Bra Fitting & The Problem With Sample Sizes

Today’s blog post comes from Samantha, the artist and writer behind http://www.svcon.blogspot.com/. As a former bra fitter, boutique manager, and lingerie model, Samantha shares her unique perspective in this personal essay about the problem with the standard sample sizes used in the lingerie industry.

The lingerie industry has a problem, and that problem is their standard sample sizes. Hello, I’m Sam. I have an absolute zeal for all things underthings. I have been a bra fitter, a boutique manager, a boutique buyer and a lingerie model.

Every time a new line of bras comes out, the manufacturer sends out samples. As buyers, we base our purchasing decisions on these sample bras. To save money, a standard bra sample size (34B) is used by most companies. Companies that specialize in fitting larger busts use 34D as a standard. In my opinion neither of these sizes is the correct choice. In fact, the current sample sizes actually make it harder for buyers, models and fitters to do their jobs.

First, for buyers: a sample bra does do one thing – it gives me a good idea of what the bra will look like when it goes into production. But my purchasing decisions were not based only on looks. Fit was also very important, and the best way to know how a bra fits is to see it on someone.

No ethical fitter would sell an ill-fitting bra (and very few women want to buy one). I know that if that sassy new polka dotted balconette lacks support or gives a strange shape, customers are unlikely to buy it. Fit is especially challenging when it comes to larger busted women.

An ideal sample should be a popular size should reflect both the most popular size within a range and a mid point the range’s scale of sizes I want to be able to see what a bra will look like on the average woman. In my experience, there are a lot more women who are 32C than 34B. This isn’t a disaster, because usually there was someone on staff in 32C who could try on the sample bra on the tightest hook in order to get an idea of the fit. But that told me nothing about how the fuller-cupped versions of that bra would fit. Companies that expand their line to carry bigger sizes still only offer the 34B sample bra. It’s hard to celebrate the inclusion of an F cup demi when the only sample they send me is 34B and I have no way of knowing how the F cup would fit.

As I mentioned, companies that specialize in D and up bras offer 34D as their sample size. This isn’t much better, though, since they usually manufacture their bras to size 38G and beyond. A woman with breasts this size is going to fit a bra very differently than a woman who wears a 34D.

I worked as a “busty” fit model (I wear a 32FF) for an importer who carried some brands specializing in D+ cup sizes. Here, I saw the sample size problem first hand. At shows, I would never be able to show off the upcoming styles (in this case, only available in the 34D sample size), and instead was provided with ‘classic’ styles to model for buyers. Sample sizes were problematic for other models as well. Most models tend to be very slim, so a 34 band would always be too big and would ride up in the back, even on the tightest hook.

Ideally, a sample size should reflect both the most popular size within a range and a mid point in their scale of sizes. I think a 32C sample size would make the most sense for A-D bra lines because it’s a popular size that falls midway in the size range, and is a more appropriate fit for “straight-size” models. For lines that specialize in D-G, a 34F would be a more apt sample size, as it’s more popular, falls more in the middle of the range and allows for a suitable fit for plus size models. Lines that carry a wide range of sizes (like A-D) should offer both, and fuller busted lines that carry up to a J should be prepared to offer both a 34F and perhaps a 36GG.

I understand that producing samples costs money…but so does discontinuing a bra or a whole line because it won’t sell. Fit sells, and helping buyers evaluate the fit of a bra before ordering is good for manufacturers in the long run.

Image Credit: All images from http://www.svcon.blogspot.com/

14 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    07/03/11 at 17:08

    While I do agree, I must say: there is a reason 34B has long been an industry standard. I work in the lingerie business, and while I know that 2/5 of the girls in our corporate office wear a 32C most women coming in to the boutique request a 34B. Yes, it is possible they are asking for the wrong size (an alarming majority of women think they wear a 34B whether they actually do or not.) But the average woman is not a 32, a very petite woman (busty or not) is a 32.

