read Yelp and Time Out reviews. Look for a boutique’s social media presence (Facebook, blog, Twitter, etc.) Bear in mind that lots of people only leave reviews when they’re ecstatic or furious about their experiences, so, you know, a grain of salt and all that.
4. Make a list. Does your entire bra wardrobe need an overhaul? What’s important to you? Are you looking for one or two specific items (a sports bra and a plunge bra, a t-shirt bra and a sleep bra, a basque and an everyday bra, wedding lingerie, etc.)? What colors would you like? Are there any things that are absolute deal-breakers for you (lace that itches sensitive skin, non-natural fibers that don’t breathe, etc.)? Keep in mind that your fitter will probably bring you some options to try that you’d never have thought of before. You don’t have to love them, and they may make you nervous, but please try them. You may find something you like far better than you could have imagined.
5. Make a budget. I know how wonderful it feels to find That Perfect Bra after years of discomfort and dissatisfaction, but do make a budget and try to stick to it. I almost always push my budget by $10-20 if I have a good boutique experience, so I try to make my budget a little more aggressive than I need to in advance, so that in the inevitable event I do go over by a small amount, it won’t affect the rest of my spending. If you can’t bear to think of leaving a beautiful bra behind, ask the store about their hold policy, or make adjustments to your other budgets. There is a very, very good chance that a store will gently encourage you to push your budget if you’re wavering on a purchase. Gentle encouragement is one thing, but if you start to feel bullied or shamed into making a purchase, feel free to stick to your guns or leave.
Make a Day of It
1. It will really pay to take your time at a bra fitting, especially if it’s your first one. Erica of A Sophisticated Pair has a wonderful post about how to prepare for a bra fitting. I encourage you heartily to read the post in full, but here are some bullet points that will make sure you have the best possible time: don’t go when you’re menstruating, don’t rush, come alone or with patient, supportive friends/family, and don’t go after a full meal. I’d even add wearing a little bit of makeup and doing your hair in a way you like. You’ll be undressing and re-dressing a lot in front of a mirror and bright lights, and you’ll probably be slightly disheveled by the time you’re done. It’s an intimate and vulnerable thing, asking a stranger for help with your boobs, so doing a little self-care beforehand can help you take a little ownership of the situation.
2. Along the lines of taking-your-time, you might call the store(s) you plan to visit and see if they accept appointments. Many boutiques will offer personal fitting appointments that you can schedule ahead of time. You can ensure that you’ll get personal service, and your fitter will not be worried about dividing her attentions between you and any other customers. You can also ask about any particular styles you’ve found in your research and see if the store would consider having them ready for you when you arrive.
3. Even if you leave the boutique frustrated with nothing in your hands, make sure you have something nice scheduled afterwards. When I was an actor, auditions were the bane of my existence. I always prepared intensely and took steps to manage the physiological symptoms of my nerves (once I was sight-singing something on stage in front of the casting team, and I had to keep switching my sheet music from one hand to the other because each hand would start to shake violently while I was singing along. I made it into a “bit”, and we all laughed, but UGH. Definitely don’t miss that), but nevertheless each audition took a lot out of me and was a huge blow to my sense of equilibrium, even if it went well. My voice teacher ALWAYS had something waiting for me at a lesson that followed an audition. A CD, a nice chocolate bar, a paperback, an iTunes gift card– she was adamant that I give myself a treat after an audition. Do the same for yourself. Go get your nails done, buy a good bottle of wine, download a new album or book, go dancing or take a dance class, make a dinner date with a friend, or go see a play. Wait, those are all very Sweets-specific treats. You do you. TREAT YO SELF.
Check Your Expectations
1. Once you find your size, you will not wear that size in every style or brand. It’s frustrating, I know, but learning your size is not a magic bullet. Learning about FIT will serve you best in the long run. It’s absolutely normal to have a lingerie drawer with 3-4 different sizes in it, all of which fit beautifully, especially if they’re all different brands (after all, US, UK, and European manufacturers use different cup sizing systems).
2. Not every brand will make a size or style that fits you, nor will every style be available in your size. Sometimes you fall outside a brand’s size range, or construction techniques haven’t caught up with your size (it’s very difficult, for example, to make molded cup bras in the upper ranges of the full-bust size spectrum that don’t compromise on shape and support). It’s a bummer, especially if you lose your heart to something that comes the closest to divine perfection you’ve ever seen on this earth, but sometimes it’s for the best. I still dream of the Rumeur longline bra from Huit’s 2012 collection (above), but it stops far, far short from my current cup size. If I did wear the Rumeur, it would mean I couldn’t wear the Boudoir Beau or the Lola Luxe Basque, both by Bravissimo, which are two of my favorite purchases from 2012.
