The Lingerie Addict's Cora Harrington On Labor, Bra Sizes, and the Problem with Victoria's SecretIn Depth
Vogue’s Nicole Phelps recently interviewed Ed Razek, chief marketing officer at Victoria’s Secret, about the company’s legacy and relevance in 2018. The lingerie giant had just wrapped its annual, much-discussed fashion show, and the brand had just gotten a boost from the Kardashian-Jenner clan’s decision to don the iconic angel wings and underthings for their Halloween costumes, racking up millions of likes and a barrage of press.
But the interview revealed vulnerability from a brand that has been a household name for over thirty years. Phelps asked whether Victoria’s Secret would take diversity and inclusivity more seriously—especially considering Savage X Fenty’s use of plus-size models and a very pregnant Slick Woods in its runway show—and Razek grew defensive, saying it would be “pandering” if they attempted something similar, because “the brand has a specific image, has a point of view. It has a history.” He went on to explain that Victoria’s Secret is about fantasy, not inclusivity, or political correctness, or pleasing pesky reporters.
“No one is impressed by a size range that ends at 40DDD anymore,” Harrington tweeted, adding that, “Victoria’s Secret can and should do more.” She continued: “An 80 year old man owns the company and a 70 year old man runs it. And their archaic perspectives—on women, on gender, on plus size folks, on trans folks—are making VS a worse brand by the day.”
But Harrington was equally quick to set the record straight about the company’s supposed terminal illness, noting that neither Savage X nor ThirdLove can yet touch the mall stalwart’s revenues; “Victoria’s Secrets sales are declining and the brand name has low consumer affinity at the moment, but anyone who tells you they’re on the verge of dying or going out of business or imploding, is incorrect,” she wrote.
Harrington is a realist. If she’s not telling you to save the “Victoria’s Secret is dead” takes, she’s reminding you that spending more than $40 on a bra isn’t actually “bad” or “unfair.” And she can do this with authority, because Cora Harrington knows her shit. With The Lingerie Addict, she turned a hobby into a full-time job; at the site, she and her contributing writers review lingerie and offer informative guides for junkies and casual underwear-wearers alike. Her approach is fluff-free; for instance, in 2017, Harrington decided that TLA would no longer accept review products from brands.
Harrington recently expanded her reach with her first book—In Intimate Detail, a manual to the world of underthings in an aesthetically pleasing, hardcover package. Between illustrated guides to breast shapes and tips on buying corsets lies a dash of panty politics followers will recognize from her online presence. I spoke with Harrington on the phone about the labor of lingerie, the problem with Victoria’s Secret, and the real reason why bras cost so much before meeting with her in person for a personal bra fitting. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: I think that for a long time bra discourse was like, “Oh, you’re wearing the wrong bra size! How crazy!” What I really love about In Intimate Detail is that it kind of moves beyond that. What does it mean to wear the right size? What does it mean to have different shapes and sizes? But I also think that it’s interesting that you wrote that the most important thing to remember is that, “nothing replaces trial and error.” I think that that’s something that a lot of people might be turned off by. Do you think that people should be prepared, if they’re ready to go on this lingerie journey, to have a variety of different bra sizes in their collection?
CORA HARRINGTON: Yes! For most people, they’re going to wear more than one size. Not just throughout their lives, but even from week to week or month to month. People get really—and I don’t know how true this is in other countries but it’s definitely true in America—people get really hung up on being a size. “I am a C cup. I am a D cup. This is my size.” And they’re afraid to move beyond a double D. Like, you might just get a better fit if you’re willing to expand a little bit. Every bra brand is cutting their bras a little bit different, cutting their shapes and sizes a little bit different. So if a bra is a little shallower, you might need to go up a cup size. Or if it’s a really deep plunge and you find yourself spilling out, you may need to go up some. This is all normal, and I always tell people that this is a good thing. Because the thing people usually say in response is that, “This would be so much easier if every brand just made their bras exactly the same.” Well, who does that benefit? If every bra is exactly the same, now when you can’t wear a bra you’re screwed!
These little variations, these nuances—I know they’re frustrating, having to try on all these bras and all these styles. There’s just no shortcut or hack around that. But it’s really the only way to really find a bra that works for us.
It’s really interesting how people are very set on being a size, almost like it’s part of their identity. But when people become aware that they’re not wearing the right size, there’s a sense of shame for some people that comes with having to go up a cup size or to go beyond the bounds of what you might find at a Victoria’s Secret, which doesn’t really go beyond a double D.
