Bralette vs Bra: What is the Difference Between a Bra and Bralette?

In 2015, the lingerie industry in the US garnered $13.2 billion in​​ sales. That was a distant time when bralettes were just being introduced in the market. It wouldn't be shocking if that figure has skyrocketed since then.

Thanks to the upgraded intimate collections of big brands like Forever 21 (the cult favorite), H&M, and Zara, the bralette has fully taken its place in the mainstream market. Now that women have more options, we're left to wonder what the difference between a bra and bralette is. Does it make a difference to know?

Bralette vs Bra

​Bralettes differ from bras in their structure and design. Bralettes generally include soft cups without wiring, unlike bras which primarily have wired, structured cups. A bralette is a type of bra. A bralette focuses more on the design and outward appearance of what the undergarment looks like.

Bras are regarded as heavily-structured pieces of undergarments that are an everyday essential to give the breasts some kind of support. Additionally, they’re worn almost invisibly underneath clothes to make them look better on a woman’s body.

Different colors and styles of bras scattered on the floor

On the other hand, bralettes don’t have much support or structure. Women wear them primarily for aesthetic purposes, lavish reasons, or plain old comfort. Originally, bralettes were created mostly for small busted women because of their lack of structure. As bralettes grew in popularity, companies began creating styles that were acceptable for larger chested women. Now, there are numerous ways to pair bralettes with different outfits for women of all chest sizes.

Which One Should You Pair with Outfits?

​For as long as we remember, bras have always been associated as being a necessity for occasions where we need to be dressed up. It hasn’t changed much. Now they’re more associated with being the undergarment of choice for any situation in a professional setting.

Bras are often required when it comes to places and events where we need to be look our best.. They’re also preferred when women just want to appear more flawless. This might be during formal events where women don’t want their undergarment to show.

Bralettes are known to be versatile and often times meant to be worn during more casual occasions. Bralettes can work well underneath t-shirts, sheer tops, and even worn solo with jeans. While generally meant for more casual settings, the beauty of the bralette is that it can easily be dressed up!

Should Bras and Bralettes Be Worn Together?

​Bralettes and bras fulfill different functions for women. As we’ll get to later on, they’re separated by a lot of factors that make each one unique. Those are the very same reasons that drive women to prefer one over the other. However, it’s not always so easy for some.

For women whose breasts wouldn’t allow them any satisfaction lest they wear a bra, wearing a bralette is simply not enough. Bralettes, with their irresistible comfort and aesthetic, don’t make the choice much easier either.

This is when wearing a bra and bralette together makes sense. Wearing both at the same time doesn’t really cancel out any of their functions. If anything, they add up and makes it a win-win situation for the wearer because she’s getting the best out of the two items.

The Bra

​A bra is one of two kinds of women’s undergarment that goes on the upper half of the body, particularly around the breasts and chest. Its strategic construction, through the use of wires, seams, and padded cups have simultaneous purposes of lifting the breasts to a perfect, ideal shape, and sharing the weight of them along with the woman’s spine and back muscles.

As the oldest intimate wear for women - they were descended from corsets about a century ago - bras inherited the few aims of corsets which were all collectively directed at beautification. Bras transform the look of breasts and turn them into something that looked closest to our typical standards of beauty.

Close up of blue bra with lace lining

As time evolved, the bra became more than just a product of enhancing the breasts' appearance. In terms of function, they still serve as a beautifying factor to a woman’s overall look. However, they’re also held to the responsibility of reducing the strain that bare breasts would cause the spine and back muscles, especially when they’re sizably heavy.

Primary Ways to Wear Bras

​Whatever clothing you have, there’s a bra that can make it fit and look better on you. How to wear a bra might be a valid question in this scenario. A more relevant and applicable circumstance is to ask, “what kind of bra can you wear with certain clothes?”

Bras are complementary undergarments. Generally they highlight your best assets. But, each bra is ultimately made for specific clothes they’re best paired with. Instead of thinking about bras before deciding which clothes or outfit to wear, they are considered after the fact.

