Why Can’t I Get A Bra That Fits? Size standards in women’s fashion: Part 1

January 15, 2003

Why Can’t I Get A Bra That Fits? Size standards in women’s fashion: Part 1

It’s time to get personal. I’m going to share some private measurement data with you, as I tackle a beef I have had with the women’s fashion industry for a number of years.

I’m referring to the abysmal standardized fitting system for women’s bras.

I can imagine men [and some women] rolling their eyes already. Everyone has seen the signs in lingerie departments proclaiming that over 70% of women are wearing the wrong size bra. Most of us have scoffed at those foolish dames who can’t even figure out their own measurements.

I was one of those scoffing, until I gained a few pounds and started searching for the perfect fit. Over time, I learned a lot about how bras are fitted and sized.

Women’s clothing in general is very hard to fit. Men, if you want to get an idea of how limited women’s size specifications are, take a look at any store or website that sells men’s and women’s Levi Jeans (SEE: http://www.sears.ca/cgi-bin/ic_bshp.cgi?id=36&lang=e). You’ll notice that men’s Levis come in a variety of waist sizes and a variety of leg lengths. Women’s Levis are sold only by waist size. It is unheard of in men’s clothing to have no choice of leg length in pants. Many women [myself included], end up buying the men’s jeans simply because they can’t get the right length in women’s sizes. I’m only 5’4″, but have longish legs, and find that most women’s pants in my waist size sit about 2 inches above my ankle.

This may not sound like an important issue, but it is. Most women wear a bra for about 16 hours a day. If it is uncomfortable or fits poorly, it can be distracting and leave you feeling lousy at the end of the day. Going without a bra can be very uncomfortable and even painful for women with medium or larger breasts, and poor fitting bras with sliding straps, constricting bands, and slipping cups can also cause pain or discomfort. So, finding a good fit is important, and worth a little time and energy.

It has taken a lot of time and research, but I now have a wealth of data on bra fitting. My conclusion? The people who created bra measurements were using some really primo dope when they designed their system. The method itself is a colossal joke, shared by hundreds of lingerie stores and their staff around North America. They titter behind our backs as we wrinkle our brows, trying to understand how we can possibly be so deformed that their system has retuned such bizarre and erroneous results.

Take heart: The problem is not you.


Before writing this, I did extensive research to confirm that the system touted as the “standard” is, in fact, the same one used by almost all bra stores and manufacturers. This system is based on standardized fitting information from the bra and lingerie manufacturing industry, and it indeed is used by almost every bra store and manufacturer, including Bali, Victoria’s Secret, La Senza, Wonder Bra, Vogue Bra, Sears, and literally hundreds of other lingerie stores. You can also find this system on web sites and in books that list standardized fitting data for all types of clothing and jewelry, and even on my beloved afraidtoask.com — a site which generally presents unfailingly accurate data on a number of slightly taboo subjects.

Here is how the standard calculator works:


Intuitively, you might assume that to obtain your correct band size you would simply measure around your ribs underneath your breasts and use the resulting number. Unfortunately, bra band sizes don’t conform to actual inches. Not quite, anyway.

No one has been able to tell me why this is, but I suspect that vanity might be at the root of it. Because band inches are somewhat larger than standard inches, a bra band size makes a woman’s rib cage sound like it is a little smaller than it actually is. Do women actually care about this? I don’t, and I doubt you do either. In any case, if you wear a 34 band, it is not correct to refer to it as a 34″ band, as the number is not inches.

There is a simple formula to convert your rib cage measurement to your “Band Size.” I put that in quotes, because it is the official term used in bra fitting. Your band size is always a bra band number, not in inch measurement. The formula, however, is simple:

Take an inches measurement around your rib cage, just under your breasts, while holding your arms down by your sides as much as possible [ideally, have someone else measure]. Then, add 5 to that number. This is your Band Size.

I tried this out: my rib cage measurement is 32. For years I wore a 32 bra, and I still can, though they are just a little tight. So, I thought that the inches measurement worked pretty well. Still, I wanted to try out the charts. So, I added the requisite 5 inches. Technically, my “proper” band size is 37. The charts will all tell you that you must round up if your number is odd, so I should be wearing a 38 inch band. Okay, I can wear a 38. Around my ass!

This was getting confusing. The cup size measurement proved even more baffling, however.


The formula for cup sizes is also quite simple. First, you must measure your bust girth. For best fit, the charts will tell you that you should do this while wearing a well fitting bra [if you owned this, would you be using this chart to determine your size?], and with your arms by your sides. Again, it is best to have someone else measure. Once you have that measurement, you subtract your Band Size [not the inches measurement] number from it. The number of inches difference between the two measurements will give you your cup size, as detailed in the table below:

I tried this method many, many times, and always came up with strange results.

My own bust circumference measurement is 36″. Subtracting that from my band size gives me a cup measurement number of -1.5″, but the chart does not allow for a negative number. Of course not. That would indicate that your bustline is actually smaller than your ribcage, which would only be possible if you were missing a couple of middle ribs.