Right, there’s this idea—definitely in America—that a double D is this huge, enormous, impossible size! And if you have to go beyond that, there couldn’t possibly be any letters beyond a D cup. This is definitely true in America where you start seeing double D, triple D, quadruple D, quintuple D cup, as opposed to just using other letters of the alphabet.
All the double D cup means is that there are five inches of difference between your bust at its fullest point and your ribcage. That’s literally all it translates to. I have five inches of difference between my bust and my rib cage. I sister size into a C cup because I have a broad back, so a bigger band is more comfortable for me. But like, nobody’s going to look at me and think, “Oh, you’d be a 30 DD” which is what my size would be using the [measuring] methods in my book. A double D cup is not a large size. I think if we could just put the focus on people being comfortable as opposed to focusing so much on letters and numbers…
There are so many folks who would be way more comfortable in a size 30 F who are walking around with a 38 D or something because just the idea of moving beyond a D cup is just really scary for them. We need to get rid of it, especially when we’re talking about younger people. Teenagers and young adults are really harmed by this idea. My site isn’t for teenagers, it’s not how I brand it, but people write to me and are they’re like, “I went to the bra shop and they told me I wear a 34 G, and my mom was like ‘There’s no way you can wear a G cup, we’re just getting you a double D.’” That’s really not fair, and it’s not comfortable! You’re setting your kid up for possibly years of pain and discomfort all because you don’t want to consider sizes beyond a double D.
There are so many folks who would be way more comfortable in a size 30 F who are walking around with a 38 D or something because just the idea of moving beyond a D cup is just really scary for them.
I think if we just get people to think about bras as something that their primary purpose is to help you live your best life, and what the tag says is only relevant insofar as it helps you live your best life, then that would help so many people.
What I’ve noticed—and I’m talking as someone who wears a large cup size, I think I’m like a 36 H right now—is that it seems more accessible to find these larger bra sizes in Europe and the UK than in America. Why is that?
You know, I don’t know the initial reasons behind why that happened. It might be that the UK was just more open to selling these sizes in a way that the US market just wasn’t. I might be that the UK market had more room for more major players and more major brands than the US market. I mean in America it’s not just cultural factors that influence our accessibility, it’s geographical factors. The fact that the country is really really big, first of all. For most people, their access to a lingerie shop is going to be a Victoria’s Secret, or the lingerie section at Target, or something like that. In the UK, you have Bravissimo stores, you have lots of brick and mortar shops. Maybe they’re not right next door, but you can take a train to them. That’s not really our experience. The town I grew up in in Georgia was 100 miles from the nearest lingerie boutique. The only place I could buy a bra in my hometown was from the malls, from the Victoria’s Secret. So when that’s all you have access to, that’s going to affect what you think of as normal, what you think of as possible. That’s going to have an influence on what you think of as a good price. It’s going to get wrapped up into your ideas of lingerie.
Since we’re on the topic of Victoria’s Secret…I know that you’ve written about them before. It’s interesting to see news stories every few months about Victoria’s Secret’s falling into decline, and this and that. If you could sum up what Victoria’s Secret isn’t getting, what would it be?
Yeah, they’re not getting that their marketing isn’t working anymore. [Laughs]
Victoria’s Secret just missed all the boats when it came to expanding on the access of plus sizes, expanding on the access of full bust sizes, and when it came to expanding the diversity of their models. One thing Victoria’s Secret has done well, especially compared to other lingerie brands, is having women of color—and especially black women—in their catalogs and their fashion shows. That’s a major area that the lingerie industry constantly falls short on. But the market was wide open for them to expand into those E, F, and G cups, and into those 38, 40, and 42 band sizes, and they chose not to. That was a silly mistake.
the market was wide open for [Victoria’s Secret] to expand into those E, F, and G cups, and into those 38, 40, and 42 band sizes, and they chose not to.
Do you think a lot of that has to do with keeping costs down? In your book, you talk about price differentiation when it comes to bra sizes, the fact that they have to be hand-constructed, and the difference between a bra you’ll get for under $45 and over $45. Do you think that that’s just greed and costs because they didn’t want to put more work into doing it?
I mean, Victoria’s Secret has so much money, and their scale is so large, and they have access to so many resources—so many factories and so many designers—that the amount of work they would have had to put into it is less than what other companies would have to do. They have the infrastructure in place, they have the connections in place to do this. I give a lot of leeway to smaller brands, smaller designers. Like Nubian Skin is one where I was incredibly empathetic to the amount of time it took to expand her size range because it’s just like her [Ade Hassan] and one other person working at that brand!