This is why there are so many types of bras and there's bound to be more in the future.  We come up with different styles of clothes and different bras are made to accommodate those outfits. Figuring out how to wear a bra is not that hard because once you’re set with an outfit, it’s only a matter of choosing the specific type of bra made for that style of clothing.

Main Uses for Bras

​There are as many uses of bras as there are types. Different versions of bras are invented because there’s a need for a certain style, cut, and construction. They accommodate the different clothes the fashion industry comes up with and the certain circumstances women are put under.

In lingerie stores, you’ll find bras classified according to type. They’re usually named in correspondence to the kind of clothing they supposed to be worn with. An example of this are t-shirt bras, plunge bras, balconette bras for wide neck tops, and so on.

In conjunction, some bras are made based on women’s needs at a certain time. For workouts, sports bras are required to prevent discomfort and probable injuries. During pregnancy and post-birth, maternity bras are almost necessary to accommodate any size fluctuating breasts come to, and also help make breastfeeding more convenient.

The Bralette

​A bralette (also known as a bralette bra) is a lighter type of bra that’s replete with decadent lace and inherently sensual designs, but without the usual structure of a bra. Conceptually it acts like a bra. But, a bralette is mostly made of soft and thin fabrics, and is made intentionally lacking of wires, pads, and seamed support.

Bralettes are a physical manifestation of an evolving lingerie industry. While bras have been associated as an undergarment for years and are a faux pas if they become visible, bralettes are giving it a new reputation as a fashion garment in and of itself.

If not to add an element to an outfit, a bralette is the anchor piece that ties it all together. It’s something to be flaunted out and about.

Woman posing by the wall in a maroon triangle bralette and green shorts

How Did the Bralette Evolve?

​Only a few years ago, bralette would be the term used to coin a pre-teen’s bra. It’s something adolescents use during that awkward stage in puberty when their growing breasts already require some kind of support and coverage but, at the same time, are still too small to fill up a proper adult bra.

However for some girls, they grow into adulthood without ever having their breasts catch up. Rather than go for brands like Victoria’s Secret where there’s none that really fit small-breasted women, women go to brands like Aerie that presented bralettes in a different light . These were more fitting for adult styles.

Along with the bralette trend is the involvement of women of all body and breast types. In the process, the mantra “less is more” is exemplified and the comfortable, natural, and nipple-baring bralettes are made more universal and accessible.

Bralettes have never been the same since. From trendy piece to a classic, it’s become such a staple in women’s wardrobes.

Why Choose Bralettes Over Bras?

​Bralettes are not the only thing that’s trendy right now. Going completely braless is becoming more and more common as women remove the shame from the act. Doing so is also said to be better for a woman’s health and who doesn’t want that?

For many, bralettes offer a way to be closest to being braless without completely losing the inner garment. In turn, it gives them the confidence boost that embracing their sensuality brings. Turning to bralettes is women’s way of taking over the perception of their bodies as it is, not from the perspective of the male gaze but from their own.

Similarities and Differences Between Bras and Bralettes

​In the vast world of fashion and lingerie, bras and bralettes belong in the same family. But, there’s so much more to each of them that differentiates one from the other. Physical appearance and composition alone can distinguish a bra from a bralette and the other way around.

We’ll get into the nitty gritty of every part and aspect about bralettes and bras, from physical construction to their roots in culture and history. By the end, we’ll have a clearer definition of these two items’ juxtaposition.

Similarities

​Contrary to what you might have assumed, bralettes and bras have a lot more differences than they have similarities. They only agree in certain general aspects but they’re immediately canceled out by a more prominent contrast. However, there’s one thing they’re both completely similar at. It’s how they have shaped women’s view of their bodies, at one point or another in their history.

Social Movements Behind Bras and Bralettes

​So many things have happened since the inception of bras as we know them today. One stand-out event in its history is the burning of bras that was instigated in the ‘60s by feminist activists.

Bras were seen as a manifestation of how women are restricted, restrained, and hindered in more ways than just through fashion. Many women ditched the bra altogether as an act of defiance.

