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Why Do Lingerie Brands Only Make A Few Sizes?

Photo Credit: Andrew Shearer

Today’s article is the first in what I hope is a new, regular column titled “Why Do Lingerie Retailers…?” I was talking with Catherine (from Kiss Me Deadly) on Facebook chat a few weeks ago, and asking her about all the weird things lingerie retailers do (and by weird, I mean, “things I don’t understand because I’ve never worked in the lingerie industry.”)

Catherine, being the incredibly obliging, patient, and kind soul that she is, answered all my questions and at the end we realized this would make a really fantastic column… because chances are if I have those questions, tons of other people do too. The first column is about a question both of us get asked a lot, namely — Why are size ranges limited? Here’s what she had to say:

I once wrote a huge thing about this containing some basic stats ideas, and I’m going to return to that, but because it’s pleasingly simple and very gross, let’s talk fingers first. A small amount of people have no fingers. Some people have fewer than 10. And a very few people have extra fingers (depending on your definition of fingers). This means that the average number of fingers is less than 10. But would you make gloves with less than 10 fingers? No, because the average isn’t always the same as the most common – which, in this case, is 10 ( or 8 fingers and 2 thumbs, for the pedants).

Now lets talk more complicated stuff like dress sizes and bra sizes. There are many dress sizes and even more bra sizes. When you get big numbers, like dress sizes for everyone in the UK, magic things happen to your numbers. Just under 70% of people will fall into the sizes around the most common size. So if you’re a Compelling and Easy to Watch mainstream retailer, how will you make the most money? Do multiple styles in the most common sizes? Or invest heavily in a few ranges that cover all the sizes?

Yep, it’s the first one. However, if you are a specialist, catering to the 15% who are at the top or bottom of the distribution, well then you can concentrate on those less common sizes and do as many styles as you can in that range. But the catch is you only ever target that demographic.

If you’re a big retailer, obviously you’ll do a bit of both. The bulk will be ranges in the usual sizes, with a few brands you have to meet the niche demographics. But if you’re a smaller brand? Well, you just don’t have the negotiating power and the economies of scale those larger companies do, and so you carry fewer sizes. As the saying goes, “It’s not you, it’s us!”

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

41 Comments on this post

  1. Kitty says:

    I find it very difficult to find pretty bar’s in Australia. I’m a 14G according to my last fitting and I get told every time I walk into a store to buy online as they just don’t have my stock…or worse i’m told to were an 18E in the plain (basic) bra’s so they can get the sale. Then there is my added problem of how much I love Pin up and vintage and spending a $100 on one bra is the norm for me, As a result I have 1 bra. Just 1 that fits me properly in my size that is pretty.

    These days I buy cheep bra’s in basic style’s and colours and decorate them myself. A little lace and hand stitching can go a long way. It’s not an ideal solution but at least I can afford a $20 basic black bra in my size and the $10 lace/ribbon to pretty it up.

  2. Becky Magson says:

    I think the problem boils down to poor fitting. More often than not people are not getting fitted properly when they shop for a bra so these same people continue to buy the wrong back measurement and cup size. If people were fitted properly many would find they actually need a smaller back and a much bigger cup meaning the whole average of sizes is turned on it axis.

    • This is definitely a factor Becky! I wonder how many boutique fitters don’t know about 28 and 30 backs and larger cup sizes so they’re still fitting into the ‘average’ sizes thus skewing the stats.

      • UpliftMaximizationTechnician says:

        Any “boutique” fitter worth their salt should DEFINITELY be aware of who produces 28 and 30 backs, and who produces deeper cup sizes. If you don’t have that basic product knowledge, you are simply not a professional. That being said, it’s impossible to know everything (I’m always keen to learn new things!) , but what Claire has mentioned is basic, important information. It also goes beyond, into knowing the ins and outs of certain product lines. I find that certain Natori styles fit small in the back, and can be helpful to the 28’s and 30’s. Madison in the full cup fits a half a back size small, generally. Empreinte backs can be a little gentler than Prima Donna. So are Lise Charmel, I find. When I was working with the Freya Polyanna often, a few years ago, I noticed that the black colourway always fit snugger and the wire was a bit tight. A good bra fitter who knows her stock well is the one you want to work with. :-)

  3. UpliftMaximizationTechnician says:

    Well, there are many factors. Sizing being one. It’s really tough to pinpoint what the “average” is. Every day at work brings a multitude of shapes and sizes. I work in a specialty shop, so I tend to see fewer smaller cup sizes, and a lot of D to G, both natural and enhanced. Back sizes, all over the place but 34 is generally average. That’s for women who have been “properly” sized. Then you have the 32F’s who think they’re a 38C in Victoria’s Secret. Whole other kettle of fish. While we’re at it, let’s talk bigger back sizes. Unfortunately, the bra industry is a little stingy when it comes to pretty styles in anything over a 38 back. This is changing, ever so slowly, but not fast enough. So if you are in a 40+, your options will be limited, right from the get go. The same, unfortunately goes for the 28 back consumer. But as demand continues to increase, so will options…hopefully.

