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The History of the Sports Bra

Heavy LiftingIt's hard to imagine a world without sports bras. Yet, this lifesaver was invented just 30 years ago, when a frustrated runner stitched two jockstraps into one Frankensteinian creation that revolutionized women's athletics. The sports bra has grown more refined since then, courtesy of real-women innovators who steered its evolution by insisting on what they and we needed.

By Kelly Bastone

"What do you do for a bra? All that flopping about, it's hardly comfortable," complained Victoria Woodrow. She'd just tried jogging, the 1970's hottest new craze, but felt flummoxed by the boob-bounce thing. So for advice she'd called up her sister, Lisa Lindahl, who'd already gotten into jogging.

"She couldn't believe it when I told her I just wore my everyday bra," recalls Lisa. "She said, 'Why isn't there a jockstrap for women?' Oh, we laughed hysterically at that. But you know, after I hung up the phone, I started to think that might not be such a silly idea."

At the disco women might've felt like the dancing queen ABBA was singing about in 1977, but on the track they felt like interlopers. Title IX legislation had been enacted merely five years before; and although much of the country was turning on to jogging, many women who tried running for fitness encountered similar frustrations: runaway bra straps, chafed skin, and breasts so sore from bouncing that jogging seemed anything but healthy. For all the things women did in their Maidenform bras, running in comfort wasn't one of them.

So in the summer of 1977, Lisa drew up her wish list of everything a jogging bra needed: The straps shouldn't fall down. There should be no poky hardware. And it should eliminate breast bounce. "Later, of course, I discovered that minimizing breast bounce was more realistic than eliminating it, she admits. But back then she was shooting for the moon," and she knew she needed someone with better sewing skills than her own to corral her bucking ponies.

She enlisted the help of costume designer Polly Smith, and together they tried out a few prototypes. But it wasn't until Lisa's husband paraded around wearing a jockstrap on his chest that the pair saw their solution. "Here's your jockbra, ladies," he clowned; and for a while the name stuck, especially after Polly stitched two supporters together and found that a jockstrap for women was the way to go.

Lisa and her husband soon split, and the divorce left her wondering if her jockbra could be brought to market. "I wanted one," she says, "so I assumed every woman wanted one. Plus, just after the divorce, I thought this could be a nice mail-order business on the side to help put me through grad school." So together with Polly and her costume assistant, Hinda Schreiber, Lisa launched the Jogbra. She drew up a business plan and sought funding. Hinda's dad lent them $5,000, and the brand-new company worked with an equally nascent apparel manufacturer in South Carolina to produce the first marketable Jogbra, in three sizes: small, medium, and large. The bras were distributed primarily through mail order in 1978, and by the following year Lisa and a handful of hired product reps started targeting sporting-goods retailers.

"I made a decision early on that this was not lingerie," Lisa says. "It was sports equipment, something you needed like you needed your shoes." But sporting-goods stores saw the Jogbra as a tough sell, and their overwhelmingly male owners reacted squeamishly to sample cases full of sports bras. Lisa was fond of countering, "You sell jockstraps, don't you?" That always stopped them cold.

The stores that did take the gamble discovered that the Jogbra sold and sold well. Before long, new players entered the fledgling sports bra market, many with novel configurations whose designs were all over the map. "Early on there was this big push away from conventional bra construction," recalls LaJean Lawson, an exercise scientist who has been conducting sports bra research at Oregon State University's biomechanics lab for nearly 20 years. She recalls how some designs turned the cups upside-down; others, like the Damon Jogger, included leg loops. Still others were produced by athletic supporter companies, which dabbled briefly in bras. These models, like the Lady Duke, featured thick, heavy-duty fabrics that were "not pretty," says LaJean.

Sunny day at the beachThe bulletproof Lady Duke didn't fly in an era defined by Jane Fonda's glittering aerobics outfits and superstyled hair. By the 1980s aerobic dancing had become the new fitness fad, inspiring women everywhere to pull on their leg warmers, lace up their Reeboks, and pogo around wearing colorful Lycra tanks. It was in this glamorous age that lingerie companies ventured onto the sports bra scene: Olga, Warner, Vanity Fairthese and other intimate apparel manufacturers began reaching for the growing athletic share of the market. They turned to Christine Haycockaka -aka Dr. Bra- for direction.

A softball player herself, Christine conducted pioneering research throughout the 1970s and 1980s that measured breast movement by observing women running on treadmills. Coaches and other sports officials were most concerned about women's potential for injury. But Christine's prime motivator was solving soreness because she personally experienced breast pain every time she pitched a game. My mother suggested I try a maternity bra, Christine muses. But instead of experimenting with bra design, as Lisa Lindahl did, Christine turned to science. As associate professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Christine represented the needs of female athletes by serving on the American Medical Association's Committee on Medical Aspects of Sports. She also conducted key studies investigating breast support and protection.

