What’s more important, size or fit?

How does your bra size influence how you shop?

Size is a sensitive issue for women. Despite the fact that a dress size is just a number, when we shop that number assumes a huge significance. It can even dictate which brands and retailers we shop with, since the same size is not always the same size, depending on where you are. Nor, it seems, is size the same as it used to be, as changing sizes mean a 12 today is no longer the 12 it was back then.

But all this just goes to show what an emotive issue size is, and bra size is really no different. However, while many of us would like to fit into a smaller dress size, when it comes to bras the opposite is just as likely to be true. And if dress size is normally pretty clear cut – if you can’t do up the zip you can’t wear it – with bras there is much greater ambiguity. An ill-fitting bra may not flatter, may lack support and may be uncomfortable, but the truth is that a woman can go through her entire life wearing one.

And, like dress size, bra size can impact how and where we shop. Its influence on things like bra fittings, frequency of purchase and amount spent is something we were debating in the Fashion Bust office – whether bras play a more important role in the lives of women with fuller busts because comfort and support is so much more important, or whether the variety in style, choice and price of A-D cup bras means this size group are more active lingerie shoppers.

So we did our research, and here are the results.

Quick facts

  • The average bra size of the UK woman, according to our survey, is a 34E.
  • Nearly two thirds of respondents are over a DD cup.
  • Fuller busted women report higher rates of discomfort from their bras.
  • Those who spend less than £20 per bra are the most uncomfortable, regardless of bra size.
  • Price paid per bra has significantly more impact on comfort levels above a DD cup.
  • A recent bra fitting reduces reported levels of discomfort.

To start with we divided our sample into three groups by cup size: AAA-AA, A-D and DD plus. Almost two thirds (62%) fall into the DD plus bracket, 36% are A-D cups and only 2% are AAA-AA.

A quick look at the data shows that fuller busted women not only spend more per bra and buy more bras a year but are potentially better educated about their bra size. Nearly half (46%) reported having had a fitting in the last six months, and only a quarter had left it longer than a year since their last fitting. Just 10% have never been fitted.

In comparison, more than 50% of the A-D cup segment have either never had a fitting or not been fitted in the last five years. The stats are similar for the AAA-AA cup women.

Fuller busted women also purchase new bras more frequently – although not as frequently as the smallest size bracket. Those with AAA-AA cups buy on average 15 new bras per year, A-D cups just eight, and DD plus buy 11. The latter group also reported more recent purchases, with 47% having bought a new bra in the last month and a further 30% in the last three months. Only 28% of A-D cup women have bought a new bra this recently.

There is also a significant difference in how much the three groups are prepared to spend. On average the maximum is £37.50 per bra, but fuller busted women will push their budget up to £40 while the maximum average spend of those with A-D cups drops to £34. It’s even lower for the smallest size range at just £25 per bra.

But just because fuller busted women buy more bras and spend more on them doesn’t necessarily mean they are more successful bra shoppers. By successful we mean whether they are more or less likely to find bras that fit and are comfortable given their different size criteria.

Taken as a whole, 54% of women struggle to find bras that fit them. Divide these women by size and the differences are striking. All women in the AAA-AA group find bras that fit hard to come by compared with just 46% of A-D cup women. However, 59% of those with fuller busts are struggling.

It would be easy to say that this must be because they find it harder to find bras full stop, and this is certainly true for the smallest sizes. But while lack of availability may well be a factor for the DD plus bracket, it’s unlikely to be the whole story. As breast size increases, finding a fit that provides the right combination of shape, support and comfort becomes more complex, and comfort is definitely an issue for this group. Almost 20% report frequent discomfort from wearing their bras, compared with only 9% of A-D cup women and none of our AAA-AA group. The majority in all cases report occasional discomfort.

