Bosom buddies: How sports bras became women's biggest supporters

Bosom buddies: How sports bras became women's biggest supporters

The sports bra was invented in the 1970s when two halved jockstraps were sewn together. The design has gone from bust to boom since, says Deirdre Reynolds.

RACERBACK, pullover, encapsulation, compression: These days shopping for a sports bra can seem like the ultimate endurance test.

Back in the ’70s, when Lisa Lindahl first took up jogging, it was a very different story.

Hitting shelves here next month, Unleash the Girls: The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me) chronicles exactly what it says on the cover.

Speaking to Feelgood ahead of the book’s release, inventor-turned-author Lisa reveals how the game-changing garment, widely credited with levelling the playing field for women in sports, started life as a throwaway joke between sisters.

“I was a recreational runner,” she says over the phone from her Vermont home. “But I was uncomfortable because I had an ample bosom. Regular bras didn’t give me enough support — the straps would fall off my shoulders and the underwire would dig in.

“My sister had also started running and asked me, ‘What do you wear?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know — it’s such a problem’, and she said, ‘You know, why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?’ and we laughed. We thought that was so funny — same idea, different part of the anatomy.

“When I hung up the phone, I thought, ‘You know, that’s a good idea — I want to make one of those,’” she continues. “But I didn’t sew, so I turned to a friend of mine who was a costume designer, Polly Smith, and told her what I wanted to do.

“We went through a lot of prototypes and what actually worked was cutting two jockstraps in half, and sewing them back together so the pouches became cups, and the straps crossed in the back.

Bosom buddies: How sports bras became women's biggest supporters

“I was about to go into graduate school and I thought, ‘Oh, this will be a nice little mail-order business on the side’, and it just took off. I had to quit school in order to run the business.”

The first ad for ‘Jogbra’ featured the two women pounding the pavement in the new invention.

Cut to 40 years later, and it’s just as likely to see Gigi Hadid plugging Reebok’s PureMove bra or Jennifer Lopez being papped in her Beyond Yoga one.

As the athleisure trend continues apace, Versace and Tommy Hilfiger are just two of the designer brands joining high street ones such as Penneys and Topshop, sports ones like Reebok and Nike, and lingerie ones including Shock Absorber and Sloggi making bras designed for jogging, not jiggling.

But embarrassing bouncing isn’t the only side effect of wearing the wrong bra working out.

BREAST SUPPORT

Known as ‘jogger’s breast’, lack of support can also cause permanent stretching of the Cooper’s ligaments that hold the breasts up, and even lead to upper back and neck pain, particularly in larger-busted women as the breasts move up and down and side to side.

Jogger’s nipple, a type of friction burn affecting both women and men, is another condition partly alleviated by wearing a snug but soft sports bra.

Although wearing the wrong bra alone won’t cause back or neck problems among women, it’s definitely a factor, according to chartered physiotherapist Fiona Armstrong, who works at Sports Med Ireland, a training and rehabilitation facility, in Dublin

“When rehab gets rolled out, and a client is doing everything right to deal with a niggle but it’s not going away, then it is definitely worth looking at external factors like the bra,” she says.

Bosom buddies: How sports bras became women's biggest supporters

“With women, there’s an additional weight at the front, so you need to make sure that your shoulders, back, and core are strong because they’re the centre point of your whole body. If that’s not strong, or you’re loading it awkwardly with poor support, you’re increasing your odds of possibly preventable injuries.

“During our assessments, we often see clients in their sports gear,” she adds. 

If you see something like a bra that’s sitting very high up on their back, or bulging out the back of the shoulder blades, it can definitely contribute to the problem.

“Depending on your breast size and the type of activity you’re doing, there can be a lot of vertical movement of the breast tissue during exercise. Some women move between 2-12cm, so if you don’t have adequate support it can cause discomfort, not to mention embarrassment.

“So while the bra, in isolation, is not the issue, it would definitely have a play in it.”

WOMEN IN SPORT

As Ireland’s 20x20 movement bids to increase women’s participation in sport by 20% by the end of 2020, sales of the most important piece of kit in their gym bag have also gone from bust to boom, with the global sports bra market now worth an estimated €6bn a year.

