As you get older, you need your bra to do more for you – but do you know what to look for? Here we’ll look at bra anatomy.
There are a number of facets to the structure of a good supportive bra that are crucial: seams in the cups, wide straps, a deep back section with multiple hooks, and firm fabrics without a lot of give. Bras of this type, let’s be honest, look better under clothing than they do on the body, but you’ll be glad you made the switch when you see how much younger a good bra can make you look. You need to avoid skimpy materials, skimpy cuts such as plunge and demi-cup, and moulded cups – none of these options offers enough support.
A good supportive bra should have at least one seam across the cup, either horizontal or diagonal, and should preferably have more. If you have sensitive nipples, look for bras with a lining so you don’t chafe. The polka dot two-section-cup bra at far left is from La Redoute.
Vertical seaming in the lower part of the cup adds another level of support, as seen at middle left in the Speciality T-shirt bra by Fantaisie. This three-section cup design is the best basic design for a supportive bra and is the first thing I now look for in a new bra. Wearing a bra like this can hoick your breasts a couple of inches back up your chest, resulting in a very youthful look.
Add another support section and you get more uplift again and in many cases this is done with ‘slings’. Visible in this peach Kristie bra from Elomi (left) is a sling running round the outside of the cup. Positioned here, a sling moves breast tissue out from under your arm towards the centre.
Other sling designs may encircle the whole breast to create clear, separate breast definition, as in this Softcup bra from Elila, right. The effect is similar to squeezing a breast with both hands – the whole thing points forwards. Yet other sling designs may be centrally positioned, as in this pink bra from Glamorise (far right). This supports the breast from the centre and creates uplift. When you get a four-section cup design like this one, you’re into serious levels of support and your boobs no longer jiggle when you walk. The slings may be hidden inside the bra, or incorporated into the outer structure of the cup.
Note that some well-designed bras have all the seaming on the inside and a t-shirt finish on the outside – if you’re buying online and can’t see the structure of the bra for yourself, read the description carefully. This Comfort Zone t-shirt bra by Goddess (left) is smooth on the outside so it won’t show under soft clothing, but inside has three-section cups with added slings.
The bra band
The bra band. Called the ‘bra frame’ in the trade, this is the part of the bra which does the actual job of support (about 80 per cent). The more support it needs to do, the deeper it needs to be. For maximum support, the band should run all the way round your body and the cups should be set into it, as you can see in this bra from Elila (right). The cups should not be joined together by a separate piece at the front, as is more common in bra designs such as this black Wonderbra (far right). The band should be deep enough for a three-hook closure at the back (or more if you prefer, especially if you carry weight in this area). Reverse psychology is at work here, as most women prefer a thin back band because they think it won’t show, but in fact, the deeper the back band is and the more like a harness teh bra looks, the more it will disappear under your clothing.
A supportive bra needs thick, strong shoulder straps that are either rigid or do not have too much stretch. This tends to look frumpy, so canny designers sometimes get round this by making the straps double, which means they can reduce the width of each, or by making them lacy, so at least they look feminine. Some designs are wide over the top of the shoulder, where it’s needed most but are narrower at the back.
If your straps dig into the tops of your shoulders, you can buy supports from Figleaves, which you tuck under your straps, but bear in mind that if your bra is cutting you this hard, it means it’s not supporting you sufficiently from below – your straps should only have to cope with about 20 per cent of the breast weight, with the bra band doing the main job of uplift. This Jacquard bra by Elila has floating shoulder pads under its triple-ply non-stretch straps and is designed to do some serious support work – cups F through L.
The back shape
Whether the back is a leotard shape (shown right) or the shoulder straps meet the back band at a 90 degree angle (called a ‘camisole shape’) is a matter of preference. The latter usually gives you more options on the closure – up to four settings, while the leotard design usually offers only 2-3 settings. The leotard design is better for narrow shoulders because it prevents the shoulder straps from slipping down. If your shoulder straps routinely slip off your shoulders, look for a leotard or even a racer-back bra.
The arrival of the Internet now means that you can get reviews of many products before you buy them. Log onto Figleaves as a first port of call and take a look at what other women recommend. This is the best way to find which manufacturers’ cup sizes come up large or small, for instance.
It goes without saying (I hope) that you should have a bra fitting once a year. Your breasts change constantly, and you need to keep abreast (hah hah) of those changes.
A well-fitting bra should bring your nipple up to halfway between your shoulder and your elbow (or above). Lower than this and you’ll start to look matronly.
Although the fitter will measure you, there are some favours you can do yourself:
* Take along a lightweight blouse, a t-shirt (if you wear them) and a sweater, and when you find a bra you like, see how it looks under your regular clothing.
* Sit down and bend forward – when you do this, your ribcage widens, so you’ll soon see if your bra is cutting into you. Then stand up and raise your arms above your head – the bra shouldn’t budge, ride up etc. The bra band should fit snugly against your breastbone, without a gap.
* Ask the fitter to slide her hand under the back strap and turn her hand sideways. She should be able to do this relatively easily, but not be able to pull the back band any further.
* Buy your bra to fit on the loosest set of hooks. As time goes by, the fabric will stretch, and you’ll need the extra sets of hooks to keep the back band tight.
* Unless it’s for a special occasion, such as your own wedding, don’t buy a bra that you can’t wear comfortably all day – don’t ignore warning signs such as scratchy lace, underwires that stick into your armpit, or the tops of the cups digging into you etc. After a few hours, they become purgatory.
* Be prepared to try on many different manufacturers to get the right fit. Every manufacturer has a different ‘fit model’ and the chances of your breasts being the same size or in the same position as hers are remote. You will probably find that you are different cup sizes in different makes, and that is perfectly normal, but if you find a manufacturer you like, it can be well worth sticking with them.
Next: Bra savvy part three – what to avoid