  2. Catherine
    07/03/11 at 17:42

    A 32C really isn't our best selling size, in fact its nearing the bottom of the distribution. Its a 34B for the more fashion oriented retailers and a 36C for the retro or otherwise more mature customer bases.
    Opinions differ wildly about what the most common size is in the UK – I've heard 34F (not convinced) and 36D/DD (more plausible overall). No-ones ever posited a 32C and that would make sense, because the average dress size in the UK is significantly bigger than than that.

  3. BreastWhisperer
    07/03/11 at 23:34

    Great post, Samantha!
    To address the previous comments,34 B is industry standard in a market where unfortunately,only A-DD and 32-38 back sizes exist, with the exception of what is available to the consumer via specialized boutiques. On average, I work with either smaller cup sizes A-D in back sizes 30 to 32, or E-J cups in 34 to 38 backs and up. 34E/F is actually, very, very common, from my experience. Most often, a 34B is actually a 30D or 32C terrified of wearing the correct band size because of this absurd notion of "back fat". If you can stretch your bra band inches away from your body, it's not giving you any support. Period. Many 38Ds are actually 32Fs being sold the incorrect size by the cheaper mainstream bra companies. It is a pity that more women are not properly educated about cup size being relative to back size, and that cup sizes above a DD are nothing to be ashamed of.

  4. Anonymous
    07/03/11 at 23:49

    I must say, I strongly disagree with the above comments. A 32 band is not what I would call a "very petite" woman. Certainly it indicates a smaller band, but I would actually say this is an incredibly average band size. To help put it in perspective, I am a fuller figured woman who wears between a US12-14 dress and my band size is comfortably a 34 (with a G cup). I would not consider my ribcage to be of average size given the fact that I'm 5'8" and about 200 lbs. Most of my friends and colleagues would fall into the 32 band or under category, themselves ranging from a dress size 4-10. Indeed, I have a sister who is 6' tall and slim but by no means skinny at a US size 6-8; she wears a 32D. A 32 band is often considered to be tiny simply because it is the smallest size one can normally find in stores like Victoria's Secret, La Senza etc. The fact that these stores refuse to carry a full range of sizes should not be an indicator of what an average size truly is.
    During my extensive time working as a bra fitter, I can say, without hesitation, that the sizes that most frequently came up were 32C, 32E and 34F. While many women believe themselves to be a 36 band, I actually found that few actually were, and fewer still wore a 38 and beyond.
    Given that Sam's post is clearly directed at suppliers to stores who carry a more complete range of sizes, I believe that her choices of sample sizes make absolute sense. I hope that her piece is seen by the right people for the sake of frustrated buyers everywhere!

  5. Anonymous
    07/03/11 at 23:51

    Edit: my response was to the comments of Anonymous and Catherine. :)

  6. Zoggi
    08/03/11 at 11:53

    It's about time manufacturers updated their practices, because it's well known now that 34B is no longer the average size, and hasn't been for many years. The only reason I can think of that it may still be the best selling size for some companies is that most women wear bras that are totally the wrong size and style, but they just buy whatever is available. The assumption is that "well, this shop is full of 34B bras and I look pretty average… so I guess I'll just carry on wearing 34Bs" No-one has any reason to believe that they might really need a 30D, so it's no wonder there seems to be no demand.

  7. Anonymous
    08/03/11 at 14:20

    Er, @Anonymous #1, I wear a 32 band, and I'm not petite. I'm also busty – and the only way to get a decent selection in my size is to order online or go to a specialty store.

  8. Zoggi
    08/03/11 at 16:24

    In response to the first comment – surely if a 34 back is average, then a 32 is one size smaller than average, not "very petite." Plus, the band size of someone's bra says nothing about their body shape aside from that one measurement – a woman who wears a 32H could be several dress sizes bigger than someone who wears a 32A. It seems that the assessment of people who wear 32 bands as being very slim is based solely on the fact that 32 is usually the smallest size that bras are manufactured in. If bra bands are sized in 2 inch increments, the same as dress sizes, then imagine if one size smaller than average in clothing was the smallest you could buy! It's amazing how being any more than 2 inches slimmer than the average woman means that you have very little choice in bras.

