Now the photo is iconic: Brandi Chastain, victorious female athlete, celebrating the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team World Cup final win over China without her jersey on, revealing her sports bra — unheard of at the time. Not so these days. Just check out the New York City Marathon on Sunday. Even in the November chill, you might see several sports bras. Even if you don’t see them, they will be on virtually every woman runner.
Inventing the sports bra was just the beginning. Wellness, entrepreneurship, relationships, personal growth, spiritual expansion, feminism and other cultural influences are all threads that wove this history, brought us to today and will pop up here.
Life is laced with irony. Even though I invented the sports bra I have never considered myself an athlete, though many since have assumed that to be the case. Who else would conceive of such a thing?
An artist and craftswoman, earning a meager living back in the 1970s as a secretary, the only business experience I’d had was selling my creations at local craft fairs. My love of running was for psychological, physiological and eventually spiritual reasons, not for competition — except, as it turned out, a stiff competition with myself. Starting and running a business was the furthest thing from my mind the summer I conceived of a bra specifically designed for jogging, as we called the activity then.
So how is it that indeed I did invent the first sports bra? In my mid-twenties, sitting at a desk most every day, I began to grieve the loss of my girlish figure. It was the mid 1970s and the fitness revolution was booming. Awareness of the importance of physical fitness was trending big time. A friend told me that if I just ran a mile and a quarter three times a week I would get into shape and lose any extra pounds. That sounded doable, right? Little did I know!
Working at the University of Vermont at the time afforded me use of the indoor track — but it covered only a tenth of a mile. When I began my new regime it was a struggle to get around it even just once. Shocked and ashamed at my inability, determination blossomed: I would complete a mile, impossible as that seemed. The day, months later, when I completed that 10th lap I was elated. The competition between couch potato me and determined me had been won. I was reinventing myself. And I set the bar higher, a lap at a time.
Fast forward to what became my routine: outdoors, running 5-6 miles a day, almost every day, even in Vermont winters. It changed everything. I was stronger, more energetic, and my creative juices were overflowing. It was no longer only about physical fitness, but had become a spiritual practice. Running connected me. For the first time I felt my body was my friend, my ally – not the tricky mechanism that could betray and endanger me at any moment, for as a person with epilepsy I have seizures and can have convulsions. Growing up I’d learned over the years that my body was not always my friend, but could be unpredictable and dangerous. Running changed that. More about that aspect later.
The only unpleasant aspect of my new discipline was the discomfort and annoyance of my bouncing breasts. Regular bras were not adequately supportive, to say the least. Shoulder straps fell down, fabrics exacerbated sweat and chafing, hardware dug in. Then the day came when I jokingly asked “Why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?” Different part of the anatomy, same job: ameliorate the bouncing of certain body parts. The idea was born. And yes, the first working prototype was two jockstraps cut in half and sewed back together to support breasts instead of balls.
Little did I know all those years ago how great the impact of the invention of the sports bra would be. The rest of the story has become feminist and athletic history, some true, some not so much. But it is most definitely a tale of personal as well as feminist and cultural evolution.
This is my first contribution to Forbes and while the genesis story of the very first sports bra is always popular, there are so many other tales to tell. The sports bra and the business I built around it turned out to birth a multi-billion dollar industry and significantly impact women’s sports. But it turned out to only be the start. Women’s wellness, entrepreneurship, relationships, personal growth, spiritual expansion, feminism and other cultural influences intervened. This twisty and counterintuitive path eventually led me to my true passion and its purpose, one that is important for us all. Stay tuned.