A few years ago, I stumbled upon the subreddit ABraThatFits, where people share their struggle to find a bra and pass along what they have learned. While scrolling through the forum, I often came across a specific piece of advice: go Polish.
The Redditors mentioned a few brands in particular, Ewa Michalak and Comexim, but there are 47 companies listed on their “Polish guide.” As it turns out, lingerie experts and enthusiasts hold a special reverence for bras made in Poland, and a growing number of boutiques in the United States carry them.
Laura Henny, the owner of the Rack Shack, a boutique on Central Avenue in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, gets calls every week about whether she stocks Ewa Michalak bras.
She herself wears Ewa Michalak bras most of the time. “They’re extremely comfortable, and I just really like the shape that they give,” Ms. Henny said.
Tina Omer, the owner of Aphrodite’s Closet in San Antonio, said she wears mostly Nessa, another Polish brand, and stocks Nessa and Ewa Michalak in her shop.
Both proprietors praise these brands’ materials and the construction. Most Polish bras, even those made by larger manufacturers, are still designed and constructed in Poland by hand, with fabrics and laces from Italy and Spain.
And unlike in the United States, where confusion and misinformation abound about bands and cups, care is taken with sizing. Many Polish designers follow the principles of “brafitting” (in Poland, one word), which begins with the idea that regardless of whether your breasts are small or large, simply measuring across and under the bust will not produce a bra that fits.
To understand Polish bras, you first need to understand brafitting. The practice originated in Britain, and it’s touted and heatedly discussed by an online community of frustrated bra shoppers, fitters and manufacturers scattered around the world.
The fundamental tenet of brafitting is that the band of a bra — the number in someone’s bra size — provides most of the support, and in many cases should be smaller than what standard sizing methods spit out.
There is plenty of technical terminology (my breasts are not “saggy” but “pendulous”). And, of course, community spats spring up (“Strapgate”).
One basic agreement among brafitters? American bras, for the most part, don’t fit.
“When I see the underwear in the U.S., even in the movies, it’s a disaster for me,” said Agnieszka Jablonska, a brafitter trained in Britain who works in sales for the Polish brand Samanta.
For a long time I thought I was a 36C because that’s what they told me at Victoria’s Secret. When I entered five (!) measurements into a calculator that approximates brafitting principles, created by the Reddit folks, it said I was a 32F.
Producing a wide size range is complicated and expensive, so companies producing bras for big chains avoid it. Many American brands — with notable exceptions, like Rihanna’s line Savage x Fenty — only go up to D, DD or DDD cups.
But brafitters say that D cups, when properly fit, are for breasts generally perceived to be small, and that many women wearing them might prefer the fit of E, F, G, or H cups (and beyond). If someone at a chain store measures you and says you’re a DD cup, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have enormous breasts, they say — it might just be that DD is the biggest size the store has, and they want to sell it to you. The brafitting community is leery of Big Bra. The cultural notion that D cups are big is actually just a quirk of industrial production, and decisions by individual companies to increase margins wherever possible.
In 2008, Julia Krysztofiak-Szopa started an online Polish discussion forum “bra community” called Balkonetka. Thousands of women posted detailed reviews and photos of their bras.
A few years later, she moved from Warsaw to Palo Alto, Calif. When she looked for bras in her size, 34HH, at Macy’s and Nordstrom, she found that nearly all of them stopped at D.
So Ms. Krysztofiak-Szopa started ordering her bras from Poland. For several years, she and her sister sold bras made by Comexim to American women, through a company they started called Wellfitting.
“I thought, this is really weird — supposedly the largest economy in the world, with a massive consumer market, massive shopping malls, and they have no freakin’ D plus bras,” she said. “And Americans don’t have a tiny frame, at the end of the day. So I was very surprised to see there is something off about how American brands treat their consumers, trying to lock them into just four sizes, and trying to tell women that if they do not fit, there’s something off about them.”
The Hang Over
On a recent trip to Poland, I decided to see whether I could find the perfect bra, and find out for myself why the ones made there are said to be so special.
I began my quest in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow that is now trendy, at a tiny boutique called Brafitteria. I noticed a few brafitting certifications on the wall, including some from courses by the British lingerie company Panache.
British lingerie companies were the first to produce wider size ranges. In the mid-2000s, after Poland joined the European Union, bras made by these brands made it back to Poland.
Local manufacturers began expanding their own size ranges about 10 years ago after pressure from online communities like Balkonekta.
