The bra is possibly the most important - and most overlooked - piece in a woman's wardrobe. If it doesn't work, it's probably the most noticeable, too.
Most women can size up another's bad bra woes with a glance. It's just our own that can keep us in a pinch. Plus, there's the whole deal with denial. Many of us have changed ZIP codes far more often than we've changed bra sizes even though we know we need an update.
Where to start
Check your drawers. What's in there? Sports bras with worn-out elastic bands? Bras you've worn since giving birth? Those you've worn since that child started daycare, kindergarten, graduate school? You get the picture. If any of this is true, your bras need to be pitched.
Trained bra fitters say it's close to impossible to do a fitting yourself because it requires specific measurements with your arms at your sides so that the breasts fall just so.
Basically, this is what you can expect of a fitting: While undressed on top to the bra, you will have your bra checked by a female fitter. She then will take a few tape measurements to figure out what sort of bra offender you are.
Typically, the formula for figuring out a bra size is done with two measurements. The first measures high across the shoulder blades and under the arms and above the fullest part of the breast. This gives you the band size. The next measures around and over the fullest part of the breast. Subtract the first measurement from the second. The result will give a trained fitter your cup size.
Leilani Matthews, a body fashion specialist for Dillard's department stores, has been in the bra-fitting business since age 18. Suffice it to say, this veteran bra fitter has developed an eye for finding the right bra for her customers. She says that the correct way to try on a bra is by leaning forward and allowing the breasts to fall into the cups. Once the customer is standing tall, the band is affixed and fits low and snug. The straps are then adjusted.
You should be able to put an index finger under the back band and squeeze. The breasts themselves shouldn't spread under the bra cups or appear to be mashed under the arm pits. Each should separate and lift, not be lying on the chest wall or waist. And that little flowerette or nob at the center of the bra should lie flat against the chest wall.
Recently, we put out a call to readers and asked them to share their bra disasters. We got about a dozen responses, although a few wimped out in the end. The promise was that those who agreed to makeovers provided by Dillard's would receive a free fitting and bra.
Cheryll Meyer was among our bra troopers. "My boobs are definitely drooping," said the 47-year-old mother and newsclipping service manager. Meyer said she gained a bit of weight over the past year and only buys bras periodically. "I just bought two bras at Big Lots the other day," she said.
Nevertheless, she realizes the importance of wearing a good bra. "I have never had anybody fit me," she said nervously on the day of her fitting. "It's important that I have good support, but I've just been putting it off. Women with their bras are like men with directions - we don't want to ask for help."
But Meyer optimistically met with bra fitter Matthews, who sized her up, did a few measurements and quickly scrambled to find a few new bras.
Matthews tried a seamed bra on her new client. "Isn't that awesome," she asked, already knowing the answer.
While Meyer was a bit befuddled that her cup increased by four sizes, she was impressed by the overall look and fit of the Wacoal bra. She grinned as she reviewed her profile in the dressing-room mirror. "It's comfortable. I feel like that's taken care of now. I'm not slipping. Everything is in place and not falling out," she said.
Alison Love, 41, said price often keeps her from buying new bras. Plus, she said, "It's so hard to find a good-fitting one."
Like Meyer, Love had never had an official fitting before. Yet she appeared unhampered by the idea of having a stranger examine and measure her.
Matthews wanted an underwire bra that lifts and separates, but it took a moment to find one, as Love measured in between two sizes.
"It's a nice full look, but not bubbly," Love said, smiling at her reflection. Then she added, "but I would have never expected to be in this size. It's probably the reason I had never found a good-fitting bra. It's pretty shocking."
The band width on Love's Wacoal bra was two sizes smaller than what she usually buys.
"I'm sitting upright. I don't have the sagginess, and that's important," she said still admiring her new silhouette.
Then balling up the bra she came in wearing, she asked: "Can I throw this away?"
The focus right now in fashion, Matthews said, is on feminine lacy bras. Seamless ones are often preferred, although it's the bras with seams that give shape, she said.
But not all bras work for all clothing. Wearing knits? Try a seamless bra.
Wearing a suit jacket or blouse with darts? Then a seamed bra will offer more shape.
A demi bra - the kind with the straps hyper-extended to each shoulder - offers shape and less coverage underneath low-cut or U-shaped dresses or tank tops.
And active bras can be worn anytime, but are especially good for running, walking, even raking leaves. "It keeps the breast tissue from bouncing from side to side," Matthews explained.
Add to the mix the burgeoning variety of strapless bras and even adhesive cups that offer temporary coverage and support for special occasions.
Matthews is a proponent of underwire bras, which she believes "provide the most support without pressure" for women of any size.
But don't just walk into a store and buy one. She admonishes women to get fitted first. "Do you buy shoes without trying them on?" she asked. "Every time you buy a bra you should get fitted."
Most department stores offer free fittings, especially with special-purchase promotions. Most custom bra shops do, too, but it may be by appointment only.
While some women's special situations may require custom fits, most should be able to find a good-fitting bra, right off the rack.
Women who have had breast augmentation or a partial or double mastectomy can shop regular stores as long as they're pragmatic about it. "When someone has breast implants, the breast is firm and you can't change the shape of the implant," Matthews explained.
A stretch bra might be the best bet to fit. Silicone gel enhancers can also help women who have had a mastectomy. Nursing moms also have special needs.
"They need a bra that offers the maximum amount of support because tissue is at its heaviest then," Matthews said. But beware. Matthews advises nursing mothers to avoid bras with a lot of stretch in them; too much can enhance the bounce factor. Yet, 75 percent of those available to nursing mothers, she said, will be stretchy because "they accommodate more tissue" and people tend to think of them as being more comfortable.
Wondering how long those slingers will last you anyway?
A bra worn every day, Matthews said, will last about three months. Blame that short life span on the elasticity of the garment. To preserve yours, she says, bras should be washed by hand. But they can also be thrown into a lingerie bag (hooked first) and then washed in the washing machine. However, they should never be tossed in the dryer, which only accelerates the deterioration process.
Avoid wearing your bra two days in a row, too, Matthews said, because "body heat helps to wear them out."
In particular, she said, Lycra stretches when it's warm. "You need to let it rest," she explained. "And it takes 24 hours for Lycra to cool off."
Look at your bras as investments and expect to pay anywhere from US$20 for a private labeled one to US$30 for a mass-marketed brand to as much as US$200 for a fancy designer one.
At least there's one place you don't have to worry about sporting a bra - to bed.
"It's a personal preference," Matthews said. "I don't know of any real reason to wear one to bed."
How do you know if your bra fits well?
You should be able to get:
A two-inch pinch in the back band
A thumb under the shoulder straps
The center tack to rest against the chest wall
All of the tissue encompassed in the bra cup.