However, what happened after that period is just as symbolic of bras’ role in women’s lives. Eventually bras went back to being an everyday essential and the way bras were perceived changed. They became a way to empower women and make them feel good about their bodies by enhancing their breasts’ appearance.

In the same way, the creation of bralettes is about women’s attempt at moving towards a more body positive attitude. Bralettes are changing the way they perceive their bodies, their sexuality, and their sensuality. Instead of trying to change the way their breasts look, bralettes are giving way for women to embrace their natural shape.

It’s not about simply enhancing the appearance of breasts. Women’s comfort is put on the forefront, for once. There is no compromising aesthetic and beauty, which women are interested in and are deserving to enjoy without objectification as well.

Differences

​For almost every part of bralettes and bras, there’s a corresponding aspect that differentiates them from each other. Bras are made with extra components that bralettes don’t have. In turn, bralettes have some qualities bras can’t fulfill.

We spell out the specific ways in which bralettes and bras are contradicting to show how one might suit you better than the other. These differences might be deal breakers you don’t realize at first sight.

Black and white photo of a girl in a bra

Wiring

​Since before the first time bras we know today were created, underwires have already taken form by placing a rigid plate under the breasts for stability. Of course, that was more than a century ago. Nowadays, we know wires to be a semi-circular piece of metal, plastic, or resin that’s sewn into the bottom of the cups.

These wires go from the center front or gore to the side where the band meets the cups just underneath the armpits. The main functionalities women look for in a bra - their lifting, shaping, and supporting properties - can be attributed to the wiring.

On the complete opposite, the absence of wiring is one of the main features of a bralette that puts it ahead of the bra. While wires give support, they’re also speculated as the culprit to some of women’s health issues. The comfort that comes from the lack of wiring in bralettes is a major reason for women’s switch to this lighter item.

Padding

​Pads are another distinct feature in a bra that not all bralettes have. It’s responsible mainly for the almost-perfect shape that it makes your breasts look. Depending on the heaviness of the padding (some are lightly padded while others are not), additional perks include the absence of visible nipple outlines on your shirt and adding much volume to your chest.

These are all great whether you have small breasts or not because it makes them appear fuller and larger. For bralettes though, padding is a no-no most of the time. The very earliest bralettes that were made didn’t have pads and until now, the lack of padding is one of the things bralettes are known for.

Padding is not as invasive or as uncomfortable as wires, so some bralettes are more forgiving. Those especially made for for big-breasted women are included with pads for shaping purposes. Padding is also one of the ways bralettes can incorporate something that originates from bras. If this is the case, you can almost always expect bralettes to have light padding.

Support

​Support is one of the main factors that differentiate a bra from a bralette. It’s one of the aspects bras dominate in over bralettes. Bras are made in varying degrees of support with the intention of enduring the heavy weight of breasts and altering their shape by some gentle force.

Sports bras alone have different levels of support for low impact, medium impact, and high impact activities, whereas there are types of bras with specific purposes. Mastectomy bras have a certain technology integrated into the overall construction to be gentle on women who’ve undergone surgery. Maternity bras are made for new moms.

Meanwhile, some of women’s needs are not specified in the name of the bra. For instance, there’s no particular name for a bra for sagging breasts. A combination of wiring and soft cups give the support needed to lift and reverse the sag.

More recently, back smoothing benefits have been incorporated in to bras, commonly seen in those w​ith great support.

On the other hand, bralettes are not much concerned about support. It is probably the least of the reasons why bralettes are popular. They’re also not expected to outperform its counterpart in this feature. While bralettes do not necessarily cause sagging, they typically do not have any supporting features to help reduce sagging.

Materials

​Bras and bralettes can come in all kinds of fabrics, most commonly lace and cotton. That seems to be where their similarities end. Textiles used in making bras sometimes employ technology to structure them a certain way and to infuse some qualities like non-toxicity among others.

On the other hand, bralettes use mostly natural fibers like satin and silk. Sometimes, bralettes will incorporate unconventional materials for a piece of lingerie like velvet. This also adds to the charm of bralettes. The different textures and exotic arrangements and designs add an element to boring outfits.

