Though the average bra size in America is a 34DD, consumers seeking support in this size or larger will be hard-pressed to find something that fits.
The U.S. retail industry has made significant progress toward body inclusivity in recent years, with an influx of retailers moving into plus sizes and models over size 12 finally appearing with some regularity on the runway. However, intimate apparel is still lagging behind, particularly among mass retailers. Though brands like The Limited and Loft have begun servicing a more diverse array of body types, Victoria’s Secret — still the leading company in the women’s lingerie market, which in total is estimated to be valued at $14.2 billion this year — doesn’t make bras above a DDD.
In response, brands including Lane Bryant and emerging startups are working to address the void of intimate apparel for larger-chested women. Their goal is to create products that aren’t just supportive, but also stylish and sexy, in a way that the rest of the American industry has seemingly ignored.
Europe paves the way for extended sizing in lingerie
The sizing disparity in the U.S. is a stark difference from the European market, particularly in the U.K., which has long boasted a smattering of options for women above a size DD. Cora Harrington, founder of the blog Lingerie Addict, said brands like Bravissimo and Elomi have played a significant role in raising awareness around demand for larger sizes in England, a movement that has been slow moving in America.
“If you want to see where the innovation is in the DD-plus cup market, you have to move beyond American brands. You won’t see it at Victoria’s Secret, or even startups,” she said. “Innovation is being led by brands in Europe that are doing a much better job at serving the needs of this customer.”
Harrington said a major barrier for the U.S. market is a fixation on fast fashion and buying lingerie on the cheap, which compromises quality across sizes, but particularly extended sizes. In order to properly support a heavier chest, craftsmanship and materials that can be hard to come by are required, and the American shopper often doesn’t want to deal with that.
“Americans — especially in this Walmart and Target sales culture — feel they shouldn’t have to pay more than $25 for a bra,” Harrington said. “You’re not going to get a high-quality bra for that kind of price.”
Another factor is that, for the most part, American society still struggles to embrace women with curves, said Nadia Boujarwah, founder of the plus-size styling service Dia&Co.
“When it comes to intimate apparel, our community has often been told that they should be focusing on hiding or minimizing their body,” Boujarwah said. “Or, on the flip side, they’ve been overly sexualized. With either extreme, we’re not seeing a range of options that reflect the diversity of ways women really want to dress, and that needs to change.”
Struggling to scale
However, it’s expensive (particularly for small boutiques) to scale for a larger array of sizes. Among mass retailers in the U.S., Torrid and Lane Bryant are two of the top extended-size bra sellers.
“Frankly, in looking at the mass market and having inventory in your store, it’s a big investment,” said Alissa Hines, associate vice president of Lane Bryant’s lingerie line Caique. “Doing 78 sizes is part of our business proposition, and our objective is to offer a wide size offering. That’s part of our brand DNA. We can make a big business case for it, but it’s harder when you’re looking at inventory efficiency in certain stores.”
Hines echoed Harrington and said fit is particularly important for all women, but particularly larger-chested women. Women with bust sizes bigger than DD are significantly more likely to suffer from back pain and discomfort, especially while engaging in physical activity. In a study from the University of Portsmouth Research Group in Breast Health, 17 percent of respondents said lacking a supportive bra prevented them from working out.
As a result, Hines said Lane Bryant performs extensive wear testing and works closely with a panel of 1,000 customers that give feedback on new styles and models. “It’s not easy to do it well. You need to have technical capabilities that are different. It’s a different problem and solution that’s needed for the solution. There’s a bit of expertise involved in creating a product that works and is comfortable and valuable.”
Still, even with Lane Bryant’s large assortment of sizes, it only recently began selling I, J and K cups. Hines said she has large-busted friends that, for many years, have shelled out for bras abroad out of pure necessity.
“Generally, these bras are a higher price and harder to find, unless you know where to look for them,” she said. “It’s a category that you don’t want to be challenging, because you have to buy bras, and you want to feel pretty while wearing them.”
Startups try their hand at extended sizes
In response to the lack of extended sizes in the U.S., a growing pool of emerging e-commerce companies have emerged, touting more sizes, styles and services. However, their claims aren’t always substantiated.
Heidi Zak, co-CEO of the e-commerce startup ThirdLove, founded her company alongside her husband in 2013, inspired by her personal struggle to find a truly comfortable bra that didn’t have stabbing underwire, gaping cups or ill-fitting straps. Before settling on lingerie, the couple had been interested in starting their own company in the growing direct-to-consumer e-commerce industry, and Zak saw it as an opportunity to offer what stores like Victoria’s Secret seemed to be lacking.
Zak said the mission was always to create “bras for all women, of all shapes, all sizes, all colors.” Much like peers like True & Co, the message of the brand is now to serve as a refuge for weary consumers unable to find their sizes. However, as reporter Amanda Mull notes in a recent Racked article, True & Co is only selling up to 38DD, the same as Victoria’s Secret. When she addressed co-founder and CEO Michelle Lam about the oversight, Lam responded that the company was working on it and that it wanted to take its time to identify better fits.
In response, Mull writes: “The technology exists to make bras for larger people, and it can be done alongside making them for smaller people. It can be done before a brand launches. Companies are always asking women over a certain size to wait just a little longer, apologize just a little more about the scale of difficulty their very common bodies represent, and be just a little more grateful that anyone is getting around to them at all.”
Zak, however, asserts that extended sizing was always part of her business. ThirdLove recently added 16 additional sizes, up to a 46K, a decision that came directly from consumer feedback from comments on the site’s “Fit Finder” feature, as well as Facebook. Zak said the data the brand collects has been invaluable to design and was particularly helpful in beta testing the larger styles.
From a functional standpoint, a bra for a larger-chested woman may require more supportive materials that differ from a smaller size, but Zak said that doesn’t mean they needed to skimp on being fashionable.
“It’s fundamentally not any different than what we did with our core product. It’s not like we said we’re going to create something different for this size group,” she said. “Just because you’re a 38H doesn’t mean you don’t want a bra that’s a beautiful color or has lace or is super soft. The woman who wears this size wants the exact same thing as someone wearing a 34C.
As part of Third Love’s process, shoppers are allowed to test out a bra for 30 days and send it back free of charge, if desired. Once the larger sizes debuted, Zak said the return rates for consumers over size DD were significantly lower than smaller sizes, in part because the lack of options on the market.
For all the promises among the startup companies, Harrington, founder of Lingerie Addict, said major department stores and boutiques in the U.S. have dramatically approved their offerings in the last five years. With help and sourcing from the European brands, the inventory has increasingly catered to demand for bras above size DD.
The larger challenge will be moving away from a culture that prioritizes quantity over quality, she said, while at the same time expanding shopping horizons beyond mass brands.
“Companies aren’t confident that they can actually sell [larger sizes] at a profit and without going out of business,” Harrington said. “In America, we have a situation where the bulk of our industry is taken up by one brand, Victoria’s Secret, which pulls the norm in one direction.”
Image courtesy of Elomi