Reader Request: Different Bras for Different Needs

Reader Emma e-mailed me this question:

I invested a significant chunk of money on several bras, and suddenly realized that my shirts look kind of different depending on what bra I am wearing. (Maybe this is obvious; it was quite a revelation to me!) To get to my question: do you have advice on what style of bra to wear with different types of shirts/sweaters/dresses? I’m thinking of the differences between a molded cup that really separates and smooths, versus non-molded cups that are supportive but don’t have a shape on their own and therefore have a slightly more ‘natural’ look, versus a no-underwire style that creates less separation. Of course there are many styles of bra that women could be working with, I just list these examples to try and make my question more understandable.

Bras are complex beasties and I would never claim to be an expert, so I coerced an actual expert into helping me out. Claire Dumican is the founder of Butterfly Collection, an online boutique specializing in DD-K cup bras for women in Canada and the US. Her approach to bra fitting is to empower busty women with knowledge about bras and breasts so that they can feel more comfortable and confident. Claire took a peek at Emma’s request and said, “My approach to this kind of thing is helping women work out what’s important to them and then how to translate that into feature of a bra. So for example, I can write a piece for you that explains why bras look different under the same garment and how that can work to your advantage and how to match your wardrobe to your bras based on your lifestyle and preferences. This is a subtle difference but one that I think is important.”

And I couldn’t agree more.

* * * * *

September is a key fashion month for magazines and you’ll see lots of articles about must-have shoes, blazers, scarves and even bras. More so than any other region, North America has a very prescribed view of which bra is “appropriate” to wear under certain garments. I’d like you to set aside the idea that certain bras work with certain clothes and consider whether your bra and wardrobe are working for your life.

Why Different Bras Look Different Under the Same Top

First of all though here’s a quick guide to how the design of a bra changes your look under clothes. It’s easy to say that a t-shirt bra works well under a t-shirt (the clue is in the name) but whether a t-shirt bra works well for every woman is seldom discussed. To help you figure out which bra you should wear with a particular outfit here’s a quick guide to bra features and how they change your shape under clothes:

Why bras look different under the same top

From left to right: Profile Perfect is a seamless bra, Melody is a horizontal seamed bra and Lucy is a diagonal seamed bra

Seamless bras with give you a smooth look, however, they can spread out your bust so they’re great under tops with no front fastening but can be problematic under button-front shirts. If you have a narrow torso and want a smooth bra, look for designs that have a side sling inside – this is a piece of fabric that will push your boobs forward rather than out to the sides. If you have large breasts then smooth cup bras tend to be quite tall and that’s because they need the surface area to stop bounce. If you want less coverage you may need to switch to a plunge style or seamed bra.

Bras with horizontal seams (the seam starts in the middle outside edge of the bra) are good for women with wide breasts and for women who want less projection under their clothing. Look for styles that have flat fabrics (like the flat lace on Melody above) as this will give you a smoother look but with more lift and stability than a seamless bra.

Bras with diagonal seams (the seam starts where the strap meets the cup) are ideal for narrowing your bust under clothing which can lessen any pulling at the front of your clothes. This will give you more forward projection and make your top look less wide.

Seamed bras usually have a vertical seam that comes up from the bottom of the cup. This improves lift and makes your torso look longer so if you’re short waisted a bra with a vertical seam can lengthen your look.

Now that you’ve got an idea of how the design of a bra can change your look under clothes it’s time to work out which bras work best with your life.

Physically Demanding Days

If you work in a job that requires a lots of upper body movement like landscape gardening or emergency service, and especially if you’re a caretaker of children, your bra needs to give you a lot of support.


Seamed bras like Envy by Panache Superbra keep breasts in place during busy days.

Bra features to look for: Support comes from bra seams (a bra with seams will reduce bounce), medium to deep gores (the gore is the center bit between the cups) and full or teardrop shaped cups. For extremely physical jobs like nursing or logging I recommend wearing a sports bra to give you maximum support.


If you want a smooth cup then look for bras with full cups like this Basic Beauty by Wacoal

Bra features to avoid: Short gores (like plunge styles) work well with v-neck tops, however, they don’t give adequate support for busy days. If you want a smooth cup then look for full cup styles that will give you support.

Office Workers and Sedentary Days

If your day consists of a lot of desk work then you don’t necessarily need your bra to be high impact resistant, however, you need it to be secure and comfortable and versatile enough to work with lots of different necklines.


