The Sports Bra Turns 40! An Interview with the Woman Responsible for Designing It
Nowadays, sports bras are a de facto part of every woman’s gym bag, a mandatory uniform of anyone looking to shed a few extra pounds or just get those endorphins flowing on the treadmill. But not all that long ago, while of course there were still women who were into athletics, there was no such thing as a sports bra. In fact, it took until 1977 for the first one to hit the mass market, dubbed the “Jogbra” invented by Lisa Lindahl and theater costume designer Polly Smith with the help of Smith’s assistant, Hinda Schreiber. While the original Jogbra was actually made out of two jockstraps sewn together, now as this piