The History Of The Sports Bra Is Surprisingly Feminist
Chances are when you dump your gym bag into the laundry, you don't think too much about its contents. There are a couple of sweaty gym socks in there, a cute racerback top, leggings that have seen better days — but what about the sports bra? The history of the sports bra is an interesting one, where strapped-in boobs signaled a rise in equality, which is surprising when you think back to the bra burning days of the '70s. But as it hits its 40th anniversary this year, it's impossible to overlook how closely linked it was to women muscling their way into locker rooms and earning their spot on sports fields.
But the rise of ponytails on fields and courts didn't happen because of a natural evolution; there wasn't a women's league boom in that era because girls decided they were no longer content taking Home Ec classes and waving team flags from the bleachers. There were specific social forces at play that lead to them joining teams en masse, and requiring the bra to show up in their underwear drawers. In honor of its birthday, ahead is the fascinatingly feminist history of the sports bra, and the very real struggle it went through to get into our hampers.
1Before The Sports Bra
Women have been cinched, pinched, and strapped into bras for hundreds of years, so it's a little surprising they only had the sports bra for a mere 40.
But before they even joined a field or a pitch, they had to tackle the deep social stigma of letting their bra straps show, making it that much harder for women to go outside and sweat it out. "Before you stepped outside, you first had to figure out tops that would hide the straps — the bra you used to workout was a piece of intimate apparel that was never to be seen out in public,” LaJean Lawson, Ph.D., Sports Bra Science and Marketing Consultant to Champion Athleticwear, shares with Bustle. Once you found a way to tuck your straps, you then had to find a manner to join the team — which was easier said than done.
Take the All-American Girls Baseball League in the '40s for example. It was started during Wold War II to replace Major League Baseball, which was cancelled since most of the batters were off fighting the war. But even though the players had a peak of 900 thousand people attending their games, it still ended in '54 as interest in girls playing ball declined to nearly nothing after the men came home. Then in 1970, the Pacific Southwest Open was going to award the male tennis winner $12,500 and the female winner $1,500, putting a very literal value on a woman's worth on the court. That wasn't surprising, seeing how before Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the landmark 1973 tennis match dubbed "Battle of the Sexes," Riggs was quoted as bragging “the best way to handle women is to keep them pregnant and barefoot.”
It wasn't until 1972 that women could run marathons and not just watch their brothers and boyfriends jog past them in the sidelines, and it took up until 1984 for a woman to run more than 400 meters in the Olympics, because science thought her body couldn't handle more.
Women were simply not invited, encouraged, or allowed to play, so when the sports bra finally came about, it was a direct result of the playing field being evened out a little more for their participation. But that didn't happen on it's own — keep in mind women have been trying to elbow their way into sports for decades without much leeway. One thing in particular was attributed to that change, and that was Title IX.
2The Importance Of Title IX
Title IX was the landmark legislation in 1972 that prohibited any kind of sex discrimination in schools that received federal funding. The wild thing was, supporters of the bill had no idea that the couple-page-statute would spur on generations of women to sweat, bulk, race, and bring home medals. In fact, congresswoman Edith Green, the co-sponsor of the bill, made sure to stifle any vocal support so as not to encourage anyone to peer too closely at the legislation and realize its full scope. "I don't want you to lobby. Because if you lobby, people will ask questions about this bill, and they will find out what it would really do," Green was quoted as saying. So slipped in without much commotion, there was one sentence in particular that was scheduled to make history:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” And that was it. Those handful of words would soon dynamite open doors for girls sitting on bleachers at sports meets, wishing they were on the other side of the chain-link fence — but many had no idea.
When the bill came onto the Congress floor, sports were mentioned only once during the senate talk of what Title IX would enforce, and it ended with male Senators chuckling over the idea of girls playing on college football fields. "If I may says so, I would have had much more fun playing college football if it had been integrated," one Senator said with a wink, and that was where the topic ended. While legislatures might not have realized it at the time, the line was going to mandate equal opportunity in sports for girls, and it was going to completely change the game.
