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What Makes a Supportive Full Bust Bra Work?

Kimtimates concept balconette bra, suspender belt and panty

Kimtimates concept balconette bra, suspender belt and panty

It's an unusual experience for people who wear over a D cup to go into a store and be able to try on *any* style they like. But more and more, fashionable brands are expanding into fuller cup sizes, meaning the cute bras at department stores and lingerie boutiques fit more people.

Brands that previously made only "core sizes" (typically 32A through 36D or DD) started noticing that boutiques use sizing methods other than "plus four." Many people are wearing bras with a smaller band and larger cup than core sizes provide, and some of those sizes are finally making their way into stores.

Lonely Lingerie Cyd Bib bra, available up to 32F/34E/36DD

Lonely Lingerie Cyd Bib bra, available up to 32F/34E/36DD

I typically wear a 34F, so I'm right in that smaller full cup range that designers often begin expanding into. "Up to a G cup!" reads the tag on many mass-market bras nowadays. What an awesome feeling, to go into a shop I was previously sized out of and try on a super cute bra that I actually fit into! But while additional sizes are always good news when it comes to accessibility, it doesn't mean that the bras provide the best support for larger cup sizes.

I was stoked to buy the Stella McCartney Cherie Sneezing bra, since it now comes in my size (and larger!), but it just isn't engineered for larger breasts. The pretty elastic rolls onto itself when presented with the extra weight, the band is super stretchy, and the cute mermaid-shell-esque cups let my breasts just kind of... sit in them, rather than really giving any support.

Stella McCartney Cherie Sneezing bra, via ASOS

Stella McCartney Cherie Sneezing bra, available up to 34F/36E UK, via ASOS

This isn't an experience unique to this bra, either. I've tried on so many bras from really great companies, new and old, big and small, who have extended their sizes up to an F or G cup, and the fit just isn't there. But there are so many brands making comfortable full cup bras that have great fit and beautiful lift. What do those specialty bras have that others don't?

When a bra is sized up, it takes more engineering than, say, a t-shirt. For a t-shirt, you really only need to make it wider around, maybe a little bit longer.

For a bra, there are so many aspects that need to be adjusted, and sheer size is just one of them. But I'm not a full cup lingerie designer (hell, I'm not even a contour designer), so I spoke with someone who makes exclusively full cup lingerie: Leanna Williams, director of the full bust luxury lingerie line Harlow & Fox.

Harlow and Fox Augusta bra, suspender and panty in teal

Harlow and Fox Augusta bra, suspender and panty in teal

"Full bust bras, by the very nature of needing to support a greater volume of weight, have multiple further considerations that aren’t applicable to core sizes," says Williams. If a company scales up a 36B to a 30DD with no structural changes, the wearer might have straps digging into her shoulders, fabric stretching too far, and underwires bending all over the place.

Straps on a 38G vs. 32B bra by Heidi Klum

Straps on a 38G bra vs. straps on a 32B bra by Heidi Klum

Almost every aspect of a bra needs to be readjusted for larger cup sizes, starting with thicker straps. Pretty, thin elastic straps are probably not going to cut it. Although most of the support of a bra should come from the band, the straps often need to be made of a thicker, sturdier elastic for D+ cup styles.

It's more expensive to source multiple widths of the same elastic, and it can change the look of the bra, so manufacturers who are sizing up often skip this detail during development. However, stretched-out, rolling elastic is not a good look, and not a helpful feature.

This Fantasie bra, designed specifically for larger cups, uses a floral lace that is bonded to a sturdy mesh for extra support in the cup.

This Fantasie bra, designed specifically for larger cups, uses a floral lace that is bonded to a sturdy mesh for extra support in the cup.

Another aspect that is sometimes overlooked during grading is the need for sturdier fabrics. Stretch-lace bra cups are so pretty, comfortable, and delicate-looking, but they just don't work for larger cup sizes.

