The history of a sports bra

The sports bra is celebrating its 40th birthday, but its humble and simplistic beginning is a far cry from its current on-trend, red carpet-worthy status of today…

The history

In the mid 1900s, women were finally allowed to compete in sporting events under their own female category, including the Olympics. But support for female participation was weak so a Women’s Olympiad and Women’s World Games were established and held three and four times respectively. The Olympic Committee responded by allowing more female participation, and as a result female Olympic contestants rose from 65 in 1920 to 331 in 1936. This, in turn, created a rise in popularity of sports for women.

By the 1970s running became the hot new fitness craze, with the 5km races being born.

Victoria Woodrow gave the sport a go, but complained to her sister Lisa Lindahl that running left her chest feeling sore because her breasts bounced. A throwaway joke from Lindahl’s husband as he strutted across the room with a jockstrap across his chest, sent their minds wandering.

With more and more women now enjoying sports, the complaints of sore boobs, chaffing and a desire to minimise movement came flooding in.

So Lisa set to work of her dream jockstrap-style sports bra, and with the help of costume designer Polly Smith, they created prototypes and Jogbra was born.

Originally they were sold by mail order, but as things evolved Lisa wanted sports equipment retailers to stock her Jogbras. Few male sports store owners wanted to take on ‘women’s lingerie’, but the few who did, sold them with ease.

The progression

The early 1980s saw the birth of the aerobics trend, and Jane Fonda soon became the face of it with the release of her hit-selling workout videos. As women everywhere were dancing around their homes in shimmery Lycra, more athletes and inventors began taking their position within the sports bra market.

Jogbras had been designed for smaller-chested women. Welcome Renelle Braaten – a large-chested lady who was too stubborn to quit her beloved volleyball, just because of her bra size.

Braaten set to work creating a sports bra from less stretchy materials and a front-fastening clasp, adamant other women with large cup sizes wanted to enjoy sports just like her, but simply hadn’t been able to – until now.

In 1992 Braaten’s Ennell bra hit the market and once it appeared on Oprah Winfrey in 2001 it became a national name. Having led the way, today there are now a wide selection of larger cupped sized sports bras available from brands such as Anita, Panache, Freya and Shock Absorber.

Shocked into action

Following research at Edinburgh University, Shock Absorber started designing their first sports bra in 1994. By 1995 they launched with a collection of sports bras to meet the needs of athletic ladies. They began with the endorsement of Olympic 400 meter hurdler Sally Gunnell, followed by the backing of a sea of famous female sporting faces, including tennis pro Anna Kournikova and long jump champion Jade Johnson.

In 2005 Shock Absorber commissioned pioneering research on breast health with Portsmouth University, through which it discovered breasts have a three dimensional movement when exercising.

Today’s trend

Despite its humble and simplistic start, sports bras are now regarded as a vital piece of sports equipment, of equal importance to trainers and racquets. They are intensively researched, high tech and performance enhancing.

Bras today feature multiple fabrics, layers, various materials such as breathable mesh and those that wick away sweat to help keep you cool. Different support levels are available, all in a bid to cater for unique women and the variable sports and movements.

And despite the new-age technology and research behind them, sports bras have also earned their status as a fashion item. They can be spotted on catwalk runways, Pinterest and even red carpets, as sported by tennis icon Serena Williams and actor Jennifer Lawrence. These celebrity red carpet appearances cemented the sports bra’s position as an on-trend fashion item, not just practical, solution-solving lingerie.

As well as improved technology and performance, there has of course been an increased demand due to our more health-conscious lifestyles, with Sport England recording the amount of women playing sports and being active is increasing faster than that of men. Sports bra sales have grown to £2.6bn in the USA alone, as of 2016.

So it seems the only place sports bras are going is in more women’s drawers and gym bags.

Laura Barrett

Having styled for celebrity magazine shoots and written for many lifestyle brands, Figleaves Content Editor Laura Barrett is on hand to offer fashion news, style inspiration, trend updates and collection reviews.