I spent years buying the wrong bras. They were both too big (in the band) and too small (in the cup). I reinforced them with shelf-bra camis, shrouding myself in layers even under simple T-shirts.
But then I did the thing. You know — the thing we've all been told to do. I walked in a department store and shifted uncomfortably as an elderly lingerie maven wound a tape measure around my chest. Yup — I'd been wearing the wrong size all along.
Of course, knowing your "size" is only the beginning. Finding the right brand, the right style and the right support for your body is a process. Fortunately, it's one that's getting easier and easier to navigate. Below are eight things you should know before buying your next bra.
1. Breasts are like snowflakes
No set of two breasts are the alike — heck, even within said set there might be serious discrepancies. It's important not just to know your size, but your shape.
"I'd have to say that since Oprah started the 'Bra Revolution' (in 2005), women have really stepped up to the plate in terms of knowing their size," says Jessica Pfister of lingerie company Le Mystere. "Now we just have to take the education one step further to silhouette and body type. Wear the right kind of bra to flatter your bustline. If you have a very full bust, and you wear a demi-bra that creates that 'over-the-top' type look with a T-shirt, you end up getting almost like a bra muffin top."
Over at the website True&Co., they're hacking the whole process, using data and testing to point customers in the right direction. Over a million women have taken their survey, leading the company to design 6,000 distinct body types; they expect to add more as their reach grows.
The site then catalogs 30 different pieces of metadata for each bra they carry so they can classify them and create a custom "personal shop" for consumers. Essentially, they only show you bras that work for your shape.
Already feeling bad about all that money you've wasted on crummy bras over the years? Don't. It's not your fault.
"In our fit tests, we've discovered that more than 86 percent of the bras we test don't fit any body types at all," explains True&Co. founder and CEO Michelle Lam. "Because of all these attempts in the manufacturing process to be efficient, you end up with a lot of bad products. There is no one bra that [remains successful] from an A cup to a G cup — and too many brands actually carry the bras all the way through with a simple mathematical grading. It doesn't work."
2. Get out of your rut
Even if you have a bra that you like, it's important to be open to new brands and styles.
"Women often look at brands as a proxy for fit," says Lam. "They are generally wedded to one bra from one brand. It's never really a shopping experience, but rather a replenishment of what they already knew. God forbid, if that bra was discontinued, they'd be out of luck. That's why we do this 'rosetta stone' of bras, so people can move between brands. Not all bras that belong to the same brand are going to fit the same. And actually, similar styles from different brands could flatter you in very similar ways and make you look your best."
3. There's a right bra for every occasion
Just like there is no one all-purpose dress, there is no all-purpose bra. It's about developing a carefully-curated support team up for any occasion.
That said, all the bra experts I spoke with said that the No. 1 bra every woman should own is an "everyday T-shirt bra" — supportive, seamless, smooth-cup and comfortable.
And make sure you have a nude version in the squad.
"Many women think to buy a white bra if you are always wearing white T-shirts or blouses," says TODAY contributor Jill Martin. "No, no, no! Opt for a skin color bra that is seamless to give you a smooth, polished look."
You should also own a strapless bra that doesn't send you digging under your armpits for that patented I-hate-my-strapless-bra hoist every couple of minutes. Longline bras are a growing market, and a fun fashion statement. They are especially great for full-busted women.
And don't skimp on a great sports bra.
"We hear all the time, working the industry, that girls double up on their sports bras and still don't get the support they need," says Pfister. "Having something that really locks your breasts in place and prevents movement is key. You can do a lot of damage to the ligaments in your breasts if they're bouncing uncontrollably during workouts."
4. Be practical
"Don't get caught up in colors," says Bobbie Thomas, TODAY style editor and author of "The Power of Style." "And remember, while lace and embroidery may be pretty, they also peek through most fabrics. It's more important to NOT see your bra. When shopping, bring a few items you wear often, a T-shirt, a blouse, a favorite dress. And judge the bra by how you feel and look in the garment."
5. Shop smart online
It's always best to try on bras in person, but that's not always possible in a pinch. Look for sites that show the bra on an actual human woman rather than a bustform. Many retailers even offer detailed style information and videos about their products.
"If you team the pictures with the details and videos, you can see how the bra reacts on the body," says Pfister. "Also, I love reading reviews, they typically offer great insight and help to determine if the product lives up to its description."
(I can thank the reviews on Amazon for introducing me to my life-changing sports bra, Moving Comfort's Fiona.)
And, if you're feeling anxious about size or fit, order from a company that offers free returns so you can try multiple sizes — both the size that you think you are and its "sister size." Most contour-cup bras are "cross-graded" — a 34D cup has the same capacity as a 32E, but the latter provides a bit of a snugger band. (Check out this post to wrap your head around this confusing concept.)
6. Bras, like breasts, change over time
If you want to get the most life out of your bra, purchase one that feels snug on the loosest hook-and-eye set. The elastic in the band stretches with use, and as it ages, you can move to the tighter hooks.
7. Wear and care
So, you've found the perfect bra: the exquisite piece of engineering that makes you walk a little taller, talk a little louder, and finally pull off the baggy T-shirt as sexy and effortless rather than frumpy. Now you've just got to take care of it.
"Hand wash if you can," insists Pfister. "It's an investment. These garments are very expensive and you want to take care of them. Do not bleach. Do not iron. And, worst of all, do not throw them in the dryer."
Pfister specifically recommended The Laundress' delicate wash for lingerie.
Also, give your favorite bra a break. Wearing elastics on consecutive days makes them wear out faster.
"If you find a bra that you cannot live without, purchase at least three of them," adds Pfister. "Even the highest quality microfibers and elastics break down over time and lose their elasticity. This way you can rotate the bras and cut down on the wear time of each one."
8. Know when it's time to let go
Once you've done all this legwork, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is holding onto a beloved bra past its prime. Once it's no longer capable of doing the work required, it's time to put it out to pasture. Give it a dignified send-off — like Jeter.
The life expectancy of a bra varies greatly depending on body type and usage.
"A good rule of thumb for fuller-sized women is to reevaluate every four months, especially if it's a bra you're wearing super frequently," says Lam. "With a B or C cup, you maybe not need to replace that bra for 18 months or more. If your nipple is sagging below the horizontal mark — they should be pointing out like headlights — then it's time. The spandex in the cup has given out. And once you've gotten to the tightest hook and it's still stretching out, it's time to get rid of that bra."
Lee Stabert is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia; follow her on Twitter @stabert.
This story was originally published Sep. 26, 2014 on TODAY.com.