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Lingerie Pricing is a Feminist Issue

If you include design and labor it makes sense that bras, especially nice ones, aren't $10. Via Kiss Me Deadly.

If you include design and labor it makes sense that bras shouldn't be cheap. Via Kiss Me Deadly.

There's been a lot of talk on the Internet recently about bra pricing. Much of it started with this brilliant piece by Arabelle Sicardi unpacking the pricing of indie lingerie. The debates mostly broke down along two major sides.

On one side were people who need bras for health or workplace reasons, asking for columnists and bloggers to discuss lowering prices on items they need. On the other were indie/luxury lingerie designers, insisting on being paid a price for their product that takes into account labor and supply chain.

I am deeply sympathetic to almost everything that has been said in both camps. As someone who has "had to" wear bras since the fourth grade (because body shaming), and who has been broke since early adulthood, I get that when other expenses are on the table, lingerie feels like an extravagant purchase and the prices seem absurd.

I also get that for people who need to wear bras to feel healthy or comfortable, it can feel like a cornered market, and that if you are in full bust or plus sized bras, the scarcity and cost can be overwhelming compared to "straight sizes." But the truth is that the price you pay for a full bust bra is probably what most bras should just cost anyway. And here's why.

Bras sold at ridiculously low prices, like $10 or $15, are almost always relying heavily on the labor of underpaid women, and especially women of color.

Lingerie & The Cost of Labor

Lingerie is difficult to machine manufacture. Because of this, artisans have to be employed to make lingerie, and a lot of them are definitely not being paid  what we call a living wage (a wage that enables a person to afford all the basic necessities of life).

As Autostraddle recently pointed out, manufacturing of goods relies heavily on the cheap labor (work) of women in developing nations. My own bra drawer is pretty shameful in this regard: if it wasn't made by an indie brand, it was made in China or The Philippines. If you take into account shipping, markeup, and overhead, the price I paid definitely doesn't account for a fair value on the labor that these women do.

Black sieve balconette bra by Negative Lingerie, one of the many indie brands Sicardi references in her article.

Obviously, I'm not going to shame people who are struggling to make ends meet for having to buy cheap products to get by. Everyone is pretty similarly implicated in this regard. Buy your bras wherever you need if you're struggling financially. But the problem is not that your bra is too expensive and that we need cheaper products.

The problem is that the conditions overseas in garment factories are affecting what you get paid too.

Lingerie Factories, Fair Wages, and Outsourcing

US factories tend to have better working conditions than places like China and Cambodia, but we also don't have a mandated living wage. The federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour is not considered a living wage in any state.

If you can't afford a bra at a fair labor price, it's probably because you aren't being paid a living wage either. Wealth disparity in the US is greater than in most developed countries, and it's been created largely by not paying people a living wage.

Women and people of color (and people who are both) are especially vulnerable to this. White women make about 78 cents to the white male dollar, and black, hispanic, and native women make significantly less. If you're being paid the current minimum wage, of course it's hard to afford lingerie, even the basics you need. Basics are prohibitively expensive if you don't make a living wage.

The big reason that this hasn't changed is that companies of all kinds, including lingerie companies, are incredibly willing to outsource labor. That means whenever people argue for a higher minimum wage for workers, corporations threaten to outsource more --- move more jobs overseas, essentially. They often claim that this is about being able to give us the kinds of prices we want to pay for lingerie and other goods, but it's also about keeping their own costs low.

According to Quinne Myers, of the label She & Reverie, "Apparel is undervalued in our society, so we [lingerie designers] often have to undervalue our work in order to even make sales." With slim profit margins characterizing the lingerie industry (Quinne estimates that intimate apparel is about 20% less profitable than other apparel), large lingerie companies are eager to find ways to cut costs, and that will often include not paying workers fairly.

What is the "Real" Price of a Bra?

So when indie lingerie designers and small brands charge around $50 for a bra (or sometimes even more), it's not necessarily because they're making a luxury product or turning a big profit. Instead, a lot of that money goes toward paying the people who sew the actual bras (and often not to indie brand owners, some of whom net as little as $15,000 annually).

Since so many indie lingerie brands are small operations centered in the US, the UK, Australia, etc., owners often use their own labor or those of locals instead of exporting labor overseas. These products are going to be more expensive than big box store lingerie.

Obviously the same isn't true of every company that charges that much. But if customers demand a cheaper product, large companies will often respond by cutting wages or outsourcing. And so the cycle continues, with inadequate wages in the USA leading to demand for cheaper products.

Bluestockings, an LGBTQ lingerie boutique, makes a point to work with designers who ethically source. This means no $10 bras.

Folks, this is really, really important to understand. When criticizing indie lingerie brands, there's often a lot of talk about luxury products for rich people and how this is a class issue. But indie brands are actually a pretty okay model for what things cost if they are made in a way that doesn't exploit women of color overseas.

This is a global issue because the cycles that are making us broke in the US right now are the same cycles that produce poverty for garment workers overseas. It's also a feminist issue, because it's primarily women's labor that's getting the short end of the stick here.

