6 Things I Wish I’d Known About Lingerie Before I Started Buying It

Fashion


Lingerie can be a weird, confusing world full of intimidating jargon and unique terminology. I’ve been writing about intimate apparel for the last 10 years (primarily as The Lingerie Addict), but I still vividly remember how overwhelmed I felt in the early days of my own lingerie journey.

I didn’t know the difference between a balconette bra and a demi cup or why items like corsets had such high prices (or so it seemed), or even why it was better to handwash my lingerie instead of tossing it in the washing machine. And just when I thought I’d figured things out, I would learn something new (like the difference between a lace and an embroidery!) and feel like a clueless novice all over again.

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In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie

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But lingerie is also a beautiful, complex, fascinating niche, one where the finest of details matter and where learning the origins of a garment can be just as exciting as actually wearing it. Did you know, for example, that the first bra patents appeared in the 1880s? Or that the earliest bras were more like bralettes than what we think of as a “traditional” bra today?

I’ve picked up a few facts and tidbits over the last decade, and here are some things I wish I had known before having to learn them the long way.

There is very little consistency across lingerie brands.

This is absolutely frustrating. However, it’s also the best possible solution for you, the consumer. One of the most confusing parts of my early lingerie journey was trying to understand why I couldn’t achieve that pushed-together cleavage look Victoria’s Secret made popular. I tried so many pushup bras—making use of the “Add a cup size”–style bras by adding one cup, then two, then three—only to realize after years of trial and error that this particular look just wasn’t feasible for my breast shape.

Nowadays, I run across so many comments from lingerie wearers who wonder why every bra brand can’t make every size and style in the exact same way. While I understand that sentiment (because trying on a ton of bras is time-consuming), that kind of standardization would help almost no one. Think about it. Our bodies (and our bosoms) come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Your breasts can be full on top, full on the bottom, or full all around. They can be widely spaced or narrowly spaced. They can be pendulous or teardrop shaped or tuberous. If every single bra was cut in the exact same way, most of us would never be able to find that perfect bra. That lack of consistency means that if one bra doesn’t work for you, you can still try another.

Figuring out what your breast shape is can be difficult, especially if you’re new to the concept, and this is one area where visiting a local lingerie boutique can be helpful, since they can help offer guidance on which shape you are (and therefore which bra styles will best suit you).

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Size expansions in the bra industry can take up to four or five years.

Years ago, I used to wonder why brands seemed so slow to expand their size ranges. In this era of fast fashion, when runway-to-retail turnaround can take place in as little as a week, many people assume that every fashion brand is like a Zara or a Fashion Nova. But bras are feats of engineering that require a high level of skill and precision at every stage, from design to fabric cutting to sewing. To take a bit of lace, a piece of wire, and a few hook-and-eye closures, and turn them into something that can shape and support the weight of your bust for hours at a time is almost miraculous. However, this kind of design can’t happen overnight, and it’s not unusual for new bra shapes and sizes to take upwards of two, three, or even more years from the earliest planning stages to retail.

If you wear one of those hard-to-find sizes, it’s definitely still frustrating to have to wait. However, when a brand says they’re working on new bra sizes and you don’t see results for a few years, this is the reason why. And before you point to companies that are “already doing it,” keep in mind that some of them have been around for decades—which means you don’t know how long they spent developing those new sizes. It’s also helpful to know that many brands use private labeling (that is, buying sizes and styles that have already been designed and adding their own label to them).

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While no one company makes every size, some good “all-purpose” brands to know are Wacoal, Natori, Chantelle, and Playful Promises. If you’re plus sized (which, in bra terms, means wearing a 38/40 band or higher), look for Elomi, Goddess, Curvy Couture, and Sculptresse. If you’re full-busted (which, in lingerie-speak, means wearing a DD cup or above), look for Panache, Freya, Curvy Kate, and Parfait. And if you’re small-busted (that is, an A cup or under), try Timpa, Elma Intimates, Lula Lu, and The Little Bra Company.

For the best support and shaping, a seamed, or cut-and-sew, bra is best.

The best-selling bra type in the United States is the t-shirt or contour-cup bra (usually in a shade of beige or black). Americans are a bit unusual among lingerie buyers worldwide in that we’re afraid of seamed bras, also known as cut-and-sew bras, which are made from bits of fabric that have been sewn into the shape of the cup—unlike contour-cup or molded-cup bras, for which one piece of foam or fabric is molded into a cup shape.

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While I love a t-shirt bra as much as the next person (shout out to my Natori Feathers!), they’re not usually the most exciting item of lingerie. More importantly, even when it comes to bras, they’re not the most supportive—especially if you wear beyond a DD cup. Bra seams aren’t just decoration; they add structure and support to the cup, essentially telling the bust what shape to take and which direction to go (from the sides of the body to facing forward, for example). If you have a heavier bust (for example, a J or K cup), you may have also noticed there aren’t many t-shirt bras available in your size. That’s not because the lingerie industry’s forgotten about you! It’s because our current fabric and textile technology just isn’t able to give enough support for a bust of that size. But as an added bonus, there are so many pretty options in seamed bras, especially if you like lace, mesh, or embroidery.

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To maximize your options, especially if you wear beyond a D cup, learn UK sizing.

Yes, I know! It’s another confusing detail, but this one can make a tremendous difference in your lingerie life if you wear a DD or above. The UK is a cornucopia of beautiful bras beyond the D cup barrier (in addition to the labels I mentioned above, take a look at Adina Reay, Pour Moi, Tutti Rouge, Miss Mandalay, and Bravissimo).

However, you can’t shop from these companies if you don’t know your UK size. Here’s a size conversion guide (as you can see, this becomes super-relevant once you’re past a D cup).

Lingerie is a beautiful, complex, fascinating niche

Different brands specialize in different sizes.

As I mentioned above, no one brand makes every size, because unlike in ready-to-wear, there are dozens of possible sizes. Some brands specialize in what’s called “core” sizing, which is roughly 32–36 B–D cups; others specialize in plus sizing, while others focus on full busts. There can definitely be overlap between and among these categories (for example, plus-size and full-bust bra brands), but it’s still good to know these terms so you can describe the bras you’re looking for. After all, how can you find what you can’t name? If you wear a 32F, but you’re searching for “plus size bras,” you probably won’t see your full range of options (and may even think nothing is available in your size—which is not true!).

It’s important to buy from brands that specialize in your size range because they are the experts in constructing bras that are best able to shape and support you. Buying from these companies is also a good way of making sure they stay in business and that the products you love don’t get discontinued.


One last thing—no matter your size, don’t forget to take proper care of your undergarments once you’ve purchased them. Think of it as an investment in your own happiness (and your wallet, considering how expensive bras can be!). A speciality lingerie wash or a gentle soap like Castile soap is perfect for your underpinnings. Soak them in lukewarm water in a basin or tub, if you can, and hang to dry.

Lingerie doesn’t have to be impossible to understand. Knowing just a few key concepts and terms can help you be a more informed consumer. Now go forth, and discover the lingerie of your dreams!



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