Yet it wasn’t until this summer — a full 42 years after the invention of the so-called jockbra — that Women’s World Cup teams had a sports bra as part of their official kit, after sponsor Nike used the patented seamless, nylon-spandex technology of its Flyknit trainers to create a Flyknit bra.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of strapping in before working out, studies show that, just like regular bras, up to eight out of 10 women are wearing the wrong size sports bra, something The Run Hub in Dublin is hoping to rectify at new ‘Bubbles & Bras’ fitting events.

“Roughly 70-80% of women are wearing the wrong size bra,” says Sarah Fay, manager of the sporting goods store in Ashtown.

A lot of women are buying based on what size they think they are themselves, rather than getting a proper measurement, however, a sports bra can fit slightly differently compared to what you normally wear.

“Some women find that their breasts are sore after running, and once they realise why, they come in for a fitting. There has also been a bit more media around sports bras, making women more aware that what they buy in chain store maybe doesn’t suffice for what they need.

“If you’re any bigger than a B cup, you should be wearing a high-impact bra,” she advises.

“Our bestseller is Brooks Juno, which costs €55, and is available from size 30C-40E.

“Test it out by jogging on the spot,” she says, and watch for spillage, particularly under the arms. “And the band shouldn’t make you feel claustrophobic around your rib cage either.

“You don’t have to machine-wash it every time you wear it; you can just get into the shower with it on and let the water rinse the sweat and salts off it, and then [machine] wash it every three to four wears. But you should be replacing it after about 30 washes.”

COMFORT MATTERS

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Designed For Fitness, New Dimensions Active and PeachyLean are just some of funky-but-functional Irish brands found in personal trainer Sylvia Diaz’s bottom drawer, and coveted by her more than 10k followers in daily fitspirational posts on Instagram (@fit.with.sylvia).

“I like really bright colours and racerback styles, but it doesn’t matter how good it looks if you’re not comfortable.

I do a lot of high-intensity exercise such as step aerobics and dancing, so it needs to be tighter than a regular bra. It also needs to be a really high-tech fabric for moisture-wicking to avoid skin irritation.

“I was wearing a really cheap one,” she adds, “but it irritated my skin, so now the minimum I spend is €60 for a good one.”

Whether a compression bra, which covers the whole chest and is best for smaller busts and low-impact activities such as hiking, an encapsulation bra, which features separate cups and is best for bigger busts and more intense workouts like aerobics, or a compression and encapsulation bra combining both, comfort is key, says physio Fiona Armstrong.

“There are so many bras out there,” she says. “The number one thing is that it’s comfortable.

“Obviously if you’re larger in size, you need greater support, particularly for something like running or jumping where there’s increased vertical movement. Older ladies also tend to need more support as the skin around the bust has less elasticity.

“Make sure that the straps are neither too loose, where they’re sliding down, nor too tight, where they are digging into the shoulders. The band should sit comfortably on your sternum, which is just lower than your breast bone in the middle of your rib cage, without the cups drifting up.

“Other than that, it’s just general comfort — you need to make sure you have a full range of movement, like being able to pull your shoulders back without being in discomfort.”

With the latest Reebok PureMove sports bra using Nasa-inspired motion sense technology to adapt to women’s in real-time, providing more support for CrossFit, for example, but more flexibility for yoga, it’s safe to say the undergarment has come a long way since Lisa Lindahl first stitched two jockstraps together.

Back in Vermont, the author — who sold her ground-breaking company to Playtex in 1990 — tells Feelgood how she’s still proud of the part her invention has played in women’s and girl’s lives ever since.

“The sports bra has totally changed fashion because athleisure has grown out of it,” she explains.

There’s even been some discussion about how it contributed to the fourth wave of feminism, because now women’s fashion is much more about their own comfort, [and] not so much about pleasing the male gaze.

“It started off being something to solve my own personal problem, and I thought, ‘Well, gee if I have this issue, I bet some other women do too.’

“I’ve heard from so many women and girls that it gave them confidence and took away their self-consciousness about going out there on the field. I’m just really honoured and proud and happy that it has done what it’s done.”

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