"On the one hand, the studies were debunking the myth that women shouldn't be in contact sports because they'd hurt their breasts," Christine says. "But on the other hand, the research gave credence to women's complaints of breast pain." In one study she actually measured the force of a breast in motion. "It was quite impressive," she recalls. So when bra manufacturers started looking at Christine's work and asking for her advice, she gave it freely: wide bottom bands for extra support and straps not so elastic that they let breasts bounce.

In response intimate apparel companies started making beefed-up everyday bras built for sport - not exactly ideal gear, but a sign that the needs of female athletes were moving into the mainstream. Even upstart Jogbra had grown big enough to attract corporate attention. Although its signature product remained essentially unchanged over the years, the company had expanded its line to offer a variety of designs, and in 1990 Playtex purchased Jogbra from Lisa and her partners.

One segment of the female population, however, remained firmly on the periphery: large-breasted athletes. The pullover shelf-bra design established during the aerobics craze worked reasonably well for A and B cups but was woefully inadequate for D-plus sizes. "It was ridiculous," says Renelle Braaten, a Montana hairdresser who struggled to contain her double-Ds while playing racquetball and volleyball. "Anything stretchy enough to fit over my head just let them bounce all over the place," she says.

So in 1988 Renelle collaborated with her mother, an accomplished seamstress, and the two started from scratch to design something for well-endowed women. Renelle knew that her bra would need really strong, relatively nonelastic material; a crisscross design for better back support; exceptionally wide straps; and a front or back closure to zip 'em in tight. In fact, her first prototype did use a zipper, though she soon switched to hooks and eyes to achieve the supersnug fit she sought. Before long she'd dialed in a design that actually worked.

"It made a huge difference," Renelle recalls. She stitched a few for herself, then for friends, and that set her wondering about the larger population. "I knew I was not the only DD out there," says Renelle. "There had to be other women in the same position I'm in. And I knew if I could find them, they would love the bra."

Renelle planned to sell her product to an existing company, but each manufacturer gave her the same response: "What can this crazy broad from Montana possibly offer that our fabulous designers haven't already thought of?" Renelle recalls. They also doubted that there could be many large-breasted women in sports - a skepticism that never fails to spark Renelle's indignation since she blames that dearth on inadequate gear. The rejections roused what Renelle calls her "Norwegian stubbornness" and inspired the hairdresser to bring the bra to market herself. A stroke of luck introduced her to freelance apparel designer Heidi Fisk, who made aesthetic improvements to Renelle's bra and helped locate a product manufacturer. Renelle's own savings funded Enell Incorporated, and the minimal startup cash made for a low-profile launch.

Fourteen years later, Enell Inc. sees about 40 percent growth annually and receives daily e-mails from women who have resumed or begun athletics thanks to the Enell bra. Renelle says getting those grateful e-mails is the best part of her job. "Some of these women had been hunting so long for something that worked and were always disappointed," she says. "They try the Enell bra, and it's, like, Oh my gosh!  And suddenly these women are playing tennis and basketball again. It's great to make money with the business, but that's nothing compared to the satisfaction of getting this product to women who really need it."

The happy customer who's had the greatest impact on Enell is Oprah Winfrey. For years Renelle implored Oprah to try her bra, sometimes sending polite invitations, sometimes scolding the superstar for letting her boobs bounce around on national TV when she should be buckling them into the Enell bra. Finally, one day Oprah did just that, which prompted glowing product reviews in O, The Oprah Magazine and a 2001 appearance for Renelle on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The result was a surge in demand that depleted eight months worth of inventory in just three days and a valuable endorsement that boosts Enell's sales to this day.

Renelle now targets adolescents because she feels that large-breasted teens tend to give up sports once their ballooning chests make it too embarrassing to participate. "They just won't go through the humiliation of playing basketball in front of their peers if they're bouncing all over the place," Renelle sympathizes. She also believes that a properly supportive bra enhances athletic performance. She's often watched women running with their arms held tight at their sides, trying to stabilize their breasts. "You put those same women in a good bra and they forget all about holding onto themselves and really start concentrating on their sport," she observes.

And with the average breast size on the rise, more women need bras that offer greater support than those engineered for B cups. Americans in general are gaining weight, and for women those extra pounds have translated into plumper bosoms. Ten years ago 34B was the average; now it's 38C. That increase means larger-breasted athletes are no longer seen as a niche market. Profit potential is motivating big corporate players to cater to C and D sizes, which translates to more options for consumers, who are finding that the big brands are serving a wider spectrum of women than ever before. They're also producing sport-specific bras, meaning styles for low-impact activities like yoga and walking are engineered differently from those intended for running. And many bras now combine compression designs with encapsulation (a bra design that lifts and separates the breasts) for support without the monoboob look.

