As the first thing you put on each morning and the last thing you take off at night, lingerie is a big part of our wardrobes.
The right set can make you feel more comfortable, confident and powerful – so why do so many of us find looking for lingerie so stressful?
Finding a bra and underwear seems like it should be straightforward, the reality is that there are more options than ever.
The key to navigating this increasingly complex market is identifying exactly what you want out of your lingerie, whether that be comfort, support and subtlety or something bold, enhancing and showstopping.
To help make it easier, we’ve put together the ultimate lingerie shopping guide, covering everything from shapes and styles to finally finding your perfect bra size.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
Shapes of bra
Full cup: Out of all the options, a full cup bra will give you the smoothest outline beneath your clothes. As the name suggests, it covers the entirety of the breast. The downside is that as the cups come up so high, they show under anything even remotely low-cut. Emma Cooke, junior buyer at Figleaves, recommends full cups to those looking for “more support and more coverage” from their lingerie, with larger cup sizes finding this the most comfortable shape.
Plunge: This is the complete opposite of a full cup bra, meeting at a low V-cut in the centre and leaving your cleavage bare. Emma recommends this shape for those with “narrow shoulders, shallow breasts or a convex ribcage.” It often comes with extra padding to give breasts more shape.
Demi: Solving the visibility issue of the full cup but with more coverage than a plunge, a demi bra comes up quite low, typically just about covering the nipple. The straps are also far apart, so there’s less risk of those poking out from your top. While this is great if you’re looking to boost your cleavage, it does mean that you’re sacrificing some support.
Balconette: The name is less self-explanatory, but it makes much more sense when you imagine your chest being propped up on a balcony. That’s what this bra does – with short cups and a horizontal top, it forces your breasts to sit more evenly and slightly higher than usual. As Emma explains, it is perfect for those “with fuller or wider set breasts that need to be lifted and supported well.”
Styles of bra
Underwire: When you imagine the average bra, it’s probably underwired. With a firm wire at the base of the bra, it offers constant support for every shape and size breast. But as anyone who’s ever worn a bra can attest to, these can grow uncomfortable with extensive use. If you don’t need the extra support, perhaps try another style.
Bralette: This is one of Emma’s top choices for smaller chests or those who dislike wired bras. Bralettes have become increasingly popular over the past few years for that very reason. They’re usually free of wires, padding and cups, offer full coverage and are more aesthetically pleasing than most bras. Some can even be worn as outerwear. The price you pay is less support.
T-shirt: A T-shirt bra is a reliable choice, sitting subtly beneath even the tightest of tops (hence the name). While they work for everybody type, Emma especially recommends them for those whose nipples point in different directions or who have different breast sizes, as it will even out your cleavage.
Push-up: A classic confidence booster, a push-up bra will lift your breasts and hold them closer together to accentuate your natural shape. These tend to be cut low on the breast to help emphasise cleavage, but actually offer a surprising amount of support. While they’re typically designed for those with smaller cup sizes, they’ll do the trick for just about anyone.
Strapless: Theoretically, strapless bras fit exactly like a regular bra, just without the straps. The goal is to give you the same amount of support while also offering more flexibility with your wardrobe. However, this is easier said than done – without straps, you just can’t get the same effect, and those with larger breasts may find that they have to readjust a strapless bra repeatedly throughout the day.
Racerback: Another bra style designed to hide your bra beneath awkward outfits. The straps will either criss-cross or converge in between your shoulder blades. Some may prefer to wear this style full time as it actually redistributes some of the weight of your breasts to your back. It offers lots of support and is usually very adjustable.
How to know if you’re wearing the wrong bra size?
Sometimes you just know you’re in the wrong size. If you find yourself repeatedly readjusting throughout the day, you know it’s time to reassess. But it’s not always that simple. An estimated 80 per cent of women are unknowingly wearing the wrong bra size. Our bodies change a lot in our lifetimes, yet only a small number of us get remeasured or change our go to size on a regular basis.
Jessica Prebble is the creative director and co-founder of lingerie design consultancy Starkers and fuller bust lingerie brand Tutti Rouge. To help identify incorrect sizes, she has a set of tell-tale red flags. If a bra leaves marks when you take it off, it’s too tight. Conversely, if you can easily slide your hand beneath the wire, you need to increase the band size.
“The underband should feel like a firm hug, as this is where the majority of the support comes from,” she says. “You don’t want a tight squeeze or a slack back, as this would not offer any support.”
To see if your bra is too small, Jessica recommends stretching with your arms high in the air. If your cups ride up or your breasts slip out, you should size down in the back. However, if you look down and see four breasts (“double breasting”) then your cups are too small. If this is the case, try a bigger cup size (and potentially offset these with a smaller back size) until there is no more spillage.
You also need to check that the wire of your bra is sitting flat beneath your breasts and isn’t creeping up. “The centre front of the bra should sit firm to your chest,” she says. “With the wires flat against your chest, not digging in, poking out or rubbing against you.”
