Brassieres, which have been around in one form or another since at least the 15th century, have been staples of women’s wardrobes for so long that you’d think their fit would adhere to some easy-to-follow guidelines. Yet 8 out of 10 women still wear the wrong size, according to undergarment makers such as Jockey and Wacoal. “They just don’t realize it, but it really does them a disservice,” says Christine Claro, who helps fit women in the lingerie department of Bloomingdale’s. “Once I help them find the right bra, I have girls hug me, kiss me, crying.”
Hoping to share that love—and the added sales that go with it—undergarment makers have renewed emphasis on the elusive art of pairing women with bras that actually fit and flatter. The stakes are high: Bras account for more than half of the U.S.’s $11 billion-a-year lingerie business, according to market researcher NPD Group. And since women have shown they’re willing to change their bras with the times—from the breast-flattening style preferred by 1920s flappers to the cleavage-inducing Wonderbras of the 1990s—companies are challenging long-held beliefs about the undergarments.
Jockey in May introduced a novel sizing system. Rather than standard measurements like 32A and 34B, which have been around since the 1930s, it began offering 55 new sizes with denotations such as 4-36 and 10-44. The first number in the hyphenated pair of numerals refers to one of 10 patented cup sizes Jockey developed by analyzing 3D scans of 800 women. Customers use a Jockey “fit kit” featuring 10 plastic cups to see which of the variations best fits their breasts. The second number is based on the under-bust torso measurement.
The $19.95 kit can be bought for home use, with the price credited to future purchases, or used for free in stores. Jockey’s bra also dispenses with underwire, in favor of a plastic material that company marketers say supports the breast in a spoonlike fashion. “It took us literally eight years to develop this fitting system and volumetric bra,” says Dustin Cohn, chief marketing officer of Jockey. “Breasts are three-dimensional, so to measure yourself with just a tape measure doesn’t [work well].”
Not everyone supports Jockey’s sizing overhaul. “I think we have a system that works,” says Debby Gedney, president of Luxury Intimate Brands at Komar, whose lines include Ellen Tracy and Betsey Johnson. “Is it simple? No, but let’s not overcomplicate it.” Jessica Pfister, vice president of the Komar lingerie brand Le Mystère, an upscale brand which is sold at Bloomingdale’s, Harrod’s, and elsewhere, says better communication with consumers is key: “It is so critically important, especially nowadays when the new coming-of-age generation is even fuller than they have been before.”
In September, Le Mystère will launch a Web-based campaign to demonstrate proper fit. A series of before-and-after photos will show regular women from the neck down—not models—wearing T-shirts over their old bras, and then over Le Mystère bras that actually fit them well. “We took [24 women] in whatever they had on,” says Pfister, “and what we found is, in most cases, they were wearing a band that was too large and a cup that was too small.” Correctly sized, Pfister says, the women looked noticeably more confident, and thinner. “The right-sized bra just lifts your breasts off your rib cage and makes you a little bit narrower,” she says.
Besides offering sizing secrets (a woman’s bust line should be equidistant between her shoulder and elbow, for instance), Le Mystère’s site will also feature a video showing women how to measure themselves and calculate their own bra sizes. While others, including Victoria’s Secret and website HerRoom, have long provided online guides and tools for bra buying, the growth of Internet shopping is pushing more manufacturers to use the Web to provide sizing advice that traditionally would have been given by a veteran fitter at a women’s store.
In its ads, Le Mystère won’t be using regular women but a gorgeous model—albeit one with natural breasts. “We always use natural models, except for when we did a line especially for women with augmented breasts,” explains Pfister, who says enhanced breasts are often recognizable because they are more widely spaced “east to west,” and unnaturally firm and circular. “Even if they look natural, the [augmented] bust doesn’t react to a bra the same way,” says Pfister. “We want to show you exactly what we’re doing with natural breasts.”