Like, let her live!
Right, like a team of two versus a team of hundreds or thousands is different. So I am really empathetic to new brands, to small brands when it comes to size expansion. But Victoria’s Secret has been around for decades, has all these MBAs, all these analysts, all these designers, all these factories, all these people that I’m sure told them that this is the direction that they needed to go, and they chose not to.
They’re just less relevant. I do think news of their death is a little premature. And that’s one thing that I don’t like about the way we cover lingerie in mainstream media sources. People think that just because a company has an ad campaign in the subway, or just because they send out a lot of press releases, that they’re a major player in the US intimate apparel industry, and that’s not necessarily true. Victoria’s Secret still has plenty of market share, they still have plenty of stores. Just because they shrunk a little bit, doesn’t mean they’re about vanish. It just means they’re going to have less market share. There’s a long way to go before they’re not relevant to the US bra market anymore.
Regarding Victoria’s Secret’s lack of inclusivity: Even if it had well-meaning intentions, inclusivity has been infused into a lot of different brands; some, in bullshit ways. A brand will say they’re being inclusive, but not really expand their size range much. Or they’ll expand their sizes, but only have larger sizes available online. What do you think is a major red flag for lingerie brands claiming inclusivity?
We have to be specific about what we mean. There are lots of ways to be inclusive in intimate apparel. For example, inclusivity on the axis of age is often ignored when people are talking about inclusivity because most of the people writing about fashion and are influencers in their twenties. We never think about inclusivity for folks who are like 30, and 40, and 50. Are we talking about inclusivity on the axis of size? Like, how far do we go up for that? Because a lot of brands are expanding to size 24, but a lot of plus size bloggers are saying that’s not enough, real inclusivity means going up to a 30 or beyond. Are we talking about inclusivity on the axis of race? Well, then what does that look like? When using models of color, they may often be lighter skinned models of color. I think it helps to be more specific.
What I’m looking in inclusive lingerie brands: Are they using darker skinned models of color? Are they using women who are older than 35? Are they using physically plus size models? And when I say physically plus sized I mean… is she beyond a 12, 14, 16? Is she a size 20 plus? If they’re expanding into more nude tones—which was a big trend after Nubian Skin—do they keep those nude tones? Or are they abandoned after a season of press and PR?
I don’t think there’s any way for a brand to be perfectly inclusive and to get everything right, especially lingerie, because there are so many SKUs [stock keeping units]. There is no way for one single brand to make all sizes, and I do think that if someone is demanding that of a brand, then it’s just not reasonable. There are just too many sizes. Bra sizes start at a 26 band, goes up to a 56 band, and cup sizes start at a triple A and go up to P. That’s way more sizes than you’ll ever see from a brand that’s making dresses, or jeans, or shoes. And most people aren’t able to conceptualize what a full-sized range means for something like bras.
I do think that specialization is a good thing in the industry. Brands focusing on making really good plus size bras—really good full bust bras, for example—focusing on making really good nude bras in a range of skin tones. I think those kind of focuses are important, rather than wanting every single brand to do every single thing. Invoking the language of inclusivity is optional, you don’t have to make that language a part of your branding. But if you choose to, how inclusive are you? Are you in it for the long haul, are you aligning with people who reflect these values? Or are you just kind of doing the same old thing? A few years ago, there was a company that did a “what’s your nude?” campaign, and all the models they used were white! That to me is really inauthentic.
But I’m also different from a lot of other advocates or activists or bloggers or what have you, especially when it comes to intimate apparel. I am a lot more aware of what happens behind the scenes, so you’ll never see me saying “every brand should make every size,” because I actually know what that means in terms of real sizing. Nobody has that much money, it’s just not possible.
When it comes to fashion and labor, one conversation that has come up a lot recently is about the cost that is going into bras, how it reflects how much you pay for it, how much you expect to pay for it, etc. What is your biggest gripe when it comes to bra cost, and what’s the biggest misconception?
People really believe that bras shouldn’t cost anything because they don’t take a lot of fabric. That’s because most of us don’t sew anymore, so we don’t know that fabric is actually a fairly minimal cost for intimates. It’s the labor.
I mean, this is true for all sewing, to be honest. The reason your $5 white t-shirt costs $5 isn’t because it has more fabric, it’s because it’s from a place where the cost to make t-shirts is really low. So the biggest misconception, bar none, is that bras and panties and all these other items of intimate apparel shouldn’t cost anything because they don’t take a lot of fabric. The biggest expense by a good amount is the labor that goes into it.