A bandless bra like Lucy by Cleo has a medium height gore that works well with lots of necklines

Bra features to look for: Balconette style cups or styles with a medium height gore. Look for bandless bras (styles that don’t have an extra strip of fabric below the wires) because they will be more comfortable when you have to sit for long periods.

Bra features to avoid: You can wear most styles for sedentary days but you might find that bras with deep bands tend to fold over or curl up as you sit.

Matching your bra to your life will ensure you have control over your breasts which boosts your confidence no matter what you wear over the top. If you have trouble finding bust-friendly clothing then check out my review of bust-friendly designers.

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49 Responses to “Reader Request: Different Bras for Different Needs”

  1. Olivia

    Would have suggestions for bras that work for plus sized women? I finally got measured for bras (42H) and my bras fit better than they used to, but I still have problems. Underwire bras poke my belly when I sit down, but the band on soft-cups roll. I also don’t like how my breasts end up sliding together in soft-cups. I mostly wear t-shirts since I’m home with my two small children, and I almost always just go braless when I’m at home because I dislike them so much.

    • Linda

      I’m no world expert, but if the underwire itself is poking your belly, I’d be willing to bet the band is too large. (People who fit bras in shops often don’t really know what they’re doing. Visit the bra fitting Reddit someone mentioned below!) The wire should be anchored right in the fold where your breasts meet your torso and should not be able to slide down. If you mean not the underwire itself but the band of fabric below it that makes a straight line across the bottom of the bra, that is quite uncomfortable for many of us but there are many bras without this feature.

      • LK

        Linda is right sometimes they don’t know what they are doing. I had good luck with the ladies at Soma. Soma in general makes amazing products.

      • Olivia

        Yeah, it isn’t that the underwire slides down, it’s more that my belly and breast scrunch together when I sit. I think underwires just don’t work with how my body is built, lol.

  2. Cynthia

    I can vouch for that Cleo Lucy bra — I have several and they are fantastic. And Amazon seems to have good sales on them frequently!

  3. Virginia

    Thank you for this post. As a breast cancer, mastectomy, and reconstruction survivor, I have some special bra requirements. I’ve been able to find affordable, comfortable bras, but I’m not really satisfied with the way I look in my clothing. Thanks for educating and inspiring me to find a better bra.

    • GingerR

      I find that my reconstructed breast, plus it’s natural mate are better shaped in bras with seaming. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wear t-shirt bras, but I think my reconstruction implant and it’s silicone shaper (reconstructed breasts are often a little flat and need a shaper for projection) match their natural sister better when seams add shape.

      • Virginia

        Thanks GingerR for the tip. It’s great to hear what others find useful. I’ll try a seamed bra!

  4. Kristina

    Very interesting and helpful. I live in an area with limited resources as far as bras go. Even when my local department stores have bra fitters available, they rarely carry anything but the best-selling sizes, and I am a 34DD. 38+DD, no problem, but I can rarely find one my size in a store, let alone a selection. Our nearest big city is San Francisco. Any recommendations for a good lingerie shop there?

    • Spacegeek33

      GREAT article! Sally, please put this in your special archive of KEY reads! Much of this was new to me, and (like another commenter) thought I’d read a fair amount! I usually go for T-shirt bras with extra minimizing and padding to reduce “headlights” but this was an eye opener. FWIW, readers, try the no show minimizer from Soma–I have found these to be a really great combination of my required bra features!

  5. A.B.

    Your information is great if you have small to average sized breasts. For women (like me) with much larger breasts, cups the size of the “sedentary” bra would leave me falling out at the slightest movement. All my bras are deep gores and seamless (because seams look bad under t-shirts) with a wide band.

    • Kitty

      Actually, A. B., I’m a 28J in UK sizing (28M in US sizing) and my best fit is the Cleo Lucy. The cup height increases with size. Mine are not quite full coverage, but they come up pretty high. I’ve never felt like I’m falling out (like I do in plunges) and I’m at the end of their size range. I can vouch for it for busty women!

      • sarah

        Actually, I’m not sure that those styles work for small-busted women, either! Obviously, I can’t speak for the whole of the small-busted tribe, but at my fullest D-cup I still can’t fill a balconette or a full cup style. (It’s disappointing; I think balconettes are the prettiest cut of all)

        • LK

          as a small busted woman I can conquer, balconettes are hard to fill. But every once in a while you’ll find one that is cut kind of shallow and then its not so bad. Almost like a hybrid of a demi and balconette. As a small bust (36A-34B) lady, I pretty much only fill demi bras. Everything else is usually too big.