Close up of three layered bralettes on a bed

Lining

​Lining is the extra piece of fabric on the inside of a garment. In a bra, the lining contributes only a little to shaping and adding volume. What’s most common among bras is having partially-lined cups at the bottom. This makes the upper part slightly sheer from the little coverage of lace materials.

You’ll see lightly lined as a term to describe some bras. This means they’re unpadded and have a few layers of thin fabric, which only provides gentle shaping and doesn’t hide the nipples well.

In bralettes, lining is often used strategically mainly for design purposes. Bralettes are not known to care about showing nipple outlines. Instead, opaque linings just add a contrast to the typically sheer materials bralettes are made with. On rare occasions, light lining is used in bralettes that cater to big-breasted women.

Cup Structure

​If you take out the cups from a removable padded bra, the shape would almost always be a circle. The concave and its rigidity will depend on the level of support and shaping the bra is intended for. ​​This is different for the ​plunge or the demi bra​​​, but what you’ll usually find is universal among all bras is the front exterior of bra cups.

There you’ll see seams that are sewed in different ways. There’s a partial seam that only goes halfway up from the bottom of the cup, a middle seam that cuts vertically straight, and a three-part T-shaped seam that looks like there are three divided fabrics sewn together. The first two have little to do with support, but the three-part seam is associated with a more rounded shape and higher level of support.

With bralettes, there’s rarely ever any seams apart from the edges where the hems usually are in clothes. Sometimes that’s even left out when bralettes have special asymmetrical edges. The only time bralettes incorporate some seaming is when it also has double purpose in design like ruching. Since bralettes are also likened to bikini tops, some have a triangular shape which only bralettes can get away with in the lingerie world.

See here for ​ways to style a bralette throughout the seasons.

Variety of Styles

​When it comes to the variety of styles in the great bra vs bralette debate, this list can be extensive. Both bras and bralettes have numerous styles (and within those styles, there are countless materials and designs). To give you an overview of the varying options you have for each, we’ve listed out the main styles available.

Bra Styles:

  • T-shirt
  • Balconette
  • Plunge
  • Push-up
  • Strapless
  • Bandeau
  • Stick-on
  • Mastectomy
  • Maternity
  • Minimizer
  • Sports bra

​Bralette Styles​:

  • Strappy
  • Racerback
  • High Neck
  • Halter
  • Triangle
  • Longline

As you can see, there are unique styles for both bras and bralettes. While you can find bras that include bralette-centric styles (for example, you can get racerback bras), they are primarily found in bralettes.

Cultural Differences

​Comfort, support, cups, wires, size, and even fabric are the most common indicators of the differences seen between bras and bralettes. While that's telling of their distinctions in physical composition, the depth of their differences boils down to language and the underlying meanings implied to the words we use.

This is apparent in the difference between the American and French approaches to undergarments. In the US, we refer to it as underwear. In France they call it lingerie. Though they may seem similar, the bra is considered underwear while the bralette (also referred to as "bralet" in the French culture) can be more associated as lingerie.

Bras as Underwear: Link to American Culture

​As a pre-teen, it's almost like a rite of passage when you start wearing training bras. You may have begged your mom to have her buy you one as every girl in your school started wearing those lightweight ​bralettes​ for support. This is the usual introduction to bras for most American girls. And after that, you switch to the real thing.

Growing up, it's been a product of necessity. It's considered sexual when bra straps are exposed on your shoulders or the band can be seen at the side. Size is a big deal and its enhancing ability for your clothes is a defining factor if it's suitable or not.

In this way bras have been associated as a sexual piece of garment that, when displayed, can be used as a symbol of women’s sexuality, which isn’t always seen in a positive light.

Bralette as Lingerie: Link to French Culture

​In France, little girls are intentionally brought by their own mothers to lingerie shops for a personal fitting. They're taught that a bra isn't just underwear, but a huge part of an outfit. It is often more important than the outer clothes themselves. It expresses their sensuality, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they're sexual.

That's what bralettes do for most women even in other parts of the world. Bralettes, most especially the longline ones can be substitutes for bras and sometimes actual tops themselves. It opens women's perspectives on the bra.