Making a bra is highly specialized. It requires specialized materials; you can’t just use the same materials you use for a pair of pants because they’re not going to be supportive enough, you’re not going to be able to stitch them in the right way. But also, somebody has to sit down with those 30 pieces that go into the average bra. You have people sitting there, piecing it all together like a puzzle for every single one of your bras. Most of us don’t grow up learning how to sew. Most of us don’t grow up learning how to visually deconstruct an item of clothing where we can recognize its component parts. And because all of the labor of making our clothes has been largely outsourced overseas, most of us don’t know what we’re looking at when we’re looking at our clothing.
So that’s the thing I want to hammer home all the time. When you see a bra and it costs, like, five or ten dollars, and people think that that’s the real price of a bra, that no bra should cost that much. It’s like, no, you’re not really reading that price in the correct way. It’s not that charging $50 for a bra is overcharging you. It’s that that $5 bra—like, the person who made that was paid pennies.
People afford what they can afford. I really try not to frame these conversations like I’m judging people for not being able to buy $60 bras because wages are depressed for everybody, exploitation is global, capitalism messes with everybody. But I think there’s a difference between saying “I can only afford to spend $20 on a bra, what can I find that fits within my budget?” and saying, “No bra should cost more than $20.”
Do you think that reflects a larger problem that we as consumers have with our disconnect between where our clothes come from?
I do. And I don’t speak generally about the fashion industry. I stay focused on intimates because that’s my area. But if you had grown up watching people make your bras, or seen a friend sewing a bra, you’ll probably think very differently about the price at the end.
That $5 bra—like, the person who made that was paid pennies.
What do you say to someone who is like, “My bra size is a 38G and I don’t want to pay more than $40 for a bra”?
Look for sales. The great thing about bras is you can wear stuff from last season and nobody cares. I did an article on my site about where to buy cheap bras. For one, are you a UK G cup or US G cup? Because you really want to know that when you’re shopping; the number of options you’ll have will change. Then, look for sales. The big sales for lingerie are when stores are clearing out their previous seasons stock. Fig Leaves has a really great outlet section on their site. I’ve seen bras for $3.
Check eBay. I just bought a lingerie set off eBay for, like, nothing. One of my favorite bra brands—Claudette—discontinued; they made my favorite three-part cut and sew bra, which is the bra that’s the cut and sew illustration in the book. So I get them on eBay now, because apparently somebody bought up all the stock. If you know your size, your style, or you have your holy grail bra and you just really want to keep getting it but you understandably can’t afford to keep spending $50 every time you wear a bra out…Fig Leaves Outlet, eBay, there are bra swap groups on Facebook. There are places. Like, is it going to be as easy as just going to a store and shop? No, but there are places where you can find bras that are more affordable.
In the book, I have to say, I was looking in the section about how often to wash your bras and I was like, “Damn, I feel really grody!”
Well, those are ideals. A lot of the book is like, “In an ideal situation, here are the things you will do and here are the things you will buy.” And then there are certain things I had to change in the book. The first time I did the chapter on packing for a vacation, I was like, “You need a pair of underwear for every day you’re out of town, up to two weeks.” My editor was like, “Nobody’s packing 15 pairs of drawers.” [Laughs] But I mean! I feel like it’s counterproductive when you tell people, “Oh, you have to do it this way or you’re going to be dirty and should be ashamed.” I mean, that’s why I don’t like that whole “80 percent of women are wearing the wrong bra size” thing because you’re just starting up a conversation where people are like, “God, I’m the worst.”
Maybe you take the bra into the shower with you and that’s your washing. Or you toss it into the sink. Anything to make it easier and less threatening is good. I used to wash my sports bra in the shower with me because I’d leave them around sweaty for a while. It doesn’t have to be a big, complicated, intimidating thing.
The only hard and fast rule, I would say: Don’t put bras in the dryer, and that’s because you’re gonna mess ‘em up. However much you’re spending on a bra, it’s money that you could have spent on something else, and the dryer is just going to shorten the life of your bra so dramatically. I’m flexible about cotton underwear—like, yeah, it’s fine, throw that in the dryer, it doesn’t matter. And don’t put silk in the dryer, that’s just terrible, that hurts my heart.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because I thought, “Hmm, maybe a better question is what are your top three lingerie faux pas that make you go ‘NO! DON’T!’”
So, there are things that hurt me, and there are things where I’m like, “No, don’t do this, this will hurt you.”