3How Title IX Changed The Game
"I recall being in high school basketball and we had to play 'girls' rules,' which was you could only play half-court," Dr. Lawson from Champion shares. "If you were on the offense you could only be in the front court, or if you were on defense you only moved in the back court, because the assumption was girls weren’t strong enough to go the full court."
Thinking women would faint on the spot if they ran the full length of the gym, it made sense why they only comprised two percent of college athletes, and only seven percent of high school ones. The primary sports for girls at that time were cheerleading and square-dancing of all things. Those that ventured outside of dosey-doe-ing were trivialized, and girls' teams had to wear their gym uniforms in lieu of jerseys, and raise their own money through bake sales, car washes, and pocket change.
But it didn't end there. C. Vivian Stringer, who was a coach at the historically black college Cheney State in 1971, used her own money to recruit players and had to drive her team to their games in an old prison bus. Margaret Murphy, who was a member on the Cornell women's hockey team — an Ivy League school — changed in a shoebox sized locker room with metal folding chairs, with an "equipment room" that was just a cabinet in the back. Then there was Marge Snyder, who played on an Illinois high school tennis team that held a streak of 56-0 for three whole years. Her team was permitted to continue competing on the conditions they didn't publicize their accomplishments and paid for their own equipment and uniforms. There was no such thing as athletic scholarships for females, and in 1971 nearly 13 thousand high schools had boys' baseball teams, but less than 400 schools held girls' softball teams. There was no such thing as girl athletes; the concept didn't exist. But Title IX changed all of that.
And as more women hit the courts, a lacy underwire bra was no longer going to cut it as they tore across fields and trained for 26-mile- marathons. They needed equipment to keep their breasts down. And that's exactly what the sports bra was.
4How Boobs Were Strapped In Before The Bra
The thing with the sports bra was that it wasn't just manufactured so boobs wouldn't swing all over the place while racing down pitches. Wearing the wrong bra actually hurt, resulting in everything from chafing, to digging, to your chest aching from the force. And since equipment didn't exist yet to solve those problems, women had to MacGyver their own solutions with their regular, day-to-day brassieres.
For Dr. Lawson, she remembers doing things like pulling her bra straps together in the middle with athletic tape to create a crude racerback, or putting tape underneath her straps and band to slow down chafing. “We weren’t going to stop doing what we were doing, but we did what we could."
Lisa Lindahl, one of the creators of the original sports bra, was an avid jogger, and her trials and tribulations while running down roads were the reason she came up with the invention. "I at first tried running braless to avoid the chafing and sliding straps, but then of course I got hoots and hollers from passing motorists and guy runners," she shared with Bustle. "Then I would wear a bra that was a size too small which was helpful when it came to pressing my breasts down, but then the straps would stretch and fall off my shoulders, making it uncomfortable in a different way." One particular friend of hers also tried ingeniously wearing a bathing suit top over her bra to incorporate that stretchy material, proving just how creative women got to keep themselves strapped in. Suffice it to say, it wasn't easy. But a solution was just around the corner.
5The Free Swing Tennis Bra Came First
While women were experimenting with swimsuits and tape, companies were trying to crank out products that would help. Glamorise was technically the first brand to create the sports bra in 1975, but one has to say "technically" because it wasn't much different from the white cotton brassieres women clasped on to run errands, not marathons. Dubbed the "Free Swing Tennis Bra," it didn't do much for those that wanted to go further than playing badminton or going sailing.
“It was a tennis bra, and it had a little rose bud applique in the front — it looked really, really girly. I think what made it a 'sports bra' was that it had a wicking fabric and cushions in the shoulder straps," Dr. Lawson recalls. "It's said the product failed because retailers were just not ready to accept sports bras as a category, but I think it also was because there wasn’t enough of a difference." If a woman bought it, she might not recognize that it was something separate from the lacy number she bought in the underwear section at her department store. "What is amazing about the original Jogbra was that it was so radical from a structural engineering point of view. It worked so differently that a woman would put it on and realize this really did what she needed." And dainty lingerie with rose buds on the band just didn't.
