hunting for the queen of cups

Three weeks ago, as I was getting dressed, the underwire on my favourite bra poked out.

So I put on my second-favourite bra, and by the time I got to work, its underwire was poking out. I went to the washroom, pulled out the escaping underwire so it wouldn't scratch me, and went through the day hoping it wasn't obvious I was asymmetrical.

Loose-fitting, empire-waisted... I bet no formulas were involved, either.

Loose-fitting, empire-waisted... I bet no formulas were involved, either.

The following morning I put on my third favourite bra. About twenty minutes before I got to work... yup. Underwire poking out. This time it was on the other side, though.

Like every single woman I've ever talked to, I have bra-shopping horror stories. For a garment nearly every adult woman (and some drag-queen men) wear, it really is total hell to find one that fits. It doesn't matter if you know your size, because "your size" in one brand will not be the same in another brand. There's a reason why some women's lingerie drawers are filled with the exact same bra in different colours, and it's not lack of imagination on the owners' parts.

I tried to shop in-person for what I thought was "my size", and the sales clerk at the lingerie shop said she'd never even heard of that size. (It was the size I was wearing at the time — I'd managed to mend Bra #3.)

Since bricks-and-mortar shop clerks were hostile and unhelpful, I ordered on-line, and the bra that arrived in the mail didn't fit. "Didn't fit" in this case meant "squeezed so tight I felt I could relate to what Carrie Fisher went through filming Star Wars".

Okay, this wasn't working. Time to think this over again.

I did some research, and found the Reddit board A Bra That Fits. There are some fascinating, and depressing, discussions on that board. While the posters seem to agree with the well-worn stat that 85% of women are wearing the wrong-size bra, they also point out that far fewer than 85% of women are idiots. If women can have a successful career, rear children, and do all the other things functioning adults do, surely buying lingerie shouldn't be so arcane?

A Bra That Fits has a related web page that explains the vagaries of bra sizing, and why women get misled as to which size fits them. The current bra sizing standard used in UK/US/Canada/Australia (and New Zealand?) was invented in 1932, and hasn't been updated since. Think about how much taller and larger women in those countries generally are compared to what they were in 1932. Yeah. The discussion board's regulars have also analysed the "plus 4" or "plus 5" sizing formula commonly used in lingerie shops, and have determined that it's designed to encourage women to buy bras with bands which are too large and cups which are too small. The result is a size which fits more neatly into the common offerings at shops, but which typically provides insufficient support for women with larger busts, and discomfort all around.

The discussion board regulars have created a size calculator to let women determine their true bra size. I tried it. The size was nowhere near what I usually wore, but the Reddit posts were full of stories of women discovering the best-fitting size was nowhere near what they usually wore. I went back on-line and ordered a bra in my "new" size.

This time, the band was more comfortable, but the cups were big enough I could have got both breasts into one of them. I could wear the "new size" bra over my old, worn-out bra, and still had room.

If you try out the calculator, you'll see it has a caveat posted that the size calculation will become inaccurate if your measurements are outside a certain range. I am not in the range. Note that the traditional sizing formula will also not work for me. Both formulas start to give inaccurate answers if you are either side of the range. This is why "oh, women just need to grab a measuring tape and a calculator so they know their correct bra size" is nonsense. I give points to the Reddit group for being up-front about the limits on the calculator, and for acknowledging the formulas can only get you so far.

I was getting tired of racking up "dead" transactions on my credit card, waiting for the on-line returns department to reverse the charges, so I decided to head out to the bricks-and-mortar shops again. I met up with J-A for lunch, and she offered to be Sam to my Frodo, wandering the department stores and specialty shops of downtown Toronto until we found something that fit me.

As with the fictional Sam, I had to wonder if she would have agreed so readily if we had known what the journey was going to be like. I suspect trekking through rough country to drop a magical ring into a volcano would have been easier.

We only went to two shops. The first stop was at a flagship department store that had always been reliable in the past, but which totally struck out this time (to be fair, they had a lingerie sale on, so sizes were limited). Out of the entire, enormous lingerie section, there were only two shelves, and one brand, in either my old size or my new size. The sales clerk didn't offer to measure me, and disappeared once she had led me to the little corner where my sizes were. I tried on two bras, both of which were too small in some places and too large in others, and promptly gave up.

The second shop is where I usually get my jeans and office wear. They have a lingerie section, but I've never bought anything from it because they didn't carry my old size. We went in, looking for bras that were in between my old size and my new one. Six bras in a variety of sizes collected, a sales clerk got me a change room, and I started trying them on.

None of them were fitting, but the last one came close.

I had the change-room door half-open so J-A could see what didn't fit where, and the sales clerk asked if she could check something. Usually I don't like getting this close to total strangers, but at this point I was too frustrated to mind. She put her fingers behind the back strap, and could fit four fingers in without even touching me. We agreed, measurements be damned, this was a good sign that the band was too big. She disappeared into the shop floor, and came back with a bra that was two (!) band sizes smaller, but one cup bigger.

After you've tried on eight bras at two different shops, trying on a ninth doesn't seem like that big a hassle. Back into the change room I went.

And what do you know. The damn thing fit.

I tried on seventeen bras in total yesterday, and found four that fit (two of them are identical, just in different colours).

Now, here are some sizing stats:

Old size: 40B
New, calculated size: 46DD
In between, estimated size: 44C
Size that fit: 40D

Remember, there is an entire sister blog on this site where I post about my DIY work, most of which is clothing I make for myself. My mum and grandmother made clothes for themselves and for me. I've known about ease and alterations and shaping since my age was in single digits. I grew up listening to, and participating in, advanced discussions about fit. Before this shopping trip, I was seriously considering taking a course in bra making. I might still do that.

Recall as well that, as with all women's clothing, there are judgements attached to every size available, and in the case of bras, cup sizes in particular. We've all heard it: A cups are "fried eggs", D cups are "curvy". Anything bigger than a DD or so is "huge".

I've always been told I have small breasts, and shamed for it from some quarters. And now it turns out I'm a D, which might still be small in proportion to the rest of me, but does prove the judgey people wrong — not that they were ever right. My breasts have never changed that much, although they definitely "present" better in the new bra (I spent part of this morning making sure my shirts still fit all right, since the new bra means both breast and non-breast tissue are sitting in different places than they did before.) One of the things I've learned in the past couple of weeks is that cup sizes change as the band size changes, even though the letter designator stays the same.

Look what it took to find a bra that fit. Is it any wonder 85% of women are wearing the wrong size?

Men: J-A, the sales clerk, and I were trying yesterday to think of a single men's item of clothing which would necessitate standing around shirtless in a changeroom, trying on seventeen different versions to find four that fit. We couldn't think of anything. Any ideas? There's getting measured for a suit, but as I understand it, you get to keep your shirt on for that.

Postscript: J-A sent me this video of men who voluntarily wore bras for a week, just to feel what it was like.