3. Bringing up budgeting again, be prepared for bras to cost more at a boutique than they do at, say, Target. You don’t need to spend a fortune just to get a well-made, supportive bra (and if a shop tells you that you do, feel free to leave), but there is a very good chance that you’ll find the best options in the $40-80 range and up. That may seem like a lot, but think about the cost-per-wear of a bra. If you wear it a few days a week (always taking a day or more between wearings to preserve the life of the elastic), and it makes a fantastic foundation under your favorite outfits, it’ll be as good an investment as your favorite pair of shoes. In fact, how much are you willing to spend on a good pair of shoes? Not the cute pair you grabbed at Payless just to have, but a really GOOD pair of shoes. Be willing to spend the same amount on your boobs.
Open Up to New Possibilities
1. Cup size shock is a real thing. I remember when I went for my first bra fitting, and the fitter at Nordstrom said “okay, first of all, you shouldn’t be wearing a 38, and I think we’ll need to move past a D cup.” I WAS SO CONFUSED. On the one hand, I was “skinnier”? But also “bigger”? There were things bigger than a D??? Omigod was I a freak?!?!? If you’ve been living in the Bra Matrix, it can be totally bewildering when you find out you wear a size that isn’t A, B, C, or D. It’s natural to be disoriented if your fitter brings you a bra that has DD or an F or an HH or a K on the tag, but please don’t worry. You may see some ugly, judgmental language about these sizes in pop culture or ignorant posts on the internet, but remember: cup sizes do not exist without band sizes. There are many, many, MANY women who do not wear bras in the 32-38 A-D size range. The number and letter work together to describe the shape and volume of your breasts, and it’s no one’s business but yours. Make sure you look and feel fabulous, and don’t worry about the size on the tag.
2. If your fitter is actually good at, you know, fitting, she’s also going to be good at suggesting styles and brands that might work for you. Have you only ever worn totally smooth, seamless, or molded cup bras? Give a seamed bra a try! (Seams are awesome, and contemporary construction methods mean they’re much less visible under thin tops than their predecessors. More seam love: this excellent video from Butterfly Collection.) Do you prefer plunge bras? A half-cup balconette might be a fun change of pace. If you’re looking for something sexy, but your definition of “sexy” doesn’t include red satin or black lace, tell your fitter, and see if she can suggest something new or unusual for you. I was in a boutique in NYC once, and I thought I had absolutely the right size, until the fitter popped her head in and said “hm. You know, with that particular style, you might be helped by going down a band size and up a cup size. The fit is fine right now, but we’ve found with that particular style you’ll get more lift in your sister size.” She was right!
3. You know how sometimes you’re out shopping for a specific item (clothes for work, a dress for your sister’s wedding, a new pair of jeans, whatever), and you grab that one random thing off the rack that technically “shouldn’t” work on your (lumpy, bony, tall, petite, flat-bottomed, super-curvy, young, old, whatever) figure, and yet you try it on and it’s weirdly perfect and you love it? That can happen with bras. Even if it looks strange on the rack or in the fitter’s hands, give it a whirl. Worst case scenario, you can laugh (at the BRA, not at yourself); best case scenario, you find something you love unexpectedly.
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Look, not every boutique will be every thing to every woman. The lingerie market is exploding with all sorts of styles, fashions, and size ranges, and there’s no way a single boutique can stock it all. It may take you a while to find a boutique that is your go-to happy place; in fact, you may never find one that is a perfect fit. That’s okay! Here’s what’s not okay: sticking with a so-so or bad bra, just because you’ve had bad experiences before or you’re scared to get fitted. It’s okay to feel nervous: we live in a world that projects a TON of judgmental language and ideas onto our breasts, and asking a stranger for help takes guts. You may not know every brand and every style and what all the different bits and bobs are (unless you start talking to me, and then I will TELL YOU EVERYTHING), but how will you ever find something better if you don’t put in some time and start looking? I started by googling “[my bra size] + swimsuit” in 2008, found a link to Bravissimo, and never looked back. My dissatisfaction and frustration finally pushed me to do some work on my own, and it paid off handsomely. Have fun, take your time, be kind to yourself, and good luck!