Bra fitting: why the 'Plus Four' method is outdated and you should always try bras on!
This week, Ann Summers launched their brand new bra fitting guide. Like the fitting guides of retailers Marks and Spencer, Simply Yours, Victoria's Secret and Playtex, it follows the plus four method to find your correct size.
The problem is, many lingerie experts now believe that +4 is an outdated and erroneous. Though it works for some, for many others (myself included) it can result in ill-fitting bras, painful red marks, backache, bad posture and much more. Lingerie blogger Invest in Your Chest has already taken on Ann Summers, while Busts 4 Justice has been battling 'The War On Plus Four' for a while.
We're with them in this fight, and if you want to know why, just read on...
About 'Plus Four'
The 'plus four' method is the traditional way to measure for a bra.
It involves first measuring tightly under the bust with a tape measure. If the measurement in inches is even, you add four (hence 'plus four') to get the band size. If it's odd, you add five.
Then you loosely measure around the fullest part of your bust. This gives you an indication of cup size. You take the band size away from this number, and each inch that's left correlates to a cup size. So 1 = A, 2 = B, 3 = C and so on. This (terrifying) video from Playtex (who actually add up to six inches) explains this measuring method in great detail. Watch this, scoff, and ignore it!
Why it doesn't work now:
One of the reasons the old measuring technique is unreliable now is because technology - especially where fabrics are concerned - has moved on. When the first bras were designed there was no lycra / spandex / elastane. Bra bands didn't have stretch or give the way they do now. They were mostly made from stiff fabrics like cotton and satin, and were made to very specific measurements. The plus four was to allow for ease, which is needed in stiff fabrics to let you move. Historically, bras were cut a lot smaller than they are now.
Ease isn't needed in stretch fabrics in the same way. The stretch itself is the ease! Take my measurements and three of my bras as an example:
The measurement under my bust is 32.5 inches, and I have been fitted as a 32E, 34DD and 34E respectively, depending on the brand and the fitter. I have a selection of bras in each size. So the maximum I am adding is +2, half of the recommended amount.
The Curvy Kate Portia in a 34E, one of my best-fitting bras, has a band that's 28 inches wide when laid flat. Stretched out, the band easily goes up to 35". That's a stretchability factor of a whopping seven inches and two and a half inches of stretch more than I need for a firm, supportive fit.
The Panache Eliza in the same size has a band of 27" that stretches to 36".
The Fantasie 'Florence' bra in a 34E has a non-stretched band of 30 inches. Stretch it out as far as it will go, it'll accomodate up to 38 inches. That's eight inches of stretch!
All these bras comfortably fit my body and provide the support I need. The size that the plus four method recommends to me - a 36C or 38B depending - wouldn't do this. Before I've even put them on, most bras with a 36 or 38 inch band would be bigger than my underbust measurement.
The plus four method is, quite simply, outdated. Of course there are women who find that the best band size for them is four inches larger than their underbust measurement (often those with smaller busts and slimmer figures - see this explained brilliantly over at The Lingerie Addict) but there are millions of others who need a different fit. On average, our boobs are getting larger, and we need more support than ever. Nobody should rely on a tape measure and a chart to tell them what will fit.
What's the alternative?
The newer and more effective way of fitting a bra relies on something so much more affective than a tape measure. Common sense.
It trusts our ability to tell for ourselves if something fits or not (with a little expert help, of course). It's about educating women to recognise a bra that fits vs a bra that's supposed to fit, and identify the signs of a bad bra. The video below from BraStop gives a really good idea of what you're aiming for and there's also a great video on The Holy Fit website.
Most good bra fitters will try a woman in a bra with a band size similar to the measurement under the bust to begin with. Some take a measurement, but a lot of long-time fitters will take a look at you in your current bra, find out what size it is and go by sight from there, getting you to try a few bras and asking along the way how it feels and checking the band is providing the right support until the perfect fit is found.
I cannot stress enough how important visiting a good bra fitter is, but if for some reason you just can't do that (if you're unable to travel, you feel uncomfortable undressing in front of a stranger etc) then you can use the above video as a guide to fitting at home.
