How the sports bra has changed women's lives forever

Designed by women, for women, the humble, yet game-changing sports bra turned 40 this year. Carolyn Moore reports.    
How the sports bra has changed women's lives forever

2017. It’s been… interesting, to say the least. There are a dozen other adjectives we women could use to describe it - crushing, depressing, soul destroying...Need I go on?

With the tidal wave of #metoo stories, it’s a year when women’s bodies have been in the news for all the wrong reasons; grabbed, groped, violated, and stomped on by the political agenda.

At times, this year has felt like an endurance sport, so as we limp towards the finish line, let’s not forget the debt of gratitude we owe to an enterprising jogger from Vermont called Lisa Lindahl.

Thanks to her, one thing we don’t have to worry about is breast support.

Designed by women, for women (because the sports industry unprompted was never going to recognise this need, let alone fulfill it) the humble sports bra turned 40 this year, and if ever there was a garment deserving of the tag ‘empowering’, that would be it. I mean, ask yourself - where would any of us be without it?

It’s easy to take this groundbreaking garment for granted now; comfortable, affordable, and ubiquitous across high street and high fashion sports ranges, it’s a standard piece of kit in every woman’s gym bag.

As technical fabrics have advanced, these little feats of engineering have adapted and improved, catering to the unique needs of every woman’s body and breasts.

As those advancements have rolled out, sports bras have improved aesthetically too, so much so that it’s easy to forget this is not a superficial fashion item, it’s an essential piece of sports gear.

The sports bra changed women’s lives, so lets take a moment to celebrate a major advancement in sports technology that empowered women without even bragging about it.

When Lisa Lidahl took up the buzzy new exercise ‘jogging’ in 1977, she quickly realised there were not one, but two big hurdles getting in her way. Those hurdles were her 36C breasts.

Jogging without a bra attracted the unwanted attention of passing motorists; but jogging with a bra meant slipping straps and hardware digging uncomfortably into her flesh. “Why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?” her sister asked one evening as they bemoaned their tender breasts.

They laughed at the idea, but as Lisa considered how this issue must be affecting any women who wanted to exercise, let alone compete in sport at a professional level, a seed was sown. With the help of Polly Smith, a seamstress and costume designer, and Hinda Miller, they began to tackle the problem and – unbeknownst to them – invent the modern sports bra.

As prototype after prototype was trialled and rejected, they eventually struck on the idea of a literal jockstrap for women. Stitching together two standard jockstraps and holstering them over her shoulders, Lisa discovered that flattening the breasts against the chest wall stopped them moving, and the sports bra -- then christened the ‘Jog Bra’ – was born.

LaJean Lawson has been researching and improving upon that rudimentary design ever since. She also runs a small sports bra museum housing decades worth of vintage models – some so complex they strapped on over the legs and came with instructions.

Think about that the next time you walk into Penneys and pick up one up for a tenner. “If god had intended women to run, he would not have put breasts on them,” reads another artifact, a letter she received in the 80s that shows the societal resistance met by women who simply wanted to exercise and enjoy sport.

For those women, the Jog Bra was a godsend; wildly successful, it revolutionised women’s participation in sport – or women with small to medium size chests, at any rate.

Large breasts and plus size bodies were the next frontier, and it took another amateur sportswoman to modify the bra for this market, which speaks to the lack of interest sports wear companies had in engaging with or encouraging women in sport.

You only have to look at the scale of the women’s sportswear market now to see how much their attitude changed.

The ongoing trend for athleisure means sports and soft cup bras now outsell underwired bras, so as the sports bra becomes equal part fashion item and sports equipment, the question is, could it do for the participation of girls in sport what it once did for women?

Research released earlier this year by the Irish Life Health School Fitness Challenge showed teenage girls are less likely than boys to get their recommended amount of exercise; and by the time they reach fourth year, girls are 42pc less fit than their male counterparts.

Meanwhile, a study by Lidl revealed girls who play sport have better body confidence and mental well-being, but by the age of 13, one in every two has quit sport completely.

The findings mirror a UK study, where the University of Portsmouth discovered that just 12% of 14-year-old girls are achieving exercise guidelines, with breast bounce cited as the single biggest reason girls drop out of sport.

Despite the innovations in sports bra technology (not to mention aesthetics), 50% of girls said they never wear one – so could sports bras be the missing link?

Dr. Kate Kirby, Head of Performance Psychology at the Sports Ireland Institute, says the Irish Life study identified “more broad reaching concerns around a general self-consiousness coinciding with the onset of puberty, which is the peak time for girls dropping out of sport.”

The finding around breast size would tie into what she calls, an “overarching self consciousness around physical changes, and even physical appearance, like getting red faced and sweaty.”

Marking 40 years of the sports bra, she says, “Anything that allows women to be competitive and enjoy sport with as much comfort as possible should be celebrated. Technology is improving all the time, allowing women of all shapes, sizes and ages to participate in sport.

“If you think you look good, you’ll feel better and be more confident,” she adds, “so if the sports bra can help removes a potential barrier to participation, then keep making them.”

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