    Then let’s talk style. All the major higher end brands generally produce two separate lines, “Basic” and “Fashion”. Basic bras are just that…you’re basic beiges and black, T-Shirt bras, run of the mill every day. Those, technically should be orderable at any time, and any good lingerie shop should be able to have it in stock in 4 weeks time for you. Some will charge a deposit, others will not. For women ordering bras at their boutiques…please be patient. Most of these items are coming from Europe, have to clear customs, often going through a distributor or middleman, and well, that takes some time. Your bra is not arriving tomorrow. Please be patient, lol.

    Fashion bras are a different beast. Different colours, different styles from season to season. They are usually produced in limited runs, and in smaller numbers, and usually are more expensive, due to extra bells, whistles and lace. Retailers also usually order selectively, both in styles and in size because they cannot guarantee that they will sell. It’s just…basic business. Nobody wants to get stuck with bras they can’t sell. A great bra store will do their best to get the size in for you, but because fashion bras are the rarer bird, they’re simply harder to get. If a customer is debating hard between two bras and really, truly cannot decide, I will always guide her towards the fashion item, because we’ll have a much better chance at getting the basic again.

    I agree though, “inventory crime” sucks. It’s wrong to put a customer in the wrong size, just to make a sale, and it’s a thorn in the side of the industry and legitimate fitters out there. That being said, there are small tweaks that can be done, within a band size to make things fit better and give more options to both the petite and plus sized consumer. For petites, bands can be taken down a size, with a simple alteration by a GOOD seamstress, and those in bigger back sizes can use a back extender to give extra room in the band, to perhaps juuuuust squeak into that fashion bra. I’ve done it myself, lol. I do advise to use caution though, as lengthening or shortening a band too much WILL distort the profile of the bra and how it sits on the body. Should this situation arise in my fittings, I am very clear with my customer about the possible negative aspects of either altering or extending a band, and that this should be done only within reasonable parameters, and as a last resort.

    Hope this helps!

  4. Kelley says:

    I love this article! As a very small retailer, I am constantly faced with the dilemma of carrying enough sizes. Last time I counted I stock 75 and it still isn’t enough, and having a great selection in all 75 sizes is just too expensive. I do try though!

  5. This promises to be a very interesting set of articles. Bra inventory is a tricky beast and the reality is that most places cannot cater to every women – the good boutiques will tell you when they can’t fit you.

    The biggest ‘inventory crime’ occurs when a customer is fitted into what is available rather than what’s right for them. Enter the plus four method to squeeze more women into fewer sizes.

    I think the ‘average’ bra sizes have changed a great deal but the inventory hasn’t caught up because the big manufacturers haven’t caught up. Boutiques have to rely on buying stats from large brands but if those brands aren’t tracking the changes in bra size then the data is unreliable.

    • Autumn says:

      You say the big manufacturers haven’t caught up with average bra sizes…are you saying that the average size is changing? For example the average waist measurement may have been 27″ but is now more like 29″ ?
      I fit women every day, not for bras but for corsets and we have three sizes that are required more than any others. Within those three sizes the bra sizes vary wildly, from probably a 32A to 38DDD…American.
      I see more women in the right bra size than I expect to, but still many women are not wearing bras that work well for them, often because the band/cup size combination can be challenging.
      Ideally I would wear a 40B, but who even makes that? So I wear a 38C if I can find it. Sometimes I take cups in, just so I can get the width that I need.

      • Hi Autumn – The average size has changed largely because fabrics have changed. The most ‘common’ bra sizes are still based on adding inches to the band because the fabrics were less forgiving so they’re not a true reflection of average sizes. Data from the UK is better especially because Eveden dominates so much of the industry.