Bralettes also serve a bigger purpose in bridging the gap between underwear and lingerie especially for American women. It enables women to see the bra(lette) as something that's not sexual. It enables them to perceive it as French women would. This proves the role of bralettes as another fashion garment than merely an underwear, which bras are usually reduced to.

Construction

​To better understand the differences in support, the way bras and bralettes are constructed offer a tangible representation. Both can be defined by the three main parts: the band, the two cups, and the straps. However in reality, a bra is composed of far more than that - wires, pads, and seams all contribute to its defined shape. It takes special training, machines, background, and expertise to make. Bralettes rarely go beyond those three main parts.

According to​ bra designer Chantal Thomas,

​It's a highly technical garment, made of lots of tiny pieces of fabric, with so many sizes to consider for the different cups, etc. It's a garment you wash every day, so the seams and structure need to be extremely robust … it needs to be super solid.”

In bralettes, on the other hand, cups are not the heavily padded kind, there are no wires, no seams, or any other feature that makes up the structured appearance of bras. Bralettes can be as simple as a piece of fabric sewn to the shape of a bra.

Body Type Compatibility

​Just by their appearance, you can kind of tell which body types bras and bralettes each cater to. Bras are for women with enough breast volume to fill up their padded cups, while bralettes would seem like they’re made for women with small busts or flat chests, those whose comfort will not be affected by the significant loss of support.

Aside from this obvious classification, bras and bralettes can be considered suitable for any body type, only in different ways. For women with small breasts, bras can be a way to increase their size without going through enlargement surgeries.

For big-breasted women, bralettes can be a source of comfort, which is what women tend to be more drawn to now.

Do Bralettes Work for Big Busts?

​One of the most common concerns about the bralette is that none are made for women with big busts. To this, Cora Harrington, The Lingerie Addict’s founder, has an answer:

I think the issue is when people have like bra-like expectations for a bralette. If a bralette isn’t supportive, that’s not a failure of the bralette—that’s the point of the garment.”

This can be proven true to some extent as when the bralette first came to prominence, there weren’t any that fit women with big breasts. By fit, it means covering up what needs to be covered. All that was available were merely tiny pieces of fabric that didn’t cover enough. Today, many brands now offer bralettes that could provide coverage for big breasts.

Just as you wouldn’t expect a bikini top to act as a bra, so should people not hold bralettes up to that standard because ultimately, they’re not bras. People are slowly getting to that realization now and bralettes are becoming that of an alternative rather than a complete substitute to bras for some women.

The Verdict

​So, when it comes to a bralette vs bra, which should you be rocking? Well, that depends. Take a look at a few different scenarios to help you determine when you might want to use each undergarment.  

Close up of a girl wearing a white lace bralette and a maxi skirt

Women with Small Chests

​Women with small busts can wear a bralette in most occasions and have it replace a bra. Even if you typically wear atop push-up bra to increase your chest size, bralettes also come in some styles with padding.

Women with Large Chests

​Women with bigger chests might be more comfortable wearing​ the best push up bras for large breasts, but don’t rule out bralettes just yet! Look for bralettes that have bralike qualities, such as support and structure. Additionally, if you find ones with strappy designs, that will help with support and add a stylish look to your overall outfit.

Occasions for Each

While you might not be able to get away with wearing a bralette in every scenario, there are times that bralettes are ideal undergarments. For other occasions, being more conservative with a bra makes the most sense.

  • A night out: Going downtown with your girlfriends? Grab a sexy, longline bralette to pair with your high-waisted skirt!
  • Business lunches or meetings: If you have a business lunch with colleagues or an important meeting with your boss, plan to conceal your chest more with a bra.

​Conclusion

Bralettes have only been around for a few years and yet it seems like a lot has already happened to what was once only a trend. With this, the whole extent of the differences between a bra and bralette can’t be simplified into one definition. They differ in physical composition, in the people who choose to wear them, and in cultural context. One thing’s for sure, though - bras and bralettes are here to stay.

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