So we decided to look at little deeper to see what, if anything, these uncomfortable women are doing about it. Across all groups, those who say they find it hard to buy bras that fit are less likely to have had a fitting than women in their size group in general, although those with fuller busts are more likely to have gone for a recent fitting than their smaller busted counterparts. It’s worth noting here that women who say they struggle to find bras that fit but who have been for a recent fitting are much less likely to report frequent discomfort than those who have not been fitted recently, or have never been fitted – which suggests that a bra fitting can help solve fit and comfort issues.

There is a second point of interest in this group of fuller busted women – those who struggle with fit and suffer frequent discomfort – and that is that 65% of them state their maximum spend per bra as either less than £10 or between £10 and £20. In fact, this group as a whole is prepared to spend significantly less per bra (£28 on average) than fuller bust women in general.

It is also worth pointing out at this stage that taking a bra above a D/DD cup is not simply a matter of deciding to broaden the size range. Fuller cup bras are not the same bras as smaller sizes. They are engineered differently to provide greater support, and this is one of the reasons why many smaller brands stop at a D and why there many more budget lines of bras in A-D cup sizes available on the high street. So it is plausible that price is more of a factor for comfort in the larger sizes.

Taking all those whose maximum spend is no more than £20 out of the sample does somewhat improve overall comfort levels, and if you look at the experiences of this group it’s possible to see why. Just over half of all women have problems finding bras that fit; 85% of our lower price bracket group have this problem. It’s a similar story for reported levels of discomfort, at 88% compared with 95%, but the most striking difference is in frequent discomfort – more than a quarter of low spenders often experience discomfort from their bras compared with 15% across the whole sample.

Divide this group by size range and the difference is even more marked. 100% of all fuller busted women in this group find their bras uncomfortable and 44% of them report frequent discomfort. That’s huge compared with the 10% of low spending A-D cup women who report frequent discomfort.

If price is an indicator of quality (and we do know this isn’t always the case), then cheaper, lower quality bras seem to have much more an impact on fuller busted women. In other words, smaller busted women can get away with spending less per bra because the consequences of an imperfect fit are more manageable. For those with DD plus cups, a poor quality bra that does not provide sufficient support can cause more serious problems.

This doesn’t mean that the simple solution is spend more money. For a start, this is not always an option. And there are strong correlations with bra fitting that can’t be ignored. Most women from both groups are still struggling with fit, but 44% of the DD plus women who spend no more than £20 have never had a bra fitting. There is a similar decrease in bra fittings across all size ranges in this price bracket, which suggests that those who spend less are among the most likely to be suffering as a result of a badly fitting bra. Without ever having had a fitting, those above a DD cup especially are unlikely to be in the right size, and cheap bra or expensive one, it’s just not going to be comfortable.

Price is an individual choice and budgets are not always flexible, but bra fittings are free, so why aren’t more women having them? Because with bras, even more so than clothes, it always comes back to fit. Size is a number, while fit encompasses comfort, support and appearance. There are, of course, many reasons why women are not going for fittings, but in amongst them is the attachment some of us have to a certain size – the size we think we should be. Which begs the question, do we, as women, place more importance on size than on fit? And if so, isn’t it time we changed?

According to our data, a recent bra fitting can have a significant impact on comfort levels. Among women who have had a fitting in the last six month, regardless of size, only 46% struggle to find bras that fit. Across the whole sample that figure is 54%. Two thirds of these women are in the DD plus group, and their rates of frequent discomfort are almost half the average for their size group. Given how much of a problem discomfort seems to be, that cannot be ignored.

So, ladies, whatever size you are or think you are, go for a fitting! If you’ve never had one because you’re nervous about it, read our article on what happens in a bra fitting. And if you don’t believe that a well fitted bra can make a difference, take a look at this reader’s account of the impact a new bra had on her. With such a vast array of brands available at all price points, and possibly the broadest size range of any country, there’s no reason to suffer from a bad fit. Especially not because we can’t let go of the number and the letter we have decided are right for us.

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