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You once wrote about the largest commercially available bra size. [The largest that could be found on store shelves was 48DD, while the largest found in a catalog was 52E.] If you were correct then, you need to update the answer now. I wear a 48H. It is off the rack and not the largest size that was available at the shop–that was a 52I, if I recall. The last Sears catalog I saw had a 52G, and I once bought a 46II from them. When I first bought bras the largest I could find was an F cup, but that was back when I was a 36F so I did not mind.

–Lee, via the Straight Dope Message Board

I handed this question to one of my interns, young Doug, along with a bunch of other worthy

topics, such as the effect of atmospheric drag on dropped versus falling bullets. You can see what he zeroed in on. But what the hell, this is a poorly understood issue, and while it’s not in the same league as mapping the human genome, at the Straight Dope we strive to serve the whole man.

First we need to deal with the philosophical issues. What, really, do we mean when we say “size”? For that matter, what about “largest,” “commercially available,” and “the”? When we speak of the largest size, are we strictly concerned, as Aquinas says, with “the measurement across the fullest part of the bust”? Or are we just talking about really big hooters, and damn the total circumference?

And what about the bra-sizing code? Many of today’s youth–for that matter, many of yesterday’s youth–are confused about this. Having gotten the idea that 36-24-36 was good, they figured a 52E must be really, really good. Au contraire. Not to make light of the situation (I wish), but if you’re hanging out with a woman who wears this size, you’re probably going to need to get the furniture reinforced.

For a good practical treatment of the sizing process, you can’t beat Victoria’s Secret, which gives the following explanation. First, one measures around the rib cage below the breasts and adds five inches to the result. This gives us the band size–the numerical part of 34C. Then one measures across the nipples. Even at Victoria’s Secret, no one ever says “nipples,” or “breasts” either, for that matter, giving the impression that women merely have an inexplicable expansion of the upper topography a la the Barbie doll. But we tell it like is. The difference between the band size and the nipple measurement gives the cup size. One inch is A, two inches is B, and on up to five inches, DD. In short, for the breast-fixated, the focus ought to be the cup size, not the band.

Above double D, things get more complicated. Doug contacted Frederick’s of Hollywood but found that the largest size they carry is DD. He then turned to lingerie shops, where he ran up against the epistemological questions raised earlier. Honey, the shop proprietors told him, this is America. You can get any size you want–we’ll make it for you custom. Doug immediately began salivating about triple Zs and speculated about what you would do if you ran out of letters. (His suggestion: use the names of U.S. presidents. “Get a load of the Buchanans on her!” Steady, lad.)

Seems to me a custom size counts as “commercially available,” but clearly what was meant here was “on an off-the-shelf basis.” The biggest noncustom size Doug turned up was 54LL, but in trying to figure out what this meant in terms of, you know, bushels, we encountered another problem–above DD there’s no such thing as standardized measurement. Some establishments use pairs of letters to denote one-inch increments, as in D, DD, E, EE, F, FF, and so on, while others, perhaps wishing to leave room for future expansion, use triple letters–D, DD, DDD, E, EE, EEE, etc. The 54LL shop uses the pair method, so presumably a double-L cup size exceeds the band size by 21 inches. (You’re thinking, how does a woman like that stand upright? Answer: with difficulty. Many large-breasted women endure chronic back pain.) Even the 21 inches isn’t certain. We’re told some sizing charts skip K, and some shops use measuring systems all their own. One store told Doug, “A traditional, correctly fitting, store-sized bra cup, size D, would be equivalent to our G cup. So a DD would be equivalent to an H, and a DDD would be equivalent to an I.”

The definitive answer to this question still eludes us. “I’m still waiting for a couple of tent and awning stores to call back,” Doug said wanly. Don’t be too hard on him. He did the best he could.

Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope message board, www.straightdope.com, or write him at Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. Cecil’s latest compendium of knowledge, Triumph of the Straight Dope, is available at bookstores everywhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.