The problems and challenges of cup sizes  

April 22, 2017 written by
The Problem & Challenges of cup Sizes

In the Hohenstein underwear project in 2001, in which over 1500 women were measured and interviewed, it was established that more than 50% of the women were wearing the wrong bra size. Similar surveys in Australia and the UK have shown that figure to be as high as over 80%.  A survey by Van de Velde Lingerie in 2011 confirmed that high proportion, with a result of 70%. The American underwear manufacturer Jockey International announced in spring 2013, when it introduced a new sizing system for its own bras, that it was working on the basis that 80% of women wear badly fitting bras.

Why is this so? The reason lies mainly in the existing system of bra sizes which does not allow the bra cup size to be determined by breast volume. Making underwear that fits properly for women of all sizes, body types and age groups is not possible using the current cup system. Women’s body shapes vary too much, especially when it comes to their breasts. That is why the Hohenstein Institute set up a research project with the aim of developing a new system that would allow bra cup sizes to be determined in accordance with body shape and breast volume.


We spoke to expert Mrs. Simone Morlock, who is working for the department Function & Care at Hohenstein and has been pioneering this innovation to understand how this new approach is going to bring about a revolution.

How many women have problems finding correctly fitting bras and why does this happen?

Over 35 million women and girls in Germany wear a bra every day. Of course, worldwide there are significantly more.This huge market volume alone shows why it is especially important for the manufacturers of foundation garments and cup-based clothing to design products that fit reliably. However, national and international studies suggest that over 50% of women wear a badly fitting bra and that many women have major problems finding the right bra size for them.

In Germany, bra size is indicated by a number and a letter, e.g. 75 B. The number indicates the circumference below the bust in centimetres, and the letter indicates the cup size. The cup size is based on the difference between the circumference around the breasts and that below the breasts.

Cup size is based on the difference between the circumference around and below the breasts. © Hohenstein Gruppe


That is what customers use when buying bras in the shops and that is also what determines other parameters in designing patterns for products that incorporate a cup such as foundation garments, swimwear and body hugging clothing. However, simply measuring the difference between the circumference around and below the breasts gives no indication of the actual shape or volume of the breast. One of the results of this is that cup shapes and sizes from different manufacturers vary considerably. It also leads to great uncertainty among customers when they try to find the correct size.


In terms of measurements, all three women have the same cup size, but the volume varies. How much volume should be assigned to each Bra cup size?

© Hohenstein Gruppe

One reason for this problem is that women who have the same circumference measurements and breast circumferences sometimes have very different body proportions. This means that, even though the dimensions may be the same, the cup volume and shape of the breast may vary significantly. Different underwear manufacturers use different cup sizes because of the lack of information about breast volume. Customers are therefore unable to find standard sizes in the shops. Consequently retailers, especially in the mail order and online businesses, experience lots of problems and returns in relation to these products. The problem of the lack of standard sizing is one of the main reasons why most women wear badly or incorrectly fitting bras.

What type of health problems can occur due to a badly fitting bra?

Quite apart from the question of comfort, wearing bras that are too tight or fit badly can cause skin irritation and other health problems. These include, primarily, arm and shoulder problems, tension in the shoulder girdle and neck area, headaches and problems with the cervical spine, and even back ache in the lower parts of the spinal column.  Bra straps that are too narrow, cut in to the flesh or are incorrectly positioned can irritate and put strain on the trapezius muscles and the complex structures of the shoulder joint.

Why did the Hohenstein Institute decide to develop a new system for measuring bra cup size and what were the key questions you set out to answer?

90% of all women wear a bra every day. So this is a large and important market with huge commercial potential. However, the manufacturers face the particular challenge of having to develop properly-fitting underwear products for women of all sizes, body types and age groups, and trying to meet market requirements.  The main problem is that traditional measuring methods don’t take account of the actual volume of the breast.  That’s why a new way of defining cup size is required.

The key questions to be addressed by the research project were “Which body parameters affect bra cup size?”, “What kind of anthropometric process is required to determine cup volume reliably and accurately?” and “How can cup sizes be assigned accurately, taking account of the actual volume of the breast?” The latest 3D technologies were used in the research work.


Which demographic took part?

At Hohenstein we have a pool of data from about 12,000 3D-scans of women, the result of various size surveys Germany since 1999. These formed the basis for the research work on bra cup sizes. The random sample covers an age range from 18 to 80 years and bra cup sizes from AA to J. The sample includes everyone from very slim women to plus-size women, and so represents a very good basis for anthropometric study.