        Here’s a link to Herroom who have lots of 40B bras, the 38+ market has improved a great deal in the last 3 years – hope you see something you like :)

      • Thursday says:

        As a fellow 40B wearer, I recommend Cacique. I wish they did a soft cup style (all I’ve seen so far are moulded cups), and I usually get them off eBay as it turns out much more cost effective to get them to Australia:-) I’m yet to find an Australian brand making a 40B equivalent…

    • admin says:

      I’m so glad you mentioned that not every boutique can cater to every woman. That’s a great point, and I’m glad a retailer made it.

      • It would instil greater confidence in the industry if women felt they were going to get an honest answer rather than a sales tactic.

        • UpliftMaximizationTechnician says:

          Agreed, 100%! If there is a customer I cannot help, I will certainly do my best to give her information on products and other boutiques that may fit her needs. I look at the client/fitter relationship as one that should be built on trust, and trust is earned by a good fit and honesty. If I cannot help a client one day, but give her good advice, I am always confident that when she needs me, she will come back to me. I know that there is, in business (and especially the lingerie business it seems!) a LOT of competition. But working in partnership with other boutiques can only benefit both the client, and your business. Cross referrals can be great!

          • ARW says:



  6. I think they not only are lacking in the size department but also sizes that compliment different body shapes once it goes over a size 8. So many women get stuck with grandma looking underwear and lingerie because they are not a size 2. That just is not right. : (

  7. Zoggi says:

    I think Catherine answered this question well, but June also raised a good point. A lot of women get fitted into what they find is a “difficult” size, and probably assume by looking at the size range available to them that they are in a minority. However, if people who need a hard-to-find size realised that they are not alone, then they would be asking “why is the size range so drastically out of line with the size distribution in the population?” It may be that 70% of women will fit into the usual 32-38 A-DD range in KMD bras, but on the high street this is certainly not the case. The results of June’s surveys suggest that instead of 32-38, the “standard” size range really ought to be 26-36. This would mean adding two extra band sizes, which as Catherine explained is very expensive, especially for smaller companies. The solution seems to be “tell customers to wear a larger band size so we can sell them a 32C instead of a 28DD” and thus avoid having to manufacture the full range that women need.

    • Zoggi says:

      Just to clarify, by “high street” sizing I’m referring to mainstream brands that set the industry standard, not just cheaper brands or department stores’ own lines.

  8. Jan says:

    That is generally true in brick & mortar retail. But the world of online retail has changed that – since your reach is much broader at little extra cost you can supply to some niche demographics and still have decent sell-through. And as a result you can capture some sales away from brick & mortar because you have offerings not met by traditional retailers. What I find it surprising that online boutiques don’t take more advantage of that.

    • admin says:

      Hi Jan, thanks for stopping by! Most of the online boutiques I know of (especially large ones like Bare Necessities and HerRoom) offer an extensive size range, much larger than any brick and mortar lingerie boutique as you said. But smaller boutiques, even smaller online boutiques, often don’t have that kind of purchasing power…especially since the markups on lingerie are small when compared to other areas of fashion. It’s not so much about them having a broader reach, as it is them not having the capital to make that kind of investment (especially if their customers skew towards certain sizes/brands).

      • Jan says:

        Fair point about the capital. In those cases it would be great if they had a special order feature – for the right piece, people might be willing to wait a bit. And it adds a customer service feature, which is where all the differentiation is in the future of retail.

        The last few pieces I bought, I had to order from France, because of the odd size. And interestingly enough, it shipped faster/cheaper from France than from another online boutique in the US that I’ve also buy from….

  9. Tristan Risk says:

    This is a wonderful point.

    Speaking as someone who works in a shop that primarily does a custom specialty work (corsets) that are 85% made to order and carrying some lingerie, it can be frustrating for customers. Especially when the brands we carry vary in labelling from S/M/L to S/M M/L and B,C,D. All styles also fit differently as well. My best advice to clients is to try on (if possible) what they like to see how they like the fit, and failing that, special order their size if we do not stock it.

    Thank you for the blog. Will repost.
    Much love.

  10. Megan says:

    As a custom bra maker, 28a-52n, my biggest cost are underwires (extruded, sized, and coated to spec). The minimums for this are astronomical and can be prohibitive for some styles.

  11. Catherine says:

    A 26 band size in KMD bra sizes would mean an actual band measurement of around 22-24 inches – quite rare in adult women in the UK (especially anyone over 30). There seems to be even more confusion about available size ranges because whilst all the labels are the same, what brands mean by those things can vary a good deal – even if you’re on the same system, things like how much stretch capacity the fabric has makes a significant difference to sizing.

