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Making Vintage Bras Work For You: Sizing, Sourcing and Wearing Bras Underneath Your Vintage Clothes

Vintage Longline Bra by Marcel Worth

Vintage Longline Bra by Marcel Worth (image via The Nylon Swish)

All products featured in this article were purchased by me. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

While I talk exclusively about lingerie here on TLA, if you've ever seen my Instagram account you know that my daily wardrobe is extremely vintage-inspired. Over the past few years, I've found myself drawn almost exclusively to vintage-style dresses, both authentic and reproduction. As my interest in vintage fashion grew, I found one big gap: vintage-style bras in my size. I've written about this before, but today I wanted to present a more in-depth look at the subject. Today we'll tackle sizing, common misconceptions about vintage bras and where you can find the good stuff. To make things extra clear, today I'll be using the term vintage to talk about the eras between the 1940s and the 1960s. Before that, bras were not quite what we know today, and after that lots of modern fabrics came in to change the way sizing is commonly calculated.

Whether you're a reenactor, a vintage clothing lover, or just interested in the way bras used to be --- read on!

The Elephant In the Room: Talking about +4

Plus four is a constant source of debate among bra bloggers, but today I'm going to cover it from a historical perspective rather than a current one. Way back when, bras were made without the strong stretchy elastic and powermesh that we take for granted today. To calculate their bra sizes, women added four inches to their band measurement and then subtracted to get their cup size. The result of this is that vintage bra sizes skew towards larger bands and smaller cups, while modern bras skew towards smaller bands and larger cup sizes.

The upside of this is that if you're really sure that you're too busty to get into a vintage bra, you may be shocked to find out how wrong you are. I certainly was! Keep in mind that vintage bras need to be tried on with vintage sizing in mind, while many modern companies making retro-inspired lingerie (like What Katie Did or Kiss Me Deadly) still use modern sizing. If you have a larger cup size, vintage bras will offer the most sizing flexibility when using the plus four method.

Vintage Marcel Worth Longline Bra

Vintage Marcel Worth Longline Bra

Sourcing Vintage Lingerie:
There are lots of places to buy vintage lingerie, from Facebook groups devoted to vintage clothing to Etsy. My favorite store is run by Elinor of The Nylon Swish blog, who sells unworn Marcel Worth vintage bras and shapewear. All of the pieces shown today are from her store. She is super knowledgeable about both vintage lingerie and her stock. If you're going to buy vintage lingerie anywhere, here are some things to look at and think about.

- Is it new old stock or worn? This refers to vintage pieces with the tags still on them. Obviously, these are likely to be in better condition than worn vintage bras.
- Is the bra still sturdy? Again, this comes down to knowing and trusting your seller and doing your homework. There are lots of scary things that can happen to vintage fabrics, so make sure that the bra is in a condition that you are happy with.
- What style is the bra? Vintage bras open up a whole new world, from bullet bras to front closure bras that fit bustier women. Think about what you'll wear it under and what silhouette you want to create. Longlines are better for creating an hourglass shape, for instance. If you're going for a style from a specific time period, make sure your bra gives you the right look.

Vintage Marcel Worth Bra - front closure

Vintage Marcel Worth Bra - front closure

Common Misconceptions About Vintage Lingerie:
There are lots of weird misconceptions about vintage lingerie, but I wanted to tackle a few of the big ones today. I've also included some comparison photos so you can see how much of a difference a genuine vintage bra can contribute to your overall vintage look.

Most vintage bras won't have underwires, which may seem daunting to those of us who feel the need to be locked in tight to an underwire bra before we leave the house. Amazingly, these soft bras can create great lift and shape in the correct size (see the photos above for proof!). I also know people worry about the bullet shape these bras can create. Both of the ones I've taken photos of for this article have that bullet shape, but as you can see below it isn't noticeable under clothing. If you do want more of that look, you can always add bullet bra pads as an extra layer.

To demonstrate I've taken pictures in the same vintage 1940s dress --- it's one of my favorites and one of the reasons I started my vintage bra search. Here you can see the big difference that a vintage bra makes.

Vintage dress with modern bra

Vintage dress with modern bra

Here it is with a modern bra that meets all of the modern fit criteria. Not bad, but now check out this.

Vintage dress with vintage longline bra

Vintage dress with vintage longline bra

Now that's how it's supposed to look! See how it creates extra lift and a narrower profile? This helps create the hourglass silhouette of the era. I'm not wearing a girdle or garter belt here, but the effect would be even more enhanced if I were. As you can see, the slightly pointy shape in the picture above translates to lift and an added hourglass shape once clothing goes over the top.

While I don't wear vintage bras exclusively, I do feel like they create an effect under some of my favorite outfits that no modern bra can match! I'm also enjoying the occasional freedom from underwires, especially now that it's hot and underwires can feel bothersome.

Have you tried vintage bras? What do you think of them? Would you try one in the future?