Can you explain your new approach?

Our innovative solution includes developing a new state-of-the-art method that allows the cup size to be determined in relation to breast volume.

The results of the research are in the form of data about breast volume and new breast measurements which can be used to supplement and update existing traditional size charts for foundation garments. Those body parameters have been described which affect the volume of the breasts, and solutions proposed for how the process of determining cup size could be improved. The researchers also developed virtual 3D cup models for visualising cup sizes and used them to construct volume-based 3D basic patterns. The results also show the extent to which successful marketing of foundation garments depends on both the product and the target market. There can never be one standard solution that is suitable for all circumstances.

Bra Cup size models in size 75, Cup A to B – Based on statistical analysis of breast measurements, and 3D shape analysis, researchers developed average 3D models to visualise average breast volume. © Hohenstein Gruppe

The new findings from the project describe the specific sizing requirements for foundation garments and cup-based clothing products, and constitute an important basis for further development. They will help to improve the fit of products, assist customers in finding the right size and reduce high product development costs. The virtual breast models that have been developed also provide useful fitting principles for use in 3D simulation and design systems.

Volume-based pattern development based on 3D scans – the new data on breast volume was converted into optimized basic patterns for use in pattern-cutting. © Hohenstein Gruppe


Is it true that there can never be one standard solution when it comes to measuring breast size for all women?

Making underwear that fits properly for women of all sizes, body types and age groups is not possible using the current cup system. Women’s body shapes vary too much, especially when it comes to their breasts.

The volume and therefore the size of breasts varies very widely. Furthermore, the breast tissue is very flexible and is supported, shaped and therefore in some cases significantly changed by the bra. That’s why the breast measurements always depend on the particular bra model that the customer is wearing at the time of the measurement.  In order to obtain reproducible measurements in size surveys, and also in the customised production of underwear, we need to define specifications for a standardised bra that all volunteers should wear in the right size for them.

However, that is not possible for customers when they are shopping. That’s why it is very difficult for customers to find the right bra size by measuring themselves.

Who do you think can benefit from your project?

The research results describe the basic principles which are needed to be taken into account when developing, producing and marketing foundation garments and cup-based clothing products. However, it is not only the manufacturers of underwear, orthopaedic items and ladies’ outerwear who will benefit. It will also be to the advantage of customers themselves if the results of the research can be used to develop and market bra shapes that are more adapted to customers’ body shapes. It will be easier for them to find the right size in the shops and, secondly, it will help ensure that more women wear a correctly fitting bra. The researchers hope that, in the long term, typical health problems such as skin irritation, shoulder and back problems and shoulder strain caused by badly fitting bras can be avoided.

Are you planning to carry out research on any other countries?

Similar research studies in other countries can only ever be carried out in cooperation with their national institutes or companies.

The project was only completed in December 2016. No new work is currently being carried out. But the work should definitely be continued in national and international partnerships with other institutes and companies.

Are you working with any brands right now?

The subject of bra cup size was studied as part of a research project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). Various well-known German companies were actively involved in the project and supported the scientific work with their technical expertise, willingness to give advice and constructive cooperation.

The project was only completed in December 2016. No new work is currently being carried out. But the work should definitely be continued in national and international partnerships with manufacturing companies.


Sizing is a big issue in our part of the world. Many Asian women undoubtedly wear the wrong sized bra for most of their lives. Will Indian brands also benefit from this project?

Size surveys to measure body dimensions can only ever be carried out on a national basis, because the body morphology of different ethnic groups can sometimes vary widely. Since there are also big differences in body shape and dimensions between Europeans and Asians, the breast measurements from European surveys cannot be transferred 1:1 to the Asian population. Nevertheless, Indian brands can still benefit from the research. Firstly, the results will be important for those Indian brands which serve not only the Asian market but also  the European market. Secondly, the research results can be used as a basis for adapting the system to the Asian market.

If so, then how are they going to have access to the project and use the data?

Any company that is interested can obtain a research report which presents all the results and describes them in detail. However, since the work was carried out as part of a research project sponsored by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the report is currently only available in German. Nevertheless, it may be possible, in the context of international partnerships with interested companies, to apply the research to other countries and continue it there. Then the results could be translated into English and made available as required.



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