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Why are bras so expensive? 4 factors behind bra cost and tips to find a good one

Paying top dollar for the necessity that is a well-fitted bra is beyond frustrating. These tips about the industry can get you the best bra for your money.
Bras can cost as little as $10 up to a few hundred. So why can it be so hard to get a good one for a decent price?
Bras can cost as little as $10 up to a few hundred. So why can it be so hard to get a good one for a decent price?TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Have you ever shopped for something — say, an item for your house or another everyday product — and been floored to find out what it costs? Well, here at TMRW, we're shaking off the sticker shock to examine why certain products are so dang expensive. Today's item: bras. There are more options than ever for size, cut and material at a wider range of price points, but how much should you spend to get one that will last?

Whether you're an A cup or larger than a DD, you've likely been frustrated at some point in your life by how much you've had to spend on a bra. But when you find a good one, you'll likely wear it until it's quite literally falling apart.

To understand the bra industry, TMRW sat down with two experts, who broke down the ins and outs and what to look for the next time you're bra shopping.

Why are bras so expensive?

Swing by Target or Walmart, and if they have your size, you can pick up a bra for $10. Visit a specialty bra maker and you could easily spend more than $100. A primary reason for the range in price comes down to a concept called "economies of scale," which refers to the cost advantages of businesses with larger operations.

"People talk about how Walmart's prices are so cheap. It's because they buy so much at a single time," Cora Harrington, founder of The Lingerie Addict and author of "In Intimate Detail: How To Choose, Wear and Love Lingerie," told TMRW.

The idea of economies of scale is especially "critical in the space of lingerie," added Lively founder and CEO Michelle Cordeiro Grant.

Bras are made from a lot of pieces

A single bra is comprised of many more pieces than other clothing items, such as shirts or pants, and "without economies of scale, you're paying up for all the components," Cordeiro Grant explained. "Within one bra, there's as many as 25 components," such as clasps, straps and adjusters.

"If you're a small company ... you're not going to get the price advantage as if you're running 10,000 or 60,000 units," she added. "If you're running just five 34Bs, six 36Bs ... that makes it really expensive."

Smaller clothing makers can reach economies of scale more easily if they use a mill that's already making fabric for several different companies. But this is much harder to find for 25 bra components in the dozens of sizes and styles bras come in, compared to four or so for T-shirts, Corderio Grant said.

What's more, big box chains might be able to afford to price bras lower and take the financial loss because they're making it up with other products, according to Harrington.

It takes speciality knowledge to build the bra

Simply put, "bras take a lot of labor to produce," Harrington said. "They're all ... handmade by people sitting in front of sewing machines putting these little pieces together."

While bras may use less fabric than a coat, for example, the process of sewing a bra requires more specialized knowledge and machinery.

"The labor, the expertise, the time it takes to make, the fact that there are some bras that have taken years of research and development to produce ... all of that together is what contributes to that final cost," Harrington continued.

She also stressed that while people may presume clothing made in developing countries is lower quality, this isn't always the case for bras. "All of these garment workers are all extremely good at what they do," she said.

Still, labor costs in countries like France and the U.S. are higher, so these bras may be more expensive. But just because a bra is on the cheaper side doesn't mean it's made with sweatshop labor, thanks to economies of scale, Harrington said.

You pay for the fit of the bra

Many companies that sell bras for cheaper prices tend to be focused on keeping their final costs down. As a result, they're "not able to spend as much time on research and development ... and perfecting that fit," Harrington said.

"Something that you can get with a brand or store that just does bras ... and particularly if they're specialized for that larger bust, they're going to be a lot more focused and obsessed with fit," she explained. "Then you also have that layer of expertise that you're getting from that smaller shop."

More expertise going into a product usually translates to it costing more money. This, as well as big box stores not making a wide range of sizes, can also contribute to large bras being more expensive.

Material matters less than you think

A more expensive material, like lace, will drive up the cost of a bra somewhat, but ultimately the expertise of knowing how to handle it is worth more than the fabric itself, according to Harrington.

Similarly, Cordeiro Grant said people assume a bra made in Europe will use European material. But increasingly, companies that manufacture in countries with higher wages are using less expensive materials to offset labor costs. And the same is true for companies sending expensive material to places like Asia.

"(Cost) goes back to the total makeup of the toolkit you're using," Cordeiro Grant added. "I don't think it can be related to just one thing anymore."

Tip to get a good bra for a decent price

In the past 10 or so years, there's been an "explosion of new brands and new sizes far beyond what there were ... at a range of price points," Harrington said. The next time you step into the wondrous world of bras, try out these tips.

Figure out what you want. Do you want something sexy and luxurious? Or something that feels good and you'll enjoy wearing every day? How about whatever's accessible, like Victoria's Secret? Establishing your priorities should structure how you shop, Harrington said.

Know that you have options. Many people are "uninformed about the breadth of options available to them right now," Harrington said. "A lot of people think they wear an impossible-to-find size, and they just don't know what brands make their size."

Wait for sales, if you can. Harrington called the $60-$70 range "the sweet spot" for bras that come in a wide range of sizes and last a while. The best part? When they're on sale, you can get the high-quality fit and engineering for half the price. It's usually a better option than spending $30 on a full-price bra, Harrington added. The down side? Waiting for sales means risking the brand runs out of your size.

Read the reviews. Looking at the stitching and touching the bra are among the best ways to tell if you're buying a good one, but reviews are the next best thing when online shopping. Cordeiro Grant recommended searching for comments about adjustability and how the raw materials feel.

Many places that sell bras online also offer easy returns, which can be a big help when you don't know how the bra will fit. Just make sure that when you send the bra back, it's in tip-top condition — no perfume or deodorant streaks — so companies will continue to offer these services, Harrington advised.