  9. Misa
    08/03/11 at 19:22

    Interesting blog! I agree with most of the posts above from other retailers/fitters – bra sampling is quite a difficult thing. Depending on where you are located and where your customers are, your most popular size will be different. Most of our customers are in Australia and our most popular bra size is a 32B. But if you read the media, the average size around Australia is something like a 14C. So creating samples based on an average, in a global market, and keep every retailer/fitter happy is pretty difficult.
    However thats not to say the status quo should hold. What about the most popular size for that particular brand?
    I think manufacturers & brands, through thought and consultation, would find many benifits to adjusting their sample sizes.

  10. BreastWhisperer
    09/03/11 at 9:20

    I've always found it easiest to break it down this way for my customers…28 (yes, they exist) and 30 backs are XS, 32/34 are S, 34/36 are M and L are 38s. XL would be anything above a 40 back. Again, it's really how the back and cup work together. I weigh about 180 and wear a 36G, most often. 32 is a very common back size, again, I work often in the 32/34 E to F range. It's really, all about putting things into perspective. I tell women to not get hung up on size, and to consider proportion.

  11. Anonymous
    09/03/11 at 12:56

    I think this is a great post, and as a lingerie buyer I completely agree with Sam. It's really interesting to read the differing attitudes to back sizes too. People are tending to judge what is small, by looking at the sizes available, rather than by looking at the actual customer. As someone said, 32 is considered small because it is often the smallest size available, whereas I know many many people who are 30 backs and 28s like myself. I'm 5ft 8 and wear a 28FF; if a 32 is considered very petite then I must be considered half dead (which I'm not by the way). With the great ranges of sizes available these days it's crazy to think that some people are still massively in need of a bra education. A wicked read, thank you :D

  12. dottie's delights
    10/03/11 at 20:29

    I love any article that brings up the many issues involved in the problems with bra fitting. Very interesting to hear others thoughts on sample sizing. Unlike other clothing, bras are unique in that there can be almost 100+ different size options. It seems silly, then, that 1 or 2 sizes can be adequate for every buyer/store/region/customer to be happy. But since that's how sample sizing works, I think we need to stop thinking along the lines of ourselves or personal experience as the examples and look at actual facts. I'm no expert, but the store buyers that I've talked around the US all seem to have their most popular size at a 34 band. 34B may not be the correct size for most people. But at least if that is what most companies are using, you can theoretically base them off of each other to guess at an accurate fit.

    However, I do agree that if a line is a wide enough range to include both petite and large cup sizes, that there should be a 2nd DD+ sample. They can definitely be two totally different beasts.

  13. Sundal
    11/03/11 at 11:01

    This is something that, as a model and an aspiring lingerie designer I feel quite strongly about.

    32 is not a petite band size, just because retailers don't offer any smaller doesn't mean it's for a skinny woman. I'm a UK6-8 and only a 30 fits me properly. When i was a UK12 a 32 used to fit me properly, so i would say 32 is more average than skinny.

    As a model, having to wear 34 band size is a nightmare and the girls with the small backs, like me, tend to lose out on the lingerie bookings, even though i'm quite full in the bust and would probably work well if sample sizes were 32C!

    Not only should manufacturers change their sample size to 32C but retailers should also offer more 30 band sizes, cos as soon as the elastic in my bras goes just a little bit, the fit is gone, before any of the rest of it has worn out.

  14. Zoggi
    11/03/11 at 11:58

    Another issue related to this topic is that when the lingerie is being modelled for photoshoots, the customers should see the bras being worn in the correct size that actually fits the model, otherwise how can you tell what it will look like or how it will fit? It is very rare to see lingerie models who would need any larger than a 30 inch back (apart from plus size specialists of course) and yet the bras they model are not available in sizes smaller than 32. Invariably the back is 2 or 3 sizes too large and the cups are often too small. Not only does this give the customer a poor idea of how the product will acually look, but it allows the multitude of bra fitting myths to go unchallenged – women think it's normal for their back to ride up and breast tissue to spill over the cups.

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