6The Jogbra Came Second
Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Schreiber, and costume designer Polly Smith were the trio that came up with the Jogbra, but it all started with Lindahl's love affair with running. Suffering from epilepsy since she was a child, she found an escape through her time connecting shoes against pavement and tearing through Vermont's wooden trails. "My body would routinely betray me, so I wasn't on such good terms with it," Lindahl explains. "But there was this amazing turnaround when I started running. All of a sudden my body was my friend, and I was having this wonderful experience, but the only thing that got in the way of it was my breasts being constantly uncomfortable. Which was the real motivation for coming up with the Jogbra."
Renting the spare bedroom in Lindahl's house at the time, Smith would do the sewing and send Lindahl off running with their different prototypes, but she would come back sweaty and annoyed each time. Nothing worked because they couldn't hack the structural problem of the bra. That was, until one evening when the two were spending some time at their kitchen table. "My then husband came down the stairs with a jockstrap, and pulling it down on his head and over his chest, he jokingly said, 'Here's your jockbra ladies!'" Lindahl remembers. "And we thought that was really funny so I jumped up and had to get in on it. I pulled it down over my head, and when I took the cup and pulled it over my breast I looked at Polly and said, 'You know, this kind of feels right.'" The next day Schreiber went to the sports store and bought a handful of jockstraps, Frankenstein-ed them together, and sent Lindahl on her morning run. When she came back home, they discovered they just cracked the working engineering of the sports bra.
7Selling The Jogbra Wasn't Easy
But just because they had the Jogbra didn't mean that anyone would want to buy it. Women definitely would, but you had to remember that sports stores were male owned and managed, which meant most of the managers they spoke to laughed at the idea of stocking their shelves with lingerie. "I would do cold calls with a suitcase full of bras, and I would walk into these stores and ask to speak to the person that did the buying," Lindahl shares. "I would look at them and say that I had this bra that was just for running and they would go, "Who are you lady, this is a sporting goods store! We don't buy bras, we don't buy lingerie." But rather than walk her suitcase back to her car, Lindahl put her hands on her hips instead. "To that I would slowly raise one eyebrow and ask, 'You carry jockstraps don't you?'"
Sometimes that was all it took, but if the realization still wasn't there on how much of a necessity it was, Lindahl would try a different tactic. "I would ask them, would you go running in your loafers? Or your wing tips? And that was the one that would get them — the idea of playing basketball in their wing tips. Because that's how it felt to play basketball in your lacy bra. You needed the right equipment." Once that notion sunk in, the bras were ordered en masse. Lindahl thought the Jogbra would be a small mail order business on the side as she attended graduate school, but it exploded in such a way that she had to quit her studies completely, and eventually sold it to Champion. “The reason why it became popular was not only that it actually worked, but there was this pent up demand from women for something to work," Dr. Lawson explained. Women were waiting for this very solution.
8The Enell Bra Came Third
While sports bras helped women with A and B cups enjoy morning runs and kill it across soccer fields, those with bigger chests felt like the struggle was still very much ahead of them. One of such women was Renelle Braaten, a Montana hairdresser who still had to DIY her boobs into place when she played racquetball and volleyball. She tried wrapping an Ace bandage around her chest to strap herself in, and doubling up on sports bras to squish them closer to her chest, but she quickly realized that anything with some stretch to it just wasn't going to work for bigger chests — and that's what planted the seed for the Enell sports bra. "If you can stretch out a bra far enough to put it over your head and onto your body, then it's not going to do anything but stretch once it gets onto your bust. So I knew I had to come up with something without that stretch," Braaten shares with Bustle.
"I wasn't about to give up playing with my teams, but I finally got so frustrated with not finding anything that worked that I did what most people do when they're stuck: I went to my mom." Her mom was a homemaker and a self-taught, accomplished seamstress, so the two got together to ad hoc a bra that would help Braaten solve her problem. "We started digging into her box of old fabric, and using what she had around the house we created the ugliest bra you've ever seen in your life. But it actually worked, and it worked so well that I used it for about two years," she remembers.