If you're trying to fit yourself, your dress size can sometimes be an indication of where to begin too. It's not fail-safe by any means, but for decent percentage of women, band sizes correlate to dress size (UK) a little bit like this:
28" band = size 8
30" band = size 10
32" band = size 12
34" band = size 14
36" band = size 16
38" band = size 18 etc
Again, I must stress this is not a fail-safe method. All boobs and bodies are different and there are no rules! A lot of women carry more weight on their bottom half, so may find their band size is lower than the above. This is just a very vague guide that might save you trying on ten bras when you could try five.
When it comes to cup size, the most important thing to remember is that cups are always sized in proportion to the band they sit on. The cup on a 30B bra is not the same as the cup on a 36B bra. As you go down a band size, you will go up a cup to compensate, or vice versa. So a 36C cup is the same as a 34D and so on. If you're wearing the wrong band size now, your 'real' cup size may be much bigger than you think, despite the fact you don't think your boobs are very big. You need to make sure you're putting the bra on correctly too - you'll need to jiggle, scoop and rearrange to make sure all the breast tissue is in the cup and not sitting under the band, poking out the sides or redistributing itself as 'back fat'. See Bravissimo's guide to putting on a bra for more on that! Doing this correctly can help you go down a dress size - with your boobs in the right place and all the flesh in the cup, those annoying side zips in dresses are much easier to deal with!
It's worth noting that when I was erroneously fitted as a 38B, the cups weren't noticeably small on me, it was just that the band was too big and the bra didn't support me properly. By sizing down to a 34 band, my cup size went up accordingly, but when you compare the cups, they're not that different and they definitely aren't the 'enormous' size some people seem to assume anything above a D cup is.
So why do a lot of brands stop at a D or DD cup?
Simple - most women think they are an A - D cup, and it costs a lot of money to expand a range if there's no demand for it. The same goes for band sizes. Until we all get fitted properly (remember that 80% of British women are wearing the wrong size) a wider range of sizes will remain difficult to find.
We've been taught to believe that a 'double D' and anything above it is 'massive'. Which is rubbish, basically. Because cup size is relative to band, the DD of a woman with a 32 or 34 band is nothing more than what could be described as a 'good handful'. The cups don't look huge, they just look big-ish. Clothed, this is what my DD/E boobs look like.
Hardly toppling over from the weight of them, am I?!
If more of us are happy to admit we don't fit the norm (and I mean smaller framed women who need a small band size too, not just women who need D+ cup sizes) the more we'll push brands to increase their sizes and change their fitting advice to suit.
Why you still need to try bras on:
All the above fitting advice is well and good, but we still need to remember that bras vary. You need to try them on to ensure a good fit and good support from a band that fits tightly, but not uncomfortably. Cups can vary too - some are wider, some are deeper. Some come up high, some are low-cut. Sometimes they're a bit small, other times, they're too big. You'll learn the style that works for you over time (and will probably find certain brands are a better fit than others as well). But as with clothing, each item in the same size can vary so always try on! If you can't get into a shop, most online retailers have great returns policies so you can order a bunch of sizes and send back the ones that don't work.
The three bras above are all the same size (32E) but you can see quite clearly that even before stretching, there's quite a big difference between the bands, especially between the red and the yellow styles. This could be for various reasons - perhaps the red bra is stretchier than the others, perhaps it's just cut a bit narrower, but it just shows that even after being fit to a specific size, you may need to chop and change a bit from bra to bra. Are all the clothes in your wardrobe exactly the same size? If not, why do you expect that your bras will be?
It's also worth noting that there are also some brands, like the vintage-inspired Kiss Me Deadly, that cut to a different sizing format and come up smaller than modern styles, yet another reason why there's no substitute for trying something on!
The rules recap!
* The plus four method works for some people, but fails a lot of others
* We need to trust ourselves, and the experts, to fit without a chart
* We need to learn that the bra BAND holds the weight, not the straps
* We need to realise that not everyone is a 30 - 38 band or a A - D cup
* We know that what works for a slim figure may not work for a fuller one (and vice versa)
* Even after being fitted, we may need to adjust sizing depending on the bra
* We need to realise that an E is not enormous, a G is not gigantic...
* We need to love our boobs, big or small, and fit them in the right bra!