Cute stretch lace bras that come in my size are like roller coaster rides; they start with joy and excitement and end with immediate disappointment upon trying them on. It often feels like wearing a crop top with an underwire. When materials are sturdier, bras are more supportive.

If you're interested in a stretch lace cup that comes in larger sizes, check to see if it has a non-stretch mesh or similar thin woven fabric lining that will keep the cup from stretching out as soon as you put it on. Plus, check the stretchiness of a band's fabric. I've tried on bras with thick and sturdy elastic in the larger sizes, but the fabric had no additional lining and was just as stretchy as the smaller sizes.

A Gossard bra sized 30B is unlined and sling-less, while the same bra in a 30G has a sling added for more support.

A Gossard bra sized 30B is unlined and sling-less, while the same bra in a 30G has a sling added for more support.

Side slings are a small but important addition. Slings are those strips of fabric on the inside of a bra that stretch across the bottom outer corners of the cups. They help lift the tissue up and out, and can be the difference between a bra that has decent lift and a bra that is shockingly comfortable, very supportive, and provides a narrow silhouette.

An array of graded underires from Kimtimate's Underwires 102 blog post.

An array of graded undewires from Kimtimate's Underwires 102 blog post.

If you have ever worn a bra in a larger size with a thin plastic underwire, you know how important more rigid wires are. Full bust blogger Sweet Nothing's interview with Kim Hamilton, the brain behind the full-bust-focused business Kimtimates, illuminates a lot of the unique challenges designers face when making larger bras. And although she speaks in particular about the G+ market, many of these concepts are applicable to the smaller full bust market as well.

"Developing a heavier gauge wire for stability is key in larger sizes," says Hamilton, who wrote a four-part series on underwire education, so she definitely knows what she's talking about. When a bra feels like it's bending over your ribcage as you move, a flimsy underwire could be the culprit. Look for bras with metal wires instead of plastic ones, and thicker wire over thinner.

One more reason that it's not enough to simply grade a pattern up evenly: breasts don't get larger evenly. Larger breasts have more projection, and need more space because of it. This became apparent to me when I was in Paris last year and spent way, way too much money at Fifi Chachnil, my favorite designer since forever. Fifi recently expanded her size range and I was able to buy a bra that actually fit me.

Fifi Chachnil Boujour Paris bra, available up to 34F/36E.

Fifi Chachnil Boujour Paris bra, available up to 34F/36E. It's just so pretty!!

I love my Fifi Chachnil lingerie! They are some of the most beautifully-made, sweetly-detailed pieces I own. But the bra makes me look rather flat. The cups fit around all my tissue without cutting in at the top, the underwires are in an OK spot, but from the side, it looks like I'm wearing a minimizer. This is one of those styles that would benefit from additional projection in the cup in larger sizes.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important aspect of a full-cup bra: specially-developed patterns. Since many sizes share cup volume with one another, an easy way to make a bra in an extended size (and what I assume many brands do) is to simply grade up, or scale up, a pattern.

But even if the calculations for breast volume are correct, larger breasts on a smaller frame require different shapes for the best support. "A wire for a 38D could be used to make a 32F, but those two bodies are likely to have very different breast shapes," says Williams. "It’s much better to create a specific pattern just for that size segment, fit it on bodies of women in that size segment, and alter grade rules and pattern shapes to work specifically for them."

These two Montelle bras have essentially the same "look" but are technically two different styles; the top is a demi bra available in core sizes, and the bottom is a full cup bra that comes in a range of larger sizes.

These two Montelle bras have essentially the same "look" but are technically two different styles; the top is a demi bra available in core sizes, and the bottom is a full cup bra that comes in a range of larger sizes.

A pattern change isn't typically noticeable. However, when a brand just can't get a bra to work at larger sizes, they'll sometimes change the style from a demi cup to a full cup past a certain size. In those cases, the bra just won't be supportive for larger sizes in the original shape, so the design team makes the decision to alter it. It can be confusing and frustrating to try on a cute demi bra, only to find that your size has much more coverage. However, the support wouldn't be there otherwise.