Making sure it’s not too big is just as important. Check that there are no gaps and no wrinkling on your cups, and you should be able to slide in two fingers beneath the strap without discomfort or the straps sliding off.
How do I find the right size?
Confirming you’re in the wrong size is only half the battle. To find your true size, Boux Avenue’s resident bra fit expert, Katie Thacker, has a tried-and-tested method. The first step is to bend forward while putting on your bra and hooking it before you stand up. “This will help you fully settle into the cups,” she explains.
Next, you need to slide your fingers underneath to check the band and straps, using your judgement if it is too tight or too loose. After making sure the centre is flat, lift your arms and twist from side to side and see if it stays in place.
If it passes all these tests, it’s time to check that it looks right. Katie recommends that “before you commit to a bra, try it on under a form-fitting T-shirt to make sure there are no wrinkles, puckers, lumps or bumps.” You should also check your side view, as “with proper support, your breasts should sit midway between your shoulders and elbows.”
Remember that your size won’t be the same everywhere. You shouldn’t put too much stock in what’s on the label – you may need to go up or down a cup or back size across different brands and styles.
To make it easier to adapt, Katie’s top tip is that “if you need to go down one cup size, go up one underband size, and vice versa”.
Finding the bra for you
Once you’ve found your size, it’s time to find the bra. You’ll always find white, black or nude, but high street shops and brands like Skims and Savage X Fenty have certainly diversified the latter in recent years.
While bright colours can seem intimidating or impractical, more often than not they are easy to work into your wardrobe. For example, red bras can be even more subtle beneath white shirts than nude bras, as red blends into the undertones of your skin.
If you want to branch out, cooler undertones suit bright blues, lavender, rose and grey, while those with warmer skin look great in deep greens, coral, red and yellow. Check the warm and cool sides of the colour wheel to find other shades that complement your skin tone.
You also need to look at the material. Lace is usually used for aesthetic purposes but can be irritating against sensitive skin and doesn’t let it breathe as well as cotton. However, cotton does have its cons because it offers less support and shaping.
Mesh is another popular choice which is breathable yet irritating. And then there’s synthetic materials like polyester and nylon, which are comfortable, supportive and often long lasting, but can be itchy if poorly made. Consider bras you’ve enjoyed wearing in the past and check the material before making any purchases.
Finally, there’s the design itself. Online lingerie options are vaster than ever before, but even the most in depth research can lead to a purchase that you ultimately find unflattering. It’s important to remember that nothing suits everybody. Jessica Prebble emphasises that “ultimately you want your bra to be comfortable, easy to wear and, whatever your style, make you feel amazing.”
However, if you’re looking to diversify your lingerie drawer, Katie Thacker has a few tips.
“If you have wider hips, you can balance out your upper body by wearing a fuller, padded bra that provides more volume at the top. However, if you have a wider upper body you may want to opt for a bra that offers full support or a balconette that won’t add to your size.”
She added that: “If you have an hourglass shape, opt for supporting lingerie that shows off your curves, such as plunge or balconette bras. If you happen to have a more athletic shape, you can choose to add volume to your bust with a padded bra or try something playful with colour and frills to give a fuller illusion.”
Looking after your lingerie
The most important thing is to follow care instructions to a tee, but a few extra steps will help extend the life of most pieces.
Handwashing might sound extra, but there’s a reason why lingerie is often nicknamed your “delicates”. Gently soak and rinse your lingerie in a tub of lukewarm water. Try to avoid the washing machine, but just make sure you reshape your bras if you have to use it, otherwise they’ll become misshapen over time. Definitely avoid the tumble dryer.
Take care to store it properly – most lingerie stores place bras behind each other with the clasps hooked in place so they won’t snag or rip any lace.
Your lingerie can last much longer if you think ahead while purchasing. Jessica Prebble recommends choosing a bra that fits you comfortably on the last hook and eye, as this way when you “wash your bra and the fabric and elastics loosen with time, you can go tighter on the hook and eye, getting more fabulous support for longer.”
IndyBest best buy: Boux Avenue Lizzie balconette bra: £32 for two-piece set, Boux Avenue – Buy now
Basic yet beautiful, this Boux Avenue bra is a balconette style. While it’s unpadded, the wire beneath the cups is firm enough to give your chest a subtle lift without digging into your skin. We were really impressed by how much support it offers larger cup sizes, as this is a rarity in the world of unpadded bras. Available from a 30B to a 40G, it smooths and enhances most chest sizes. Made from synthetic materials (polyamide and elastane), it doesn’t leave you sweaty and eliminates any risk of chafing.
We love the subtle floral detailing, which totally transforms this staple black bra. If you prefer your lingerie brighter, it’s also available in white and pale blue. Like a lot of Boux Avenue’s bras, this also comes as a set with a choice of either a thong or briefs, with both feeling comfortable and coming up true to size (they come in regular UK dress sizes).
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