Why Bras Cost What They Do

by Estelle Puleston

A guest post from lingerie designer and blogger Estelle Puleston. Check out her lingerie blog for regular reviews, shopping guides, lingerie care advice and more.

How much did you pay for your last bra? Like any fashion item, bras vary wildly in price depending on the quality and the brand, but they almost always cost more than the matching briefs that go with them. At major high-street retailers, bra prices hover around $40-60. Look to a luxury brand and bras can very easily cost $100 or more.

For most people, that’s no small investment, particularly considering you’ll likely need a range of different bras to suit different necklines and occasions. A 2009 study found women own an average of 16 bras at any one time, which easily adds up to $600-1000 at average, t-shirt bra type prices, more if you want to throw in a few fancy ones.

It’s understandable that you may question why brands charge these kinds of prices for what is ultimately a rather small garment. You could buy a dress or pair of jeans for the same! So why do bras cost what they do? What’s the justification for the price tag?

So many different things go into the price of a bra, but one of the most obvious ones is the materials it’s made from. If you want a fancy fabric – and by fancy I don’t just mean beautiful laces, but things like sweat-wicking fabric on a sports bra – those cost more, so your bra costs more.

The lace trim and pretty ribbon detailing on this Ewa Michalak S Glamour bra add to its price, not just because the materials cost money themselves but because sewing them onto the bra takes additional time.

Lingerie pattern pieces also tend to be unusual little shapes. You can’t interlock them Tetris-style on a piece of fabric as easily as you can say, quite rectangular trouser-leg pattern pieces, so more fabric is leftover. This fabric wastage still costs the manufacturer money, so it has to be accounted for in the final price of the garment.

I asked Kimberly Hamilton from Kimtimates what was the most expensive component for her when creating bras: “ It’s always the embroideries. I have to make careful considerations when grading to reduce as much waste as possible and maximise the usage of ‘pretty’ bits of the fabric. Don’t want to be throwing money in the bin! ”.

Fabric is just one of many components that go into a typical bra though. I own a number of t-shirts that are literally made from 5 pieces – a front panel, back panel, two sleeve pieces, and a strip of binding around the neckline. By contrast, a bralette I sewed recently used 29 different pieces – and a wired bra would use more! That included decorations, but the equally-decorative shorts I made to match it only used 11 pieces total.

The Ewa Michalak SM Kusidelko bra has 4-part cups in larger sizes for additional support, but that’s one more piece to cut out and sew into the mix.

Along with all those inidividual pieces comes additional sewing time to join them all together. Want a bra with 3-part rather than 1 or 2-part cups to provide adequate support for a larger cup size? That’s going to take longer, and therefore cost more, to make.

Okay, so I think we’ve established that bras are complex little things that take time and multiple components to put together. Yet that’s just the beginning of the story – so much more goes into the cost of a bra than what’s required to physically sew it!

“Making bras for me is the physical cost, but also the emotional cost. My brand is like my baby and I am very protective of it” – Sandra Palmer, owner of full-bust brand Louise Ferdinand

Let’s talk about overheads – all businesses have them. For an online retailer, overheads include things like web hosting fees. Brick-and-mortar retailers need to pay all sorts of expenses from rent and electricity, to wages for their sales staff. Both business types will typically need to pay for marketing and buy or rent warehouse space to store all of their products.

None of these costs directly impact the cost of your bra, but without them, producing that bra wouldn’t be possible in the first place. In order for a business to stay profitable, these costs need to be covered by the revenue they’re bringing in, and that means adding an ‘overheads margin’ into the bra’s price.

Zathiya’s interactive bra size calculator didn’t appear out of nowhere – it would have required research and an experienced web designer to put it together. Resources such as this can be super helpful, but they’re not free to create and the retailer must recoup the cost somehow.

For many brands there are also costs involved in hiring fit models, or experienced pattern graders. Grading patterns up for larger sizes gets more and more complex the higher you go, and if a brand focusses on the DD+ or plus-sized market then working with fit models is often crucial to ensure that the product fits really well in multiple sizes. Kimberly Hamilton also told me that building the patterns is the most time-consuming part of her design process (patterns must be within a 0.3mm tolerance in order to get the fit spot-on), much more so than actually sewing the bra.

Coming back to materials for a moment, larger sizes often also require different or more materials – thicker underwires, an extra lining or side slings inside the cups, taller hooks-and-eye fastenings – which add to the cost.

So with that plus the expense of potentially multiple fit models means you can typically expect to pay more for a DD+ bra than an A-D one. Yep, it sucks when you’re one of the people who needs a DD+ size, but that’s just life. The extra cost is paying for everything that goes into ensuring the bra you’ll receive works for your body – that it fits well and supports you in the right places.

I could go on and on – I haven’t even touched on things like wholesale margins, luxury finishes, sweatshop vs. ethical labour, or the import fees a retailer such as Zathiya that stocks foreign brands must pay – but hopefully this has provided some justification on why a price tag of $40-60 is entirely reasonable for a mass-produced, mid-range bra.

So, how much did you pay for the last bra you bought? And do you now think it was a fair price to pay?