What is a Shelf Bra (And How Do I Wear One?)

camisole with padding bra shelf bra

Push up bras, full coverage bras, bralettes... the list goes on when it comes to bra types. Most of the time, you can picture what each type of bra is and know it's general use, but other types leave you questioning what it could possibly be. Exhibit A: shelf bras. What is a shelf bra? There are actually different types of this bra, which we'll get into below. Once you know the basics of each, it's very easy to tell them apart!

​What is a Shelf Bra?

​There are 2 types of shelf bras: built-in and quarter-cup. And, they are both pretty different from one another. Initially, we know this might sound confusing. But we'll go through both types and help you decipher when and how to wear each!

​Built-in Shelf Bras 

​Tired of having to put so many pieces on just to wear a simple tank top, but don’t want to let the girls hang loose? Cue the built-in shelf bra in camisoles​. Whoever designed this truly understood the struggle of the constant contraptions woman must wiggle in and out of each day.

Built-in shelf bras are an extra piece of fabric found within whatever outwear it may be attached to (i.e. camisoles or swimsuits). It’s support system consists of an elastic band where the underwire would be, some type of compression to keep the girls in place, and sometimes padding. Most of them are insanely comfortable, making this a great option to wear on the regular.

​Materials and Colors

​While picking a new built-in shelf bra camisole, keep in mind the temperature that you plan to wear your new tank in. If you suffer from chronic boob sweat (which so many of us do!) and it’s summer, you may benefit from sticking to dark colors to prevent the appearance of sweat stains.

Another way to combat that is to find camisoles that are 100% cotton for the best breast breathability. Wearing cotton camisoles could open up the door to most of the color spectrum for any season you choose to pull this out.

Like the bralette, what is a shelf bra cami unless it comes in every color imaginable? In these cases, don’t be afraid to pick colors that could add a pop to your outerwear choice!

camisole with padding bra shelf bra

​Padding Options

​There is a high possibility that nipples can peep through this kind of top due to the thin layer between the built-in bra and the actual camisole. So, best practices indicate to make sure that your camisole has some type of padding. Most pads are removable, so you can pop them in and out whenever it suits you.

If you come across a camisole without padding in the shelf bra, it is relatively easy to fix this dilemma. Buy some bra pad inserts from online, or in-store, to add yourself. This way you can customize your padding to your specifications.

Tip: ​If you aren’t a fan of padding but are looking for something to hide your nipples, try pasties!

​Find Them Almost Anywhere

​Luckily, you have your pick of the litter in places that carry built-in bra camisoles. They can be found in a wide array of places, from your neighborhood general store to a high-end department store.

Just remember that you get what you pay for! Some that are cheaper in price are also cheaper in quality. At the very least, make sure the bottom band is thick enough to stay in place throughout the day. If it's too thin, it might end up rolling into a sausage under your breast after a couple hours of wear.

​Who Should Wear Them?

​With this being an all around comfortable and convenient garment to wear, it's a popular choice to wear for numerous occasions. But, who should actually wear them?

​Great for Small Cups

Small cup sizes that don’t need copious amounts of support usually find the built-in bra to be a dream. It offers a freedom to wear this item in multiple low-impact situations. It also allows for a break from the traditional constricting, underwire biting, tight strapped support systems found in standard bras and top rated push up bras for A cup!

​Certain Styles Work for Large Cups

While women ranging from A-C will be able to wear pretty much any variety that this bra comes in, bigger chested women like those who wear supportive push up bras for plus size boobs will likely need to be more selective. Rather than only looking for a cami that includes a thin lining for the bra, look for ones with padding and a thicker band. Some are designed with structured cups inside, and these can help in keeping the girls up throughout the day!

If you still need more support, try wearing a normal bra as a main base under the cami. This sort of defeats the purpose of buying a shirt with a built-in bra, though it can work if needed. 

How and When to Wear Them

Theses built-in bras are meant for every day wear or low-impact activity. Don’t expect it to withstand an hour long HIIT session at the gym. However, it should be able to hold its own in your weekly Bikram hot yoga session!

Due to the limited amount of structure and support, you have to be strategic in the outfits you wear this built-in camisole with. Try pairing a scoop neck camisole underneath a light-weight sports jacket for errand running.

Rather than a bralette, use a spaghetti strap camisole as an undershirt with a button up for a smooth appearance (this is a great option for work!). If you have a larger chest, this is also a wonderful way to stay covered and still wear that button up you love! 

pink camisoles different sizes all with shelf bra

What is a Shelf Bra in a Swimsuit?

​Along with tanks that can be worn for everyday use, this bra is also found in bathing suits! You know that trusty one piece that always works in a pinch? It most likely has a built-in shelf bra in it.

So, exactly what is a shelf bra in a bathing suit? Think of it as a secret life saver that keeps everything compressed. Halter, tankinis, and one-piece bathing suits use this built-in weapon within their garments to provide an extra lift that, unfortunately, Mai Tai’s poolside can’t. 

Whether in store or online, the amount of cute patterns with this built-in support is endless. Most stores have the latest trends coupled with soft materials.

Many new moms, recent mastectomy patients, or anyone who suffers from tender breasts could benefit from this type of swimwear due to the soft, cotton material that is often used.

Tip: For extra comfort, cut off the tag on the inside. That way you won’t have that unforgiving itch that sometimes occurs.

​Quarter-cup Shelf Bras

​Unlike built-in shelf bras, quarter-cup shelf bras (also known as platform or cupless bras), cover much less of your boob. They are usually are composed of a lace fabric that only covers the lower cup of your breast, an elastic band serving as the underwire, and thin straps for secrecy.

