You Don't Have to Give Up Those Strappy Dresses and Cute Swimsuits

After Amy Gallatin had a bilateral mastectomy without reconstruction, she set out to find ways she could wear the clothing she'd always enjoyed. In the following essay, she shares what she has learned.

When I was diagnosed with DCIS in the fall of 2008, I elected to have a double mastectomy. After checking my reconstruction options, I knew pretty quickly that reconstruction was not for me. I wanted to be done with poking and prodding and medical stuff.

My recovery from surgery wasn't too bad. I'm an avid Pilates exerciser and went back to class after two weeks because I was concerned about lingering range-of-motion issues. Pilates is an excellent form of gentle stretching and I credit my lack of after-effects to that regimen, along with some pro-active deep tissue work (myofascial release and massage) to keep scar tissue from building up. The American Cancer Society has guidelines for gentle stretching immediately after surgery and I did those stretches, too. I was actually very surprised by how little pain I had post-surgery. Even though I’m a complete baby when it comes to pain, I never had to use the painkillers my breast surgeon prescribed for me.

Before surgery, I was a small 34B and went braless whenever I could. I wore lots of little strappy dresses during the summer, cami tops, things like that. After surgery, I felt a pang when I looked at my strappy summer dresses and cami tops and bikinis and thought that I would never be able to wear them again. Sometimes it seems that the folks who are in the mastectomy products business would have you believe that you need to say goodbye to fun bathing suits, cooler dresses, and tops that don't go neck-high (take a look at some of the mastectomy bathing suits and you'll see what I mean). That was a little depressing. I’m a musician/performer and I tour quite a bit. I wanted to look the same as I always had, on-stage and off.

So, I embarked on a research project. I wanted to see just what was out there besides specialized mastectomy products and just how far I could push the envelope. This is what I found: strapless bras that are undetectable under strappy cami tops and dresses; "stick-on" breast forms (prostheses) that will stay in place in a regular bra; camisole tops and dresses with built-in bras; regular swimsuits that can be worn with breast forms.

After I’d found all these things, I went on a dive trip to Mexico—warm sun and fun bathing suits, what's not to love? Diving in Cozumel involves being in tight quarters on dive boats and wriggling in and out of wetsuits between dives. I wore my two-piece swimsuits with triangle tops, swim breast forms inserted, and no one was the wiser.


Soft Surroundings
Underwire Tee
I own shelf-bra camisoles in every color, and use my lightweight post-surgery foam pads in them. They're perfect for layering under a jacket, a crop top, or a scarf. The current layered look and the plethora of scarves now in fashion are great for this. Soft Surroundings makes a number of tops with built-in underwire bras, including halter tops, bandeau bras, and camisoles. I especially love their Underwire Tees because they present an off-the-shoulder look that is very flattering. They come in short and three-quarter sleeve lengths. Soft Surroundings has brick-and-mortar stores as well as an online site.

Solutions and Norm Thompson also sell camisoles with built-in bras, called “Perfect-Fit,” that are perfect for breast forms. They come in lower-cut and higher-cut versions and it’s nice to have that choice. They also recently have started offering lined lace camis that are very cute.

For working out at the gym, I look for higher-cut racerback tops with shelf bras and wear my post-surgical “puffs” in them. They stay put really well because there’s no weight to them.


Herroom has a great selection of different bras, including the reasonably priced Elita bras; one is a little pullover bra with pockets for inserting breast forms. Super comfortable.

The Rhonda Shear Ahh Bra is comfortable and good for holding breast forms. It keeps the forms separate and avoids the “uni-boob” look, plus it smooths bra bulge. The Ahh bra also comes in a racerback style for wearing under racerback-type tops. The Genie Bra is similar but has removable pads and hence openings that will accommodate breast forms. My most recent find is the Coobie Bra, a delightful little cotton lace-trimmed number with removable pads (and hence pockets). The pads can be left in with the breast form or removed. They come in a variety of colors and patterns with camisole-type straps. Cute and comfortable!

You can find strapless molded-cup underwire bras with a little silicone strip around the inside bottom of the underwire that keeps the bra from slipping down your chest with the weight of the breast form. I can wear strapless tops or halter dresses with them. Bear in mind that I’m smaller-breasted; I’m not sure how well this would work with larger, heavier forms. The little silicone strip is the key to keeping the bra in place. Warner’s makes a bra of this type.


Lands’ End has a selection of specialized mastectomy suits. Also, I found that many regular bathing suits are sold with removable pads. They work well for inserting your own forms since the openings are already there. I usually use a triangle-top two-piece. (For more swimsuit ideas on the BreastFree Blog, see Swimsuit Edition, Breast-Free Style.)


Athleta dress
Athleta sells lots of dresses with shelf bras in them. Also, I’ve found some halter dresses with removable pads, just like those in the bathing suits, which will accommodate forms.

Both Anita and Amoena, as well as other breast form manufacturers, sell “stick on” forms, with a sticky surface that enables the form to stick to your skin. These will not work without substantial support, such as a bra, much to my disappointment. I’ve tried both brands and I prefer Amoena. The sticky surface on the Anita form came off fairly quickly, within months of infrequent use. Amoena’s sticky surface holds up much better. A good feature about both these forms is that they come with a back pad—when you put the pad on, they function just like a regular form.

