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Supportive Science: The Quest to Build A Better Sports Bra


In the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, tucked in between a collection of items documenting the discovery of modern orthodontia and original scripts from the television show M*A*S*H, is a simple garment made of white cloth with an elastic band underneath. By today’s standards, this particular design would be recognized as loungewear, worn by women while lounging around the house, or maybe under a billowy tank top for a brunch date. But in 1977, it was an innovation that changed running forever.

The invention of the sports bra is a quintessentially American story, born of necessity, ingenuity, and a few happy accidents. Shortly after the 1972 Title IX legislation mandated equal opportunity for girls and women in sports, a new fitness craze called jogging took the United States by storm. Running became a mainstream activity, with an estimated 25 million Americans taking to their streets, paths, and track ovals. A full industry sprung up to cater to the needs of these joggers, from Bill Bowerman’s iconic waffle-machine running shoes to the mass production of polyester running shorts and terry-cloth headbands.

But almost all of these innovations were created by men, for men. Despite the surge in female athletic participation in the 1970s, no one was really thinking about the needs of women in sport—specifically, the need for a supportive garment to help reduce breast movement as women ran. Brassieres were mostly regarded as a fashion item designed to enhance cleavage, not a functional one for anatomical support. The jockstrap, invented in 1874, was well-established as an essential piece of equipment for men to reduce bouncing of their genitalia during sports, yet no one had ever thought to make a female equivalent for athletic women.

New runner Lisa Lindhal was lamenting this very fact to her sister, Victoria Woodrow, when her husband cracked a joke: “Why not wear a jockstrap, then?” For extra comic effect, he slipped his own jockstrap over his head, wiggling and writhing until the garment awkwardly covered one side of his chest. The antics made Lindhal double over with laughter, then suddenly stop. Lindhal looked at her husband with a raised eyebrow: Wait a second. Could it be…?

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