    • June says:

      Catherine, sorry, I wasn’t directing my comment at KMD but more in general (Sorry for the confusion!).

      But, yes, I agree completely that sizing is extremely difficult because there is so much variance between brands. And due to a lot of the little details of a specific brand (width of wires, width and height of center gore, width of straps etc) a woman might have to go up or down a cup size from her “ususal” size.

      • Catherine says:

        It’s not so much that I thought it was aimed at me as that it would be politicaly inadvisable for me to comment on other brands sizing ;)
        The wires bit is always interesting – Lyzzy knows which wires work for her and which don’t, whereas the older I get the more I feel like maybe a softcup would be a nice idea ;)

        • June says:

          No problem! And that makes complete sense that you’d want customers to be aware of that. :)

          Re: Wires. I’m still on the lookout for a good soft cup in my size. I’ve recently ordered a Royce maternity bra in 28J to see but I’ve also heard that it runs small in the cups. The only other option I know of at the moment is Kris Line but their soft cups are quite a bit more expensive!

          • Catherine says:

            Freya are producing one in their Deco range in the next season or so, so I’m keeping an eye out for that.

  12. June says:

    I really like the idea of your series and look forward to more responses!

    That being said, I think the issue is not so much a limited size range but that it doesn’t seem that the limited size range matches the average woman. In reality, I know very few women who fit into the 32-38 A-D range once fit into their correct bra size. Yes, certainly they exist but from what I’ve seen from my Underbust Survey is that the average cup size is much more like a F-G and the most common band sizes are 26-36.

    On the other hand, I do understand that’s it’s a double edged sword for lingerie stores/manufacturers because so many women are wearing ill-fitting bras that if they changed their size range women might not buy it because they’d assume it was the wrong size when it wasn’t.

    I know I have a fairly rare size so I’ve long since accepted that walking into a store and buying a bra for myself is probably never going to happen. That being said I do think it’s a bigger market than manufacturers realize and with more education on proper bra fitting they’d have a larger customer base.

    • Boosaurus says:

      I agree, June – most friends that I’ve helped fit were wearing a size in the “common” range because that’s all they knew and all they could find. I’ve helped fit a 34B to a 28DD, a 36C to a 34D/32DD, a 34C to 30E, a 34A to 30C, etc. All these women started in an ill-fitting “normal” size that they could easily find in stores (most of which stock an incredibly limited range of 34-38 A-C and sometimes D). So, with their new, correct sizes, they all suddenly found that it was much more difficult to find their sizes. They would be forced to order online if they wanted to wear the correct-sized bra. I don’t feel this is right.
      And since their sizes are so hard to find, many of these women compromise. The 28DD girl is wearing too-large-in-the-band 32C’s because they’re all she can find (and “DD” sounds like a huge cup to her). The 30C girl can only find 32B’s in stores, and that occasionally. Even the 34D girl has trouble finding her size!
      Honestly, I find the sizing selection in most stores abysmal – Nordstrom and Dillards are a bit better, as are some boutiques. But overall, I think retailers must understand that many women are only wearing these “common” sizes because that’s their only choice. There are over 100 possible sizing options for bras. It’s unreasonable to expect nearly all women to fit into a range of about 12 sizes.

      • admin says:

        Hi Boosasaurus! As I mentioned to June, average doesn’t mean either “common” or “normal.” It’s simply a measure of center. In this case, knowing the average may not even be the most important statistic, since the average bra size doesn’t correlate with the most frequently sold bra size (I don’t know why…it could be that smaller busted women simply buy more bras).

        I think the other important thing to remember is that’s unreasonable (not to mention improbable) to expect your local lingerie boutique to stock all 100 possible sizing options. Like any other business, lingerie boutiques need to turn a profit, and unsold bras do just the opposite. Too much unsold product, and before you know it, your local boutique is out of business. That’s why so many DD+ boutiques have opened lately, because they’re able to specialize in the upper end of the size range (just like Catherine mentioned in her answer above).

    • admin says:

      Thanks for commenting, June! Just to put on my statistics hat for a minute, I think it’s important to remember that when someone like Catherine (or Bare Necessities or HerRoom or any other retailer that deals in huge quantities) is talking about averages, they’re talking on a very different scale than someone like either or I could access through a blog survey…which is inherently biased towards your blog readers (who, if you’re a full busted blogger, are also likely to be full busted).