Sewing, especially factory sewing, has been labeled "women's work" for a long time, and poor working conditions have historically led to these women being hurt or killed in incidents like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire (an incident which bears an uncanny resemblance to the 2013 Savar garment factory collapse.) But the difficulty and sometimes danger of this work gets ignored.

Because women's work is often undervalued, people will often assume that it can't be that hard to sew a bra. If you've ever tried it, you know it's really, really hard to get it right.

Final Thoughts

We all need to spend a little more time thinking about the hidden costs of asking for cheap lingerie. I'm not going to fault anyone who buys cheap bras out of need, but describing the problem as "the goods aren't cheap enough" isn't describing the problem fairly. There are ways of getting many kinds of lingerie on sale or for cheap, and I'll continue to point people toward that  whenever possible.

But it frustrates me to see people who know better --- feminists, often --- asking independent lingerie brands or stores who are trying to avoid unfair wage practices to publicly say that the price is too damn high. Most of the people who run these indie brands are women, and they already know people don't value their labor. You don't have to be a part of that.

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12 Comments on this post

  1. Gigi says:

    What’s up with the Amazon advertisement selling incredibly cheap, pretty certain it’s non ethically made, lingerie immediately following this article? Not trying to be disrespectful, I just find it incredibly odd and even offensive.

    • Cora says:

      Hi Gigi,

      The Amazon widget auto-uploads products, and we have no control over what it chooses. Sometimes it’s lingerie. Sometimes it’s books. Sometimes, it’s cooking appliances. I think it’s a bit like Google Adsense, in that the ads are contextual, based on either the content of the page or the visitor’s previous website history.


  2. Edwina says:

    Can I just recommend for some great bargains in unusual sizes! Also bratabase.

  3. legal is fun says:

    Yes there should me more size options across different price points, but I view indie lingerie designers the same way i view indie business across the board, I dont expect them to be cheaper or the same price as a conglomerate.
    People dont expect “designer” shoes or bags to cost the same as mass manufactured ones, so I dont get why they expect their bras to do so.
    I think the pressure should be on mass manufacturers and conglomerates to expand their size ranges first, and then maybe indies would be more comfortable to follow suit.
    However it would be nice to see more indies catering to bigger sizes….

  4. Bitter Lollipop says:

    Very well said! Although I’m not a lingerie designer, I understand how intricate and difficult lingerie is to make, but many people do not. And it’s even more complicated for larger bust sizes. I feel this discussion applies to my business as well, because clothing in general is so universally accepted now as being cheap to make due to cheap manufacturing in developing countries. I do get a lot of people complaining that my prices are too high, but for me to produce in the UK and stay in business I have no choice. It’s going to take a lot more discussions and articles like this for people to actually take into account what is going on behind the scenes. Even putting manufacturing aside, the designers themselves do not get paid as much as people in other industries, as Angela said. It’s a fundamental problem in the creative industries that needs to be addressed.

  5. Angela Friedman says:

    Thank you thank you thank you. This is an extremely well worded response to the recent phenomena of Tumblr-entitled rants! It’s frustrating – I understand this because I can’t afford to buy luxury lingerie either. But part of the reason I can’t afford to buy it is because my job in designing and manufacturing clothing isn’t lucrative enough to pay me a salary on par with my friends who work in traditional jobs in the US. Until we break down those myths and barriers, we aren’t going to make any progress in lifting up the value and salaries of workers who do traditionally women’s work around the world.

  6. Victoria says:

    I’m not entirely convinced that this is a fair characterization of what was said in response to Arabelle Sicardi’s articl, at least on tumblr. A lot of the people criticizing it were chiefly concerned with a dearth of good options for poorer women who need larger sizes. I think people on both sides recognize how intractable this problem is on an individual level: ethical consumption isn’t going to unmake structural inequities, and emphasizing the need for ethical consumption just alienates poorer consumers who cannot afford moral products. I would like to see some more concrete recommendations – the weekly sale posts are great, and the gift roundups sorted by price range are also useful. Are there resources for bra donations or exchanges that TLA could cover?

    • Rose says:

      I think this is a really important point! In this article I tried to address the idea that structural inequities *need* to be unmade for the people in the US struggling to afford bras as well as for people overseas struggling to make a living making them. In the meantime, you’re right that we need to find ways to get by for people who cannot afford bras (because of unfair wage practices).

      As for resources: I’m open to readers making suggestions, and I’m open to doing a longer post on donations and exchanges in the future. I know Arabelle Sicardi periodically buys bras for trans people, and that Bluestockings has a post on where to donate a gently used bra. One of their organizations will also try to answer requests for bras on an application basis. Participating in clothing swaps with friends is also a great way to help and be helped on a local and sustainable level, although obviously that limits selection.

    • Michelle Cox says:

      Yeah- what recommendations are there if I need an uncommon size that isn’t sold in stores or at most online retailers and I actually can’t afford to pay more than $20 for a bra? While I would love to pay much more for indie, ethically produced lingerie, and I hope that day will come, I currently struggle to find anything in my size that I can afford at all.

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