The first thing I learned when I started writing about lingerie full time was that I was never going to be able to have a normal social life again. Telling people you’re a freelance writer is one thing, but telling people you write about lingerie all the time makes them look at you like you’re some kind of alien freak. You get all kinds of looks, like people can easily imagine the life you must lead at home: some jealously think of glamorous marabou robes and high-heeled boudoir slippers while others disapprovingly picture some kind of softcore porn video. The reality is that most days it’s usually sweatpants and at least six hours in front of my laptop.
The second thing no one tells you when you start writing about lingerie full time is that everyone has questions about it, even the people who think you might be softcore porn-adjacent. Women quietly sidle up to me to beg for recommendations about sports bras, about sexy lingerie to save their marriages, and more. Strangers ask me about mastectomy bras while I try to eat appetizers at art openings. People want to tell me their secrets so I can tell them how the right lingerie will solve their problems.
Lingerie is something that is both common and mysterious at the same time. Lingerie can be complex. Lingerie can be sentimental. Lingerie can be functional. But the most common experience women have with lingerie is usually horrible, with a nice big side of humiliating. I felt it the first time I ever walked into a lingerie boutique in my early twenties, when the fitter grabbed my stomach and asked if I was pregnant (I was not). I feel it when people tell me about how some strange fitter physically shoved them into a bra in a boutique and how it made them feel violated and scared. I sense it when women quietly whisper to me at parties about how their breasts aren’t the same size, so they must be freaks (asymmetry is both common and normal!). Learning to love lingerie generally means showing some stranger your body with no idea how they’re going to react. When you think about it that way, it’s no wonder most women don’t get fitted for bras on a regular basis.
There are lots of articles out there about how the internet has changed the way we shop for lingerie, but I’d argue that it’s done something more meaningful: it’s made lingerie of all styles and types available without the potentially intimidating and embarrassing boutique experience. It’s given us permission to experience lingerie in our own way, whether that’s superhero-themed garter belts or ruffled burlesque-style pieces. Internet shopping has given us the tools to find lingerie that means something to us, without getting a middleman like a boutique involved. In the last few years indie designers have taken up the challenge wholeheartedly, creating everything from rainbow unicorn panties to elaborate bondage style designs that walk the line between underwear and outerwear.
Unless you’re lucky enough to live near a really great boutique (and most of us are not) then your best bet to start getting to know the fun side of lingerie is to start with an online size calculator. Arm yourself with a soft tape measure and take each measurement twice. Then plug the numbers into the calculator and you’re ready to go! A good calculator will give you results in both UK and US bra sizes, which are actually different. You can also find charts with bra “sister sizes”, which basically translates as bras you can squeeze into and still have them fit reasonably well. You can use this when you find the bra of your dreams but it doesn’t quite come in your size range.
If you do want to go the old-fashioned boutique route, I’d still recommend starting with the calculator. Many people actually wear a bigger cup size than they think, so it’s good to know what your size might be so you can see if your local boutique carries it. Don’t forget to check out Yelp reviews as well: people are generally pretty upfront if their boobs were unexpectedly grabbed or if they felt judged. This lets you get all of the information you need upfront and figure out what your comfort level is when it comes to strangers and your breasts.
Once you do figure out your bra size, try not to think about it too much. There’s a huge stigma in this country when it comes to women who have D cup and above breasts, which unfortunately spills over into how we feel about our own bodies when we discover our actual bra size. The industry has expanded a lot, which means that there is truly a piece of lingerie out there for everyone. There is a bra for you whether you’re a K cup, have a large band size and a small cup, are plus-size or are petite. If you do go to a boutique and they tell you that no one makes your size, then that’s your cue to walk out. All that means is that they don’t carry your size and that they’re too proud to send you to someplace that does.
Many women hate lingerie shopping, and I get why: we get so focused on functional beige bras and what we need that it’s easy to ignore or to just miss what we want. While everyone probably needs a beige bra or two, I advocate filling in the rest of your drawer with pieces that actually speak to you. With some savvy Google skills and some basic knowledge, you can put together a lingerie collection that can take you from Wonder Woman to a fairy elf princess in zero time at all.
Once you’ve gotten your size down, you can start exploring the giant landscape of lingerie online. The big sites can be great for standard brands and frequently have great sales, which makes them ideal for buying basics and for trying a new brand without spending half your paycheck on a bra. I’m an especially big fan of some of the house brand lines that sites like Figleaves are trying, which feature everything from affordable stretch lace pieces to bras that look like showgirl inspired.
If you really want to find all the potential treasures that the lingerie world has to offer, then it’s time to check out independent designers. Etsy is a hub for them, but many also have separate websites. Independent designers are what make the lingerie industry work. Trends that show up in independent lines filter down to mainstream brands a year or two later. Ever wondered why all the bras at Target use the same kind of styling and who comes up with it? You can probably thank an independent designer who came up with the idea previously.
Indie lingerie has a reputation for being inaccessible and expensive. But while some luxury brands are open only to those with trust funds, many indie brands are designed for everyday women in a wide variety of sizes. Custom panties can start as low as $20 a pair, which is a treat that can fit into lots of budgets. But mostly what independent designers specialize in is variety. Want a swimsuit that can make you feel like a mermaid? It’s out there. Want a vintage style garter belt with donuts on it? An indie designer makes that too. It’s all out there on Etsy, from stockings that feature lists of the seven deadly sins to Harley Quinn-inspired plus-size babydolls.
The best part about independent lingerie is that most of it relies on measurements rather than pre-determined sizing. So many of the body anxieties that we carry around are related to specific size ranges, whether it’s having D cup breasts or having to shop in the plus-size lingerie section instead of the regular one. Before I got into the lingerie industry as a career, I had a ton of anxiety whenever I had to buy bras. As an extremely busty size 14, boutiques were full of potential landmines. Would they carry my size? Would they call me fat? Did I even deserve nice lingerie – wasn’t it for other people? The Internet has allowed me to opt out of all of these stress-inducing situations and just enjoy lingerie that works for me.
At the end of the day, everyone’s body is just a set of basic measurements. Indie designers prioritize your set of measurements over standard sizing, which means that you get to be you in a judgment-free zone. I’ve worked with astounding amounts of indie designers over the years, both as a customer and as a consultant, and I’ve never heard them express an opinion about anyone’s body. They care about making art and they care about doing it accurately: their worst nightmare is generally that one of their pieces might not work for someone or might accidentally make them feel bad about themselves. These people love lingerie, but they’re mostly caring human beings that want other people to feel good. If they didn’t they’d all be doing something that paid a lot better than being an independent lingerie designer.
The value of searching out lingerie that speaks to you is immense. I never feel as much like myself as I do when I’m wearing lingerie that I adore. While it sounds basic, finding lingerie that makes you feel good about yourself can truly change your whole outlook on life, or at least your outlook on the average Tuesday. The best part is that lingerie can reflect a part of yourself that you don’t need anyone else to see. You can dress for the person in your head and your heart, without worrying about what anyone else might think.
Lingerie has always been marketed as something you do for someone else, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of the women I know who are lingerie-holics have partners who have no interest in bras or panties, no matter how sexy they may be. These are women buy for themselves, as another act of self-expression and self-care. If you want one there’s a lingerie set out there that fits your moods and your emotions, whether you hope to be a (secret) badass in the boardroom in a pinstripe set or channel your inner Hollywood starlet. All you have to do is be willing to look.