Along with advances in support, sports bras now offer high-performance moisture management; and technological advances made for outdoor sporting goods like parkas and tents have crossed over to sports bras. Welded and molded parts now replace stitched seams, which were too often the source of chafing and discomfort. The first high-support seamless bra, introduced in 2003 by Champion (Jogbra's current owner), combined slick nylon fabric with seamless design for friction-free performance. And Champion's brand-new Vapor bra uses Cocona fabric technology, a superwicking fiber made from coconut shells that makes CoolMax seem so last decade.

Having access to performance-oriented sports bras may not have made women more athletic but it definitely supported them to greater sporting accomplishments. "The history of the sports bra really tracks with the history of women in athletics," observes Lisa Lindahl. Prior to Title IX, women played half-court basketball, and running more than a mile was seen as a big accomplishment. But the bra that might've been tolerable on a 10-minute jog became a torture device during a 26-mile marathon. As women upped the intensity of their sports, they demanded equipment equal to the task. In turn that equipment made it possible for women to go longer, harder, and faster.

"It's been a transformative piece of clothing," says LaJean Lawson. "Finally, we have what we need to play hard, play well, and be comfy."

As the industry grew, profit motivated corporate players to join the effort, but the sports bra's inventor and innovators were real-women athletes fueled by passion for sports and the need for comfort. Lisa Lindahl is back in the bra business, this time with Bellisse, a company offering a bra for women experiencing the pain of truncal lymphedema following breast cancer surgery. Although she prefers to work on the leading edge rather than in an established industry, she still derives satisfaction from knowing that her invention is no longer a novelty. "I can't tell you what a kick it is to walk into a storea big store, like a JCPenney and see an entire wall of sports bras," she marvels. "It's an uncontested reality" - one for which active women can be profoundly grateful.

Major Moments in Sports Bra History:

A.D. 300 Roman mosaics in a villa near the Sicilian town of Piazza Armerina depict women exercising with bound breasts.

1906 American inventor Laura Blanche Lyon secures a patent for the bust supporter, a back-fastened canvas camisole with gathered cups now regarded as the first sports bra.

1917 American artist Ethel Quirk invents a breast supporter intended for theatrical, acrobatic dancing.

1972 Title IX of the Educational Amendments bans sex discrimination in schools, including unequal athletic opportunities.

1977 Lisa Lindahl, Polly Smith, and Hinda Schreiber stitch two jockstraps together to create the Jogbra, the first modern sports bra.

1982 Jane Fonda's Workout video launches the aerobic dancing craze and inspires millions of women to jump around in front of their TV's sporting shimmery, gem-hued Lycra tanks.

1984 In Los Angeles 27-year-old Joan Benoit wins the first-ever women's Olympic marathon with her lingerie-style bra strap showing as she completes her closing lap, an indiscretion that caused an uproar load enough to upstage her athletic achievement.

1988 Montana hairstylist Renelle Braaten constructs a front-fastening sports bra designed especially for large-breasted women.

1999 Soccer player Brandi Chastain celebrates her team's World Cup victory by stripping off her jersey and revealing her black Nike sports bra, which ignites inexplicable furor in a nation mesmerized by Baywatch. Others, however, see this as the moment when female athletes come out of the locker room to declare breasts as symbols of power and proficiency rather than impediments.

2000 Champion responds to women's complaints that sports bras flattened and de-feminized their bust lines by introducing the Shaper bra, which uses a unique nonfoam spacer fabric to maintain women's curves without compromising performance.

2003 Seamless sports bras virtually eliminate chafing and end the practice among distance athletes of covering themselves in Vaseline to prevent painful abrasions.

2007 High-tech fabrics improve bras' moisture management: Champion's Vapor sports bra features Cocona, a superwicking, odor-squelching new material made from coconut shells.

Fitting in, tips on finding a sports bra that fits:

Shop around, use your regular bra size as a guideline, but experiment with larger and smaller sizes to see what fits best. Sizing varies even among bras made by the same manufacturer.

Beware the band. Most of a bra's support comes from the band at the bottom, which restricts breasts vertical movement. The band should fit snugly against your rib cage; a too-big band lets the bra creep up your back. If the bra has an underwire, it should lie flat against your chest. If it's riding up onto your breasts, the bra's too small.

Go wide. Broad, nonstretchy shoulder straps provide the most support. If straps dig into your shoulder, they're either adjusted too tightly or the band size is too big.

Check the cups. Skin bulging out of the top or sides means the cup is too small; the fabric must completely cover your breasts to effectively contain motion. Wrinkling across the cups, however, means the bra's too big.

Dance around. Jog, jump, bend, reach - do whatever you can while trying on the bra to replicate the activity for which it's intended. Wear the bra for 5 to 10 minutes to give hot spots and other fit issues time to develop.

Trade up. Recent sports bra advances make today's models better than ever. If you're still wearing 1980s' technology, it's time to graduate to the twenty-first century.