So next time you lament that a pretty bra doesn't come in your size, consider that if it did, it might look like a completely different bra. Or it might not support you the way you want it to.

If you wear full bust bras, what has been your experience with core-sized lines that have started making extended sizes? Do you value the look of a bra over the support it provides?

Quinne Myers

Quinne Myers is a lingerie expert living in Brooklyn, NY, where she creates quippy written content, crafts dreamy illustrations, and runs the ethically-made loungewear line, she and reverie.

16 Comments on this post

  1. Great article! I totally agree that larger busts need more support because of weight. I found that adding a lining to bras makes a huge difference. And that yes for soft bras your boobs sit there and look pretty and they don’t actually support.

  2. Sassy says:

    I disagree that the Stella McCartney bra isn’t supportive. I’m a 34F and it lifts nicely without too much coverage. Support shouldn’t have to equal have the entirety of your breast tissue covered in fabric. I’m really sick of bra designers thinking that full busted women want to minimize. I want push-up and more than a half inch of cleavage.

  3. Sandy says:

    Is there any chance there is a supportive full bust pattern without underwires? I find them extremely uncomfortable. I would love to make my own bras for myself (and my twin daughters).

    • Quinne says:

      What size are you looking for? There really isn’t anything supportive without a wire for anything over a DD cup. Trusst Lingerie makes a bra with a platform instead of an underwire but I personally don’t find it more comfortable than underwire bras. I recommend getting fitted or re-fitting yourself, because if the underwire is digging into you, it might just be the wrong size.

    • Susan says:

      Try some of the very structured sports bras from Anita. No underwires, good support, sweat wicking lining, stretchy side panels, comfy straps. I live in them. For example:

  4. Christine says:

    I have just taken Madalynne 1 on 1 bra class to make my own. I am a 36 DDD and I am beyond disgusted and annoyed that I can NEVER find ANYTHING that fits me properly without 3rd alien boob or smashed boob or deformed boob..Or If I do find something that actually FITS it is white or beige or black!!!I I WANT CUTE BRAS TOO!!!! .I learned so much from Maddie and now am on a mission to learn all I can and make my own. Thanks for the great article and keep them coming…#BIG BOOBS MATTER!!!!♡♡♡

  5. Anne says:

    Very interesting article, thank you. Do you know of good literature on how to grade bra patterns up ? I have started making my own bras and I need to understand how to modify patterns for a bigger size and right now, I am going in the dark. I started with cloning a bra I liked but would need it several sizes larger in the cup for a perfect fit. I can’t find anything specific on grading for larger sizes (40H in my case).

  6. Irene says:

    Thank you for the article, I really liked what the expert told. It is so true. You need much more support when you get a bigger bust…. How come so many of the manufacturers out there seem to believe the bigger volume is filled With weightless air? …. They would have been much closer if they considered the content to be like a somewhat Heavy water, and understood that the bigger bust needs that weight supported. And, when that weight is starting to wear Our bust downwards, we would also want the Control effect of the bra, that moves the tissue into a somewhat more flattering position.
    I hope that some day I will actually find a bra that gives me what I need and want. Being in the G+ segment, I am sure I have more than 20 not well fitting bras in my closet… And, I have found a couple of brands that I am sure I will not buy more of.

  7. Ellen Lewis says:

    Quinn, this is an excellent article! From both a personal and professional point of view, you have hit the nail on the head!