After trying about 10 bras under the gentle guidance of a brafitter named Ludmila, I bought a sheer Prussian blue one with sprays of pink floral embroidery on the cups, from the brand Samanta (209 zloty, about $55). It looked like it had been tattooed onto me. (A signature of Polish bras is narrow wires and deep cups that mold closely to your body.)
“The Polish wire just so perfectly fits,” said Agnieszka Socha, who started the Academy of Professional Brafitting, which teaches and offers certification in the practice, in 2011. She prepped me on the basics of Polish bras before my trip. “If you just put it on the chest, it fits like somebody made it only for you. It’s not too wide — it’s just perfect.”
Next: the mall. I figured I had to. At Ewa Bien, a store in Galeria Kazimierz, I tried on my favorite design of dozens of bras I tried on my trip: a beige balconette with yellow and green floral embroidery, and salmon pink piping on the cups. It reminded me of a botanical drawing, and it was on sale for 158 zloty (about $40).
At another shop near the mall, the brafitter said my breasts were asymmetrical. This wouldn’t bother me, but it was never mentioned any of the other times I was measured. That shop made me tired, so I stopped at a pierogi shack before going to bed early.
The next morning, I took a train to Lodz, Poland’s third-largest city, three hours north of Krakow. Ewa Michalak and Comexim are based there, and a lingerie trade show was happening that weekend. I wanted to see if I could find a perfect bra at the source.
One could call Lodz and the surrounding region the lingerie capital of Poland. During the years of the Polish People’s Republic, one government-run lingerie company in the area was a major employer. In the early 1990s, that factory broke out into hundreds of independent lingerie companies.
“Almost every second house did something in lingerie,” said Marzena Pudlowska, the co-owner of KrisLine, founded in 1992. KrisLine is one of few companies that managed to survive past that period — in part, Ms. Pudlowska thinks, because of its decision to respond to consumers by expanding its size range.
New designers like Ewa Michalak and Comexim had the perfect ingredients to make bras with a global reputation: makers with decades of experience, access to high-quality materials and a willingness to produce bras that fit pretty much everyone.
There are no fluffy couches at the Ewa Michalak factory. Once in the fitting room, you will be asked to take off everything on top, and bend over at a 90 degree angle. You’ll be measured with your bare breasts hanging toward the floor.
About 100 women visit the factory every month for this experience, coming from as far as Canada and Australia. The designer has a reputation for engineering some of the best-fitting bras in the world, particularly for larger breasts.
Ms. Michalak’s cousin Gosia, who works at the company, put on latex gloves and draped a tape measure on my back, measuring the circumference around my dangling nipples. I braced my hands on the wall for balance. The precision and awkwardness of this method gave me absolute confidence in it.
Ms. Michalak — long blond hair with pink ombré tips, pink high heels, cat’s-eye glasses — observed from the corner, offering notes to her staff in Polish. I’m not sure what she was saying, but it sounded expert.
Ms. Michalak used to design lingerie at other companies, but she got bored. She started attending meet-ups of the online bra forum Lobby Biusciastych, or “Busty Lobby.”
There, she asked women to try on bras she had designed herself. This is how she developed her unique sizing method.
She explained to me that if someone has pendulous breasts, measuring while she is standing up doesn’t really tell you how much breast the bra must support. Neither does measuring someone who is already wearing a bra.
“With bigger and therefore heavier breasts, different technical solutions are needed for bras,” she said in Polish, with her staff helping to translate. “In fact, a whole other approach to constructing bras is in order.”
I had never bought a padded bra before — they never looked right — but I left with two that looked great: a tan plunge with a pearl drop in the center (about $54); and a black lace plunge with decorative straps (about $61).
No one needs to be reminded that there are many more important things to be concerned with than underwear. (In Poland, as in the United States.) But many women wear bras every day, and like other banal aspects of daily life, considering them in any depth can reveal subtle injustices of the market. The market determines which bodies are normal, and by extension, who is deserving of clothes that fit.
I didn’t find one perfect bra in Poland, but I left with five new ones that help me stand a bit taller. Before I discovered the brafitters I would often catch my reflection in a window while walking. I’d feel a little embarrassed about the excessive movement of my chest, and my hunched posture.
But I didn’t perceive the bras as not fitting me. I just thought that my breasts had a weird, abnormal shape.
Ms. Socha said that for a while, Polish bra makers looked abroad for validation, the way a woman might look to clothes to validate ideas about “normal” bodies.
“Sometimes, we think, as a country, that maybe we’re not good enough,” she said, “but we are.”