One is don’t put your bra in the dryer. People are like “I got a bra and the wire popped out after one wear… and I put it in the dryer.” Yeah, that’s not the bra’s fault, sorry. Don’t wear shapewear that’s too small. A lot of people do this. They’re like, “Oh, a size medium is good, a size small or extra small is even better.” That’s a good way to get blood clots and broken skin and infections. Just a mess of things. And don’t exercise in shapewear. That’s a trend now apparently, people exercising in waist cinchers and what not. Don’t do that. That’s not what it’s for.
The other thing to remember is that there’s a relationship between price and quality. Everybody knows the saying, “You get what you pay for.” You cannot expect amazing quality and something to last forever if you don’t spend more than $20 on it. That’s just the way pricing in fashion works. So keep in mind to have appropriate expectations for what you’re buying. Whatever you can afford to buy is fine. We afford what we can afford. But just make sure your expectations are in line with what you’re able to buy.
In terms of me personally: abuse of silk! I don’t like that. I feel like there are certain garments that you really want to take care of. I really feel like if you’re going to splurge on something or treat yourself to something, it’s just important to take care of it. There’s a lot regarding fabric washing care and clothing washing care that’s kind of lost, and I think about back in the day, women had “lady’s maids” whose job it was to clean and launder and take care of their clothes, because different fabric and different types of fabric needed different handling. So there’s a lot of knowledge that we’ve lost.
Don’t put silk in the dryer, that’s just terrible, that hurts my heart.
Like the sewing that you mentioned earlier.
Right. And so sometimes you might want to splurge on something really nice, something luxurious, something expensive, but you don’t know how to care of it. And that taking-care-of piece is just as important. So if you don’t know how to take care of something like silk, silk satin, silk velvet, something like that, join my group, reach out to people on Twitter. If you buy a vintage item and you’re not sure how to take care of it, and you’re like “Oh, it has a smell, it has a stain, what do I do about that?” Reach out to people. There are thriving pockets of this lingerie community online where people will be happy to help you and give you guidance.
The same is true for corsets. I know tight lacing had a big resurgence a few years ago, tight lacing and waist training. Inevitably, a lot of people wound up getting hurt because they’re buying cheap plastic tubes and—
Trying to wriggle into them!
Right! Trying to waist train. And there’s a thriving corsetry community online. I’m a member of corsetry groups on Facebook, for example. People talk about corsets in my group. There are conferences dedicated to corsetry. There are places to get good information so you don’t hurt yourself in the process of exploring this love.
You’ve mentioned that indie brands really jumpstart these trends. What are some indie brands that you’ve noticed lately that you admire?
Lonely lingerie. I like them a lot. I don’t necessarily think they’re doing trendy things, per se, but their stuff’s really great.
Maybe Else Lingerie is another one, because they’re kind of tied into the bodysuit, geometric lace kind of trend. I think they may have some high leg things. They just feel really modern and of the moment to me in a way that reflects the way people are thinking about and looking at their lingerie today; where it’s not super frou-frou femme, but it still has this element of luxuriousness to it.
Another brand that’s doing really cool things is Playful Promises. When we talked about brands being authentic with inclusivity, they’re one that I would add to that list. They’ve been gradually expanding their size ranges over the last few years, they have a collection out with Gabi Fresh, they have a retro Betty Page line, a lower price peek and beau line, and a plus-size line. In terms of a brand that’s literally putting their money where their marketing is, I would say that they’re one. For their core brand, the core size, full bust, and plus size stuff is all the same style. I get the sense that they’ve really listened to what customers wanted to see, so that’s really exciting.
One of the things I really love about the book and the site is that you’re a wealth of knowledge. You’re so informed about this.
I just want people to be excited about this. I feel like once people know a little bit, they feel an excitement about knowing more. The hard thing is getting over that initial hump, that initial barrier to entry, where it’s like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much, there’s so much to know. There’s all this new languages, and these new words, and these new styles. Is my body weird? Is my size weird? There’s all this kind of anxiety and also a lot of pressure I think if you get it wrong, because people are really nasty, especially on the internet. I see my role as giving people the tools they need to lessen that anxiety and to lessen some of that stress and friction so that lingerie can seem like something fun and enjoyable as opposed to something that is a chore.
I’m excited about the future. Anytime that people are talking more about lingerie I get excited. Unless they get it wrong. Then I get sad.
Senior Producer Jennifer Perry Associate Producer Kayra Clouden, Creative Producer Dan Ashwood