  8. Sharon says:

    I started my bra journey when I was in the 5th grade… And rapidly grew into a 16DD by the time I was 16… At that time the only thing available was granny bras… No lace, just supportive, ice ever been able to buy a bra a Kmart or target.. Now 4 kids later I’m a 20F. I breast feed for almost 8years straight. (At least it felt like it). I am a big believer in lift and seperate and support and pretty!
    I remember being in a major department store and lamenting and praying that if I ever had a daughter.. Please don’t let her have big boobs.
    I went to this store to get fitted… I needed my first underwire bra post babies for a wedding. I was handed maybe 4 bras… 2 of which fitted how I wanted one of which I purchased. It’s a Fayreform Coral… When I first Rd started wearing them it would hurt when I took it off… It is truly an 18hr bra! It has all the things you talked about… Sturdier fabrics, interlinings, thicker straps and 3hooks in the band. It’s now the only bra/brand I buy…
    Nothing else fits right… Or supports. Even my back pain has gone and it was chronic.
    I can’t take the chance of trying something else… I hate how much money it costs, although they do out last those pretty cheap bras.
    We have 2 plus size women’s stores in our country that have recently expanded they’re range to include bras and knickers… But they are designed by those who don’t have a clue… While they look nice they offer no support… Literally we were talking about this on Friday… One girl is a 10G she’s a tiny little thing that’s almost all boob! My daughter is also a weird size… Thankfully not large… But she started as an 8B and is now a 10C we’ve only found one brand that fits her properly… Chloe and Lola… She’s on the bottom edge where they start the sizing one after her… And I’m at the edge where they stop! And don’t get me started on panties.
    I want matching sets… I deserve to feel sexy! Matching sets stop at 18 or large… I’m the next up -20 from 20 up they become full waisted! Ok I know I’m uber fat.. I have an apron (a flap of fat skin that overhangs) but I want my panties to sit under that not in a roll. And I want a full bottom not some brazillion/g string.. So I’m not pulling it out of my butt crack all day… And on a bigger girl the gusset needs to be longer…
    Really want to make some serious money… Lingerie for plus sizes! And maternity for plus sizes!
    I’ll stop ranting now… Thanks for the article.

  9. jk says:

    Cups! I can’t count the number of times I’ve found a bra that is technically the right size but constructed so that the cups are all wrong. They cut across, if that makes sense. Suffice it to say the silhouette is one of a woman who needs to go up a cup size or two. Not flattering. But I’ve found bras of the same size by the same maker that are fine. As I said, frustrating.

    p.s Love this website!

  10. Rubaya Binte Siraj says:

    I lament the fact that most plus-sized brands create mainly unlined bras. As a woman who is shallow on the top I hate how it makes me look. The moulded bras mostly comes in single colours. It is also very hard to find push-up bras in bigger sizes.

  11. Emilia says:

    This is a great article! I think it pairs well with Karolina’s latest on Knickerbocker Stories and Sweet Nothings’ interview with Kim Hamilton and her Enigma Collection. I really appreciate these educational insights into the lingerie business and design. It’s nice to know why every brand can’t make every size, why things cost the amount they do, and so on.

  12. Evija says:

    The more you know. I never knew someone actually made bras with plastic underwires!

  13. Estelle says:

    Ohhh I wish I’d had this post to share a couple of weeks back! I was talking to someone on Facebook about the construction differences in DD+ and G+ bras and looking for examples to show them. They said brands like Curvy Kate and Panache Cleo were virtually the same in D-J/K sizes which may be true but I find it unlikely – I’d be really interested to see those bras in a store in sizes at both ends of the range and see if they really are the same, or if there are hidden extras like inner slings, lining, wider wires etc. that aren’t visible in the product photo.

    The only experience I’ve had of bra construction changing was a Gossard bra I bought in a 30E and 30F. The F had a wider band with a 3-column hook-and-eye fastening, compared to a narrow 2-column one on the E.

    Also, interesting what you note about projection – I do own rather a lot of 32DD bras that make me look a bit flat from the side. I’d never really put two and two together, but now I come to think of it, it’s mostly ones from core-sized brands that stop at DD that do that, and ones from full-bust brands *starting* at DD give me a much rounder shape.

    • Alison says:

      Most bras go to 3 hook at around a GG and the straps get wider. Usually top cup lace gets a lining too. I’m positive Cleo does most of those, but not the lace lining. To be fair, Curvy Kate and Cleo are probably less noticeable in their size related changes, but they are there.

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