"When the ball flew out of court during a volleyball match I would never go get it. But once I had my ugly bra, I would go running left and right for it." Knowing that she couldn't be the only woman with big boobs pulling her hair out over this problem, in 1993 she decided to take her product public. Her bra was a game-changer because of its design: It was specifically engineered to deal with the weight of a heavier chest. "We made wide straps so there was no chance of digging into shoulders, and so that the bra could support the weight of the breasts. There was structured back support for that same purpose, and it wasn't stretchy in the least. Instead it had a closure in the front that you hooked together to secure yourself in, and there was plenty of coverage so that you didn't find yourself coming out from the top or bottom, or spilling out from the arm holes," Braaten shares. And now, her bras come in a range of sizes that measure up to 60 inches.
9The Importance Of A Sports Bra For Bigger Busts
When it was time for Braaten to sell her bra to realtors, she realized that creating it might have been the easy part. Getting it into stores would prove to be a bit more challenging. "I knew when I was trying to design this bra that I couldn't possibly be the only woman in the world that needed it," she says. "But there was a hurdle getting them into stores. Many of the buyers thought there would be no market for it — that plus size or big chested women just didn't play sports, period. But a lot of women didn't show up on the court because they didn't have anything that worked for them." They were being shut out from playing because of an assumption.
The success of the bra showed just how big of a problem that dismissal was, and how badly it needed fixing. She gets emails every single day on how her bra has changed women's relationship with sports, and when asked which one stuck out the most, Braaten mentions Drew Barrymore. "When she was training for Charlie's Angels, her trainer wanted her to jump rope but Barrymore backed away from the idea, saying that would hurt too much to try. So her trainer gave her the Enell bra to nix the problem — and she said she put it on, jumped a few times, and sat down and bawled. She couldn't believe that would make that big of a difference."
Because of that, Braaten especially wants to branch out the bra to high schoolers to make sure they never feel limited or held back by their bodies. "I think a lot of teenage girls, if they don't have the right support, just end up quitting. They start out in sports and all of a sudden they develop boobs and decide they won't continue to do it any longer."
She recalls a moment when she was just starting out her business and there was one girl on her town's basketball team that had very large breasts. "I would go to the concession stand and I'd always hear somebody talking about her boobs — 'Oh my god, did you see how much she was bouncing' — that sort of thing. It was the main talk of the game." Feeling like she could really help, she offered the girl to test-drive her new prototype in between seasons, and the next year when she came back there was a notable difference — now the talk was about the lack of bounce.
Engineering a bra that specifically targeted the problems of larger cup sizes allowed women to focus on their game and not their bodies, no matter how big their bust size was.
10How The Bra Has Changed
When you look back just a handful of decades, it's amazing to see just how much bras have changed. Long gone are the days when showing a strap could get you a ticket — in fact, we now show off our sports bras like they're the best part of the outfit. "One of the historical events that boosted that forward was at the end of the World Cup where Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey to show her sports bra in public," Dr. Lawson remembers. The headlines that sprung up afterwards had hundreds of theories as to why she would do that, throwing everything from her trying to be sexual, to being paid to promote the brand. "But Chastain waved that all off, saying it was just simple celebration — after all, that's what guys do when they win a really big championship. It was a very liberating moment for those watching because it hinted that girls could workout without their shirt as well."
Since then, the bra has only continued to evolve. “I think it goes back to how women have changed," Dr. Lawson answers. Women's bodies have changed over the decades, and their bras have evolved with them. "We are now looking at a much more diverse group of bodies — and brands like Champion have responded to that with plus size categories. So bras have evolved in relationship to who women are and what they want.” Our sports bras have a direct line back to when we had near to no options when it came to athletics, and have grown to be a mirror of how far we've come to work a field just as fiercely as our male counterparts.
So the next time you toss that piece in your gym bag or throw it over your head before a sweaty session, know that you're putting an important piece of woman's history on your body. And go tear up that court all the harder because of it.