    • Claire at Butterfly Collection

      Hi AB – all the bras featured in the article are for full bust women and designed to keep your breasts in place. If you find you’re falling out of a bra it’s usually a sign that your band is too big and the cup is too small, a very common problem as lots of stores fit women into sizes that are too big in the band and too small in the cup.

  6. Dee

    Wow lots of information I didn’t know before. Bras – I have so many pretty ones that technicallly “fit” me right, but are SO uncomfortable — I just can’t wear underwires. And I usually need some padding so I dont get the “headlights” look. I finally found some Bali styles (no wires) that work for me and are comfy all day. But they tend to give me the uni-boob look, I know that is not the best look, but I have to be comfortable!

    • Claire at Butterfly Collection

      I’m glad the article was informative Dee. When you find wires uncomfortable it’s usually one of the following: 1) a protruding breast bone (wires press against the breast bone and only a plunge bra works with your shape) 2) Your band is too big and your cups are too small. 3) The wires of the bra are too long and you need a bra with shorter wires – this is a style issue.
      Hope that helps xx

  7. Jenn B

    Bandless! I didn’t know that was an option, and maybe it isn’t in nursing bras in my size (36H). Thanks to this explanation I understand that it’s the band that makes my seamed lace bra uncomfortable at times.

    • Eleanorjane

      Yes, I’m sitting here with an uncomfortable band digging into me. And this is the bra that I chose after trying on at least 8 and taking about an hour about it. Bras are hard!

  8. Vildy

    I thought I’d read everything out there but this article was excellent and I learned a lot. It never occurred to me why bras with band underneath get so uncomfortable. Duh! I’ve been sitting and your body expands. I know to check that fit in clothing but never considered the same would apply to a band around my ribcage! Thanks for this great article.

  9. LinB

    A local car dealer runs a series of commercials with the same spokesmodel — a pretty blond woman in her 40s-50s. The ads have run for years. The model is dressed in black slacks, and a solid-colored man’s dress shirt, unbuttoned at the neck (a different color for each commercial). Because she is so slender through the neck, arms, hands and waist, I presume that the extremely large bulge of her bosom was attained cosmetically. It mildly bemuses me to note where on her torso her breasts will hang, from commercial to commercial. Sometimes they are below the fourth button down, perilously near her waist. Sometimes they are up high, near her collarbone. Sometimes one is higher than the other. I blame her choices of bra.

  10. odeanna

    Oi. I take a 32G, which is an extremely average size, not the biggest, but not small, plus I need particularly high wires because of my shape. Nonetheless, I have balconettes and halfcups that offer all necessary coverage and that not only control and contain but lift and shape very aggressively indeed. It does require an underwire — which, I swear, is a million times more comfortable when you’re in your proper size. If anything but a fullcup means you’re gonna spill out, it’s definitely a good idea to check on this. Molded bras are ubiquitous and can hide a multitude of fit issues, and many U.S. fitters give dreadful advice based on limited stock and false received wisdom, so it’s very, VERY easy to be mistaken and doesn’t make you some kind of idiot. It’s not at all intuitive. A too-loose band will feel too tight if the cup is smaller than it should be, etc. The culture drives a lot of really bad assumptions about how a bra is supposed to fit, what size range is “normal,” how there’s supposed to be such a thing as “a C cup” as if that weren’t a completely different size on a small torso vs a big torso, etc. Butterfly Collection has excellent sizing resources, as does the ABraThatFits Reddit. Please, check them out. It can be life-changing, I’m not even kidding. I was in 38DDDs till last May and the improvement in back and neck pain alone, never mind the looking a decade younger with actual support and lift happening as opposed to mere containment, has been enough to significantly raise my quality of life.

    And yes, you can get extremely aggressive shaping from a non-molded bra — they aren’t all about the “natural” look. Feck that. I am 43, mine are heavy and splayed and I can tell you I have no interest at all in rolling over for Mother Nature. Of all the non-molded styles, though, the fullcups tend to be the least aggressive and most “natural,” so, again, it’s really worthwhile to branch out and look at other styles. Cleo’s balconettes, especially, are hyper-secure with very strong wires that come quite high up. And the line runs well into truly larger cup sizes, not just up to my piddling little mid-mid G. Cleo also offers a variety of balconette styles friendly to various sorts of upper fullness, as well as some friendlier to full-on-bottom breasts like the Lucy pictured above. If you tend to get high tissue spillage issues in anything less than a giant fullcup bra to your neck, look at Cleo for sure, and stay away from plunges and the tinier/shorter-looking halfcups.