      According to sites like Bare Necessities, which sell hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of bras per year, the average bra size is 36DD, but the best selling size is 36C.

      I think it’s also important to remember that figures like the mean (or average) don’t mean much without other data, like a distribution graph and it’s accompanying standard deviation. Average doesn’t mean common or most frequently occurring. From a statistical perspective, it’s simply a figuring representing the middle of a data set. Which is why a comprehensive look at the total data package is so important.

      • June says:

        I think you might have missed Part 2 of my survey discussing Sample Bias: :)

        Long story short I didn’t just ask readers but also women on a weight loss forum so I would get more well-rounded results. Additionally, I found that my results match extremely well with data from the Marines taken in the 1990’s (in that case I compared just women within the healthy BMI range to the marine data because the Marines have weight limits).

        So, yes, the average band size really should be 26-36. Now, I will say that I had a higher percentage of healthy weight women compared to the US (in the US about 1/3 of women are at a healthy BMI whereas I had just over 50%) but still even in the higher BMI regions I found that many, many women needed smaller band sizes.

        I think the biggest point here, though, is that looking at stats from Herroom and Bare Necessitities are misleading. You have to ask yourself:

        – Are women in more common bra sizes buying more bras because they are more available and cheaper?
        – How many women are wearing the incorrect size but buy a common size because it seems safe/anything over DD is too big,/they don’t know how to look for signs of an ill-fitting bra etc.
        – Also, most of those websites tell women to add 4+ inches. Most women in the D+ range shouldn’t be doing that, which means that average 36DD might really be a 32F, which would fit in perfectly with my survey data. :)

        Another point I want to make. If you look at my survey, I always plot the distribution not the average or mean because I agree that they are pretty useless, especially because there is such a large variation in body types. However, doing that I was able to see that 66% of my respondent had underbusts of 31″ or lower and that if a store was catering to women in the health BMI range 95% fall into the 24-32 band size range and 91% of overweight females fit into the 26-36 band range. So if a store wasn’t specifically catering to the plus-sized community, they could cover most women in the 24-36 range (although 26-36 would still cover most of that population too). Cups sizes are much, much trickier and I agree that it’s hard for companies to cover that entire range. What I think would make more sense for new companies would be to pick a smaller range of band sizes and focus on a wider cup size range. Or realize that the average cup size is bigger than D and act accordingly. The problem really comes in when almost all new lingerie companies market to the “common sizes” even if those are not the sizes women need. If new companies all chose different size ranges that would be one thing (for instance, company A works on G-J cups in a certain band range while company B works on D-G and company C works on A-C) but instead you have all the companies working on the same range, which is where the frustration comes in.

      • Hanna says:

        Would you say that the ASTM is working on that same very large scale? According to their standard body measurements for Misses, a size 8 woman (which if I recall correctly, is the most common body size) should be wearing a 30F. A size 16 would be in a 36F. A size 4 would be in a 28F.

        According to table 9 in this report by the National Health Statistics Report ( 50% of women have a waist smaller than 33″ and 75% have a waist smaller than 38″. If we cross-reference that with the ASTM measurement chart, 50% of our population is a size 14 or smaller, and 75% are a 18 or smaller. Again from the ASTM measures, we can guess that 75% of the American female population should be wearing a 38″ band or smaller, and 50% should be in a 34″ band or smaller.

        Going back to our ‘specialty size’ breakover point– the 30″ band– the ASTM tables give us a waist measurement of 28-29″, and the NHSR tables indicate 20% of the population falls under that mark. That’s a pretty serious chunk of the population– SIGNIFICANTLY higher than the percentile that can fit into the size 2 jeans I can find in just about any department store. I would like to believe that if there’s enough demand for size 0 jeans to be stocked in my twerpy little town (along with sizes 1-6, which are also in that 20th percentile), we can handle stocking 30 and 28″ bands.

        As a 5’10” tall woman with 43″ hips and a 30″ band, I’m just a bit grumpy that I can’t find a single bra even approaching my size without going online. I’m not exactly tiny. It really shouldn’t be this difficult. It seems to me that widening the ‘standard’ size range from 34-36 to 28-36, or shifting it from 32-38 to 28-34 would make well-fitting bras available to the majority of women who wear clothing in the standard sizes. As things stand, the whole bottom end of the size chart is woefully under-served.

        • Hanna says:

          Blast– Citation error. The demographic data *is* a National Health Statistics Report, but it was put together by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Apologies– I obviously should not be up past my bedtime. :D

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