I use my clear swim forms if I’m wearing something skimpier, as they are much more unobtrusive when glimpsed through an armhole or down the front (many swim forms are clear and chlorine resistant).

* * *

I think the main thing is not to be afraid to experiment and see what works for you. I had some of my existing dresses altered, taken in a little around the chest, so they fit better and don’t gape. For dealing with low-cut or gaping tops, I’ve found clever panels that can be attached to a bra and cover the "cleavage" area. They also can hide scarring and prevent non-pocketed breast forms from popping out. One such panel is called Cami Secret; another, by Fashion Forms, is called Cami Too; and a third one is Cleava.

Around the house, I don’t bother wearing breast forms and many times when running out to the store I just throw on a hoodie or a scarf. I’ve gotten more comfortable with how things are over time, but I do like the way certain bra/top combinations allow me to look like the “old” me when I go out. My husband says, “No one would ever know.” I keep up with my Pilates and have added yoga to my regimen, as the stretching is very important to maintaining range of motion. Life is good.

Good luck and have fun experimenting!


Anonymous said...

Hello, I had a bi lateral mastectomy in April of 2013. Due to complications from surgery, my chemo and radiation were delayed. I just completed radiation therapy and developed horrible burns, blisters, and sores, which are starting to heal. Needless to say, I haven't been measured for a bra and prosthesis yet, but I am looking forward to soon.
I can't thank you enough for the useful links to so many beautiful bras and cami's that would allow me to wear certain clothing I wore before the mastectomy. I have already ordered some of the items and can't wait until my chest heals so I can try them on!! Thanks again!!

Anonymous said...

great suggestions! i've been a big fan of layering and scarves the past few years. i really love the Chikara collection included in the links on the breastfree page. just wondering if you have ideas for full-figured young women? i'm 35 now (diagnosed w/ stage III at age 28) and probably will not have resonstruction d/t complications. but i have gained a few pounds since treatment and measure around 38/40 C/D now.

Barbara said...

It sounds as if you've already discovered the two most helpful suggestions I hear -- layering and scarves. Also chunky necklaces that take the eye away from the chest. Regarding layering, jackets over sleeveless tops (so not too hot) can camouflage a lot.

Anonymous said...

I just found out that I will have a bilateral mastectomy for DCIS. I'm 60 years old, small busted, an avid runner and walker. I do not want reconstruction. Period. I'm good with being flat. I was pretty flat as a young woman and I'll be flat again. Everything I had found until I found this site was reconstruction centric. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THIS SITE AND YOUR BLOG. I'M ABSORBING IT AND LOVING IT. Candace - Las Vegas, NV

Barbara said...

Thanks for your comment, Candace. Best of luck with your surgery and recovery!

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this. I am 3 weeks post BMX and feel great - no complications and little pain. I just found some Patagonia strappy tank tops with a shelf bra, but it has pockets - the openings are too small to stuff a fixed shape breast form in, but I stuffed some of the polyester fluff that came from a post-surgical "B" cup form into the pocket. It looks great as a sports bra - fairly flat, but I think I could wear it on its own with nary a glance. It just looks like I'm relatively small breasted and wearing a sports bra. Plus the fluff is really light and easy to wash if it gets sweaty. I like that the top is 100% cotton.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for all of your wonderful bra, cami and dress ideas! this is exactly what I needed!

Anonymous said...

I had my bilateral mastectomy almost 22 years ago and for most of those years have fumbled along on my own trying to find ways to wear the clothing that I love, in which I feel most comfortable, and feminine. Tonight I discovered your site and can hardly wait to start shopping from the sources you've provided and putting your ideas to work! Thank you so much for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I am facing mastectomy after chemotherapy. I already went through the full range of grueling treatment with lumpectomy surgery a few years back. I was happy with my results because I was still me. I have dense breasts and now have a new cancer in the scar tissue of the lumpectomy. My options are mastectomy surgery with or without reconstruction. Reconstruction is not for me no matter what my surgeon wants me to hear from the plastic surgeon. I am so happy to have found this site because everywhere else, everyone is pushing reconstruction. It is a relief to see that there are plenty of people living well without breasts and without reconstruction. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this article. I am 8 months post double mastectomy. I have had 5 surgeries since then for reconstruction and many infections. Looks like no reconstruction is my future and it is nice to know there are options to look somewhat normal. I was a 36C prior to cancer.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I had bilateral double mastectomy in Sept. 2014 and couldn't have implants right away because of the plastic surgeon had injuried his hand. So it delay that gave me time to think about whether to have fake boobs. I used to be 38D and now I am total flat chested. Everything I enjoyed not to hassle with bras but finding top is hard. I can't have v neck or scooped neck since I don't want to shock anyone with my scars on my chest. I have been looking for a cami top that does not have any cup size. It looks like I am going to have sew one for myself. I don't want a cami that goes all the way down to my hip. I just want like the top chest part. Does anyone knows what I am talking about?

allison said...

I am grateful for your experiments/advice and resources. I am going to try all of it. In going to my closet, the items I most wanted to keep wearing were the sundresses. You have inspired me!