    • Carol S

      I’m with you on the Cleo’s. The Lucy is my favorite bra, but why oh why don’t they have a non-molded nude bra in the line?

    • Annabeth

      Another 43-year-old 32G here! And yeah, I too intend to tell Mother Nature to wait her good time for me. Chimed in to say that yes, underwires become no problem at all if you have your absolute true size. I remember thinking they were torturous – but since I made a habit of getting correct fittings a few years ago, I now find them totally comfortable.

      Another vote for non-molded bras. I actually find molded bras much more difficult to wear, at my cup size; it’s as though my boobs can either be in the exact placement the molded cup wants OR they just decide to slope together toward the middle in their desperate quest for freedom. Soft cups with side panels work best for me.

      Also – Carol, ITA that finding a non-molded nude bra for a large cup size is inexplicably really tough.

  11. Not quite anonymous

    Can anybody recommend a minimal bra? I used to buy cotton triangle bras from Victoria’s Secret that had no wire and no padding, just two layers of stretchy cotton. However, they haven’t sold those in years. All I need is a couple decently thick layers, just enough to avoid show-through when it’s cold.

    • Chelsea

      Yes. The Eberjey Pima Goddess Soft Cup is really comfy, also, OnGossamer makes a cotton bralet that I really like. I got them both online for a pretty good deal.

  12. Amy

    This post is very helpful! Thank you! I look forward to checking out Butterfly Collection for my 32E girls!

  13. susan

    I’m wondering if there are any of these bras that don’t contain formaldehyde and other toxic chemicals? I know they can be in other clothing too, but its easier to find natural options for clothing. I guess because breasts seem so intimate, and the possibility of breast cancer due to bras seems possible, I’d really like to find some toxin-free bras!

    Here is an article on this: There seem to be quite a few articles, and few stylish natural bra options:–How-clothes-poison-you.html

  14. Lisa M

    Once again, you come through with great information! I was just at Nordstrom and bought 2 of the 3 mentioned. I love them both!

  15. Kristen

    My only issue with this particular post is the assumption that you “need” certain amounts of support for different jobs, etc. That really is just personal preference. There are some indications that letting your breasts move around due to their own weight can actually be beneficial for breast tissue, but of course there are a million variables (your body’s alignment or misalignment, natural posture, back problems, and more) that affect how comfortable you are letting them loose, not to mention the mental comfort/discomfort.

    My main issue is keeping the “headlights” off, so I haven’t really considered any of these other things. Interesting read! I’ve come to realize that my breasts are a bit farther apart than many bras are designed for, and that their shape doesn’t always fit the cup quite right even if it’s the correct size. I always seem to go for molded bras, though, and this has encouraged me to try on some other styles.

  16. Dianne

    As a 32 DD or 32DDD or 34DD, I have come to realize that one must try on a zillion bras before finding some that fit correctly. Every brand and style fit differently. But when you ind one that fits, it is truly comfortable. I have to have an under-wire, but I have tried on (and bought) some that were so high at the outer sides that they left dark marks almost at my armpits. My biggest complaint is that the ‘fitters’ in department stores will try to convince you that ‘this’ bra fits, because they do not carry size ranges that really do fit you, and they are keen to make a sale. The specialty lingerie shops, which hopefully do carry bras that will fit your body, are exceedingly expensive, so I feel I am being penalized for having a curvy feminine shape.

    • LK

      I’d try Soma. I’ve seen your size in their store and the sales ladies (at least at mine) have never been pushy just super helpful.

  17. Olivia

    I just checked out Butterfly Collection and they don’t carry my size (42H). How disappointing.

    • Claire at Butterfly Collection

      Hi Olivia, we currently carry full bust sizes which are 28-38 bands in DD to K because that’s my area of fit knowledge. As we grow we will include plus size bras, however, right now the fit expertise for plus size bras is not our forte. As of November 2013 we will be adding 40 bands. I can highly recommend Hips and Curves for plus size bras and boudoir wear. Sorry you are disappointed but we’d rather give great service and product on fewer items than poor service and products on more sizes. xx

    • Sally

      Jackie, although the compression/bounce stuff might not be as important, but my understanding is that the information here about bra construction and style choices applies to women of all cup sizes. I wear a B/C and it works for me!

      What is it that you want to know that’s specific to A and B cups? Something that wasn’t discussed here?

  18. emma

    Thanks so much for following up on my request with this post, Sally! It is really helpful and I’m glad so many other people got useful information out of it as well.