We’ve all heard ribbing about girls who are so flat-chested they are indented, but it’s not literally possible, and it certainly does not apply to me. I am a full C cup.

So, I assumed that I was using the chart wrong. I though, perhaps, that you should use your ribcage measure without the 5 inches added for this calculation, so I read, and re-read the instructions on the various tables, and even contacted some store managers directly to make sure I was doing it right. It was confirmed again and again, however, that the band size, including the 5 inch addition, should be used for the calculation.

To test my calculations, I visited a number of websites that have automatic size calculators. These work off of the raw measurements, and make all of the additions and calculations for you.

Here is the information I got when I entered my measurements into some online calculators:

Wonderbra USA, Bali Bra and Hanes Her Way gave me identical messages:

“Your [Wonderbra /Hanes /Bali] size is 38AA.
Sorry… Unfortunately, Wonderbra/Hanes/Bali has no styles in your bra size.”

I received similar messages from 3 other bra stores including Victoria’s Secret and La Senza. I felt like a freak. Not only that, the stores are telling me that they have nothing to sell to me! I reread the sizing instructions yet again, and they were very clear. The calculators leave little room for error.

Barely There
“your bra size is 38aa “ [That truly is “barely there”]

Secrets In Lace
“The measurements you entered do not calculate to a valid bra size. Please re-measure and check your entries for accuracy.”

Just My Size
“Your JMS size is 38AA.
Sorry… Unfortunately, JMS has no styles in your bra size.
Please click here to try again”
. [I love this part — like if I keep trying, I’ll develop a bustline, or maybe they just figure that women should accept clothes that don’t really fit, rather than expecting them to make clothes that fit women.]

Additionally, I tried a couple of sites that offer the second most popular industry-approved sizing method. This one suggests that you do your band measurement above your breasts, just under your armpits. In this case, you don’t add anything to the measurement unless you get an odd number, in which case you round up to the next even. This method, offered by Intelihealth and Bare Necessities is a little more accurate. It suggests I have about a 34 band size [which is correct], and a cup of B [a little small, but much closer]. Very few stores recommend this method, however.

Finally, I tried the Afraid to Ask online calculator. Using their instructions manually resulted in a band size of 38 and a cup smaller than AA. Their automatic calculator, however, returned a size of 38 D! Apparently someone was tired of their auto calculator returning errors, so they changed it to not add the 5 inches to the band size when doing the cup part of the calculation. At least the result was a little closer.

So, after trying about 2 dozen calculators and measuring methods, I then applied some simple intuition.

Forget everything I just told you about how bras are supposed to fit. Intuitively, if a woman has a bust measurement that is 4.5″ larger than her actual rib cage measurement, then that would indicate that she has breasts. A cup size of AA or smaller, however, is meant to fit a women with no bust at all. It is a perfectly flat cup, meant only to act as a training bra for young girls, or to add opacity under sheer clothing for women with no bust line. It is common sense, then, that a woman with no bust would measure pretty much the same around the bust as she does around the ribs. Yet, according to the standardized charts, a woman must measure a full 6″ larger around the bust line to even register as an A cup.

On top of everything else, these bra size formulas don’t take into account the fact that cup sizes change depending on the band size. Yep, you heard me right — cup sizes are not static, but change significantly depending on the band size you wear. Next week, I’ll explain how this works.

Continued next week, when I will discuss the manufacturing standards for cup sizes, some of the reasons sizing problems continue, and a new measurement method that looks most promising:

I want to know if I’m the only one experiencing this frustration. I’d like other women to try out the size calculators I’ve provided links to [and other others you find], and let me know how accurate, or inaccurate, they are. If I get a number of responses, I’ll do a follow up next month and send my results to some bra manufacturers as well. Cross dressers are welcome to send in results too — after all, you are buying bras as well — but please indicate your gender for classification purposes.

Size Calculators:

Wonderbra USA: http://www.wonderbrausa.com/frame_fittips.htm
Bali Bra: http://www.balibras.com/mirror_calc_b.html
Hanes Her Way: http://www.hanesherwaybras.com/bra-size.html
Barely There: http://www.barelythere.com/calculator.html
Secrets In Lace: http://www.secretsinlace.com/bracalc4.htm
Just My Size: http://www.justmysize.net/fittips/sizingcalc_bras.jsp
Afraid To Ask: http://www.afraidtoask.com/breast/frSIZE.html
Intelihealth: http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/23741/24783/321366.html?d=dmtContent
Bare Necessities: http://www.barenecessities.com/csi/fit_sizing.asp?sid=4RJMHSNK4USR2JCN0G0MLH2LTNTSFJV3
La Senza: http://www.lasenza.com/en/stools/fit.html
Victoria’s Secret: http://www2.victoriassecret.com/search/bra/?rfnbr=16#

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.