Rather than being built-in to a top like the first shelf bra we discussed, this bra stands alone (like a normal bra). It closely resembles an open cup bra due to the amount of exposure of your chest. The difference is that not all shelf bras expose the nipple as open cup bras do. Before we get into how to wear a shelf bra, let's break down the anatomy of it a bit.

​Bra Band Structure

​The band can be either elastic, thin straps, or have the hook and eye closure. More often than not, the back part of the band is a small piece of fabric. If you're a fan of extra hold or have larger assets, take time to find one of these bras that provide thick straps for more support, along with 2-3 hook and eye closures.

​Cup Structure

​This bra can either can come with one or two cups stacked on top of one another. When shelf bras are composed of two cups, one is for support and the other is for decoration. The main cup is usually molded to the quarter half of the breast. The second cup usually is a rigid fabric such as lace, or nylon. It is used to prevent spillage while still providing a seductive appearance. 

Tip: ​When trying on a quarter-cup, be sure to check your side profile to make sure that no weird shapes have formed with your assets. A well-fitted quarter-cup shelf bra should still provide a round appearance.

​Lift and Support

​Like its namesake, shelf bras are supposed to provide lift to the bosom resting on it. Cup sizes C and below should be fine without the underwire that most quarter-cups don’t include. However, D+ cups would benefit from finding a shelf bra that does include a comfortable underwire for maximum support. 

quarter cup shelf bra black on mannequin

​How to Wear a Quarter-Cup Shelf Bra

​With three-quarters of the standard bra cup missing, it can be a challenge wearing this bra under clothing in public, especially if you are bigger chested, and you don't want it to look as big as it really is. Quarter cup shelf bras were likely created solely for lingerie purposes. Yet, society has a way of turning anything into fashion, so women have started wearing this out and about. 

Fit is almost everything when it comes to a great bra! When attempting a quarter-cup shelf bra for the first time, don’t be afraid to grab sizes outside your range. Due to the intricate lace cup, you may need a smaller band with a larger cup to ensure a tight fit. 

When worn underneath a V-neck, some women enjoy the delicate lace, or straps, that can peep above the neckline like you would when sporting a bralette. Other women prefer to keep it solely for their collection of lingerie due to the amount of skin exposure, and lack of support.

​Related: Ultimate Guide on How Many Bras A Woman Should Own

Regardless which route you take, there can be countless ways to incorporate shelf bras into your wardrobe. So be daring, and try a multitude of outfits until you find the way it works for you.

​Great Under Large Sweaters

​Look for quarter-cup shelf bras that are comprised of an intricate system of straps, front or back. This look usually pairs so well with an oversized sweater. The shelf bra provides a sassy peek-a-boo when oversized sweaters have a cutout in the back, or large holes near the shoulder. 

For an added bonus, find a sweater that has a front V-neck. This can give a subtle snippet of the lace detailing that is found near the top of your shelf bra. Then go show off your fashion forward take on lounge wear. 

When wearing the quarter-cup under clothing out in public, pasties are usually necessary. Wearing pasties could keep your nipples from peeping out at inappropriate moments.

​Add to Your Lingerie Arsenal

​When selected carefully, you can end up adding a beautiful piece of alluring lingerie to your wardrobe which provide a feminine touch to those wearing it.

Regardless of your relationship status, this bra is a power piece. Pair a delicate, lace shelf bra with a matching pair of panties to a deliciously satin robe for a night in. Most likely you’ll love the empowered feeling it brings to be so enticing for no other reason than you want to.

Advantages of the Quarter-Cup

​When on the look for a new brassiere, keep in mind what this seductive garment could offer, such as:

​100% Cotton

​One of the perks of quarter cup’s is that most are made of 100% cotton. Depending on your fabric preference, this could give you a breath of relief due to the many benefits of cotton.

  • ​Insulation: Keeps you warm in the winter and cool in the summer
  • ​Durability: When cared for correctly, it has the potential to last for years
  • plus
    ​Hypoallergenic: This type of fabric rarely causes allergic reactions
  • plus
    Environmentally friendly: When you find shelf bras made from organic cotton, it usually has produced less carbon due to the chemical free production

​Fuller Breast Appearance

​Small cup sizes could really benefit from the full-breast look that quarter-cup shelf bras tend to provide, especially when you buy one with the two-cup system. The molded main cup pushes it up, and then the second quarter cup rounds it all off. This ensures a smooth, supple look under your clothes.

sample image of a shelf bra quarter cup

​How Does this Bra Work on Bustier Women?

​Busty friends, we already know what you might be thinking. How is that thin lace and elastic going to hold all of this greatness? Never despair. Some companies have heard the war cry in the allocation of sensual intimate wear for all!

When on the search for your perfect shelf bra, look for these features:

  • ​Strong underwire in cups for support
  • ​Customized fit
  • plus
    ​Adjustable straps
  • plus
    ​3 column, 3 row hook, and eye back closure
  • plus
    ​Quality stretch in lace

Even with all that support it may be the type of undergarment best left for a steamy night at home. Shelf bras aren’t designed to provide a strong enough support system that larger cup sizes are used to for public wear. However, it is still dependent on your personal preference with the movement, and support of the particular quarter cup shelf bra you’re trying.


As you can see, the 2 types of shelf bras are pretty different. The built-in is comfortable and easily wearable on a daily basis, and the quarter-cup is a bit more risque with less coverage. On your hunt for your perfect match, keep in mind that with quarter-cup shelf bra it’s all about the right fit, and with built-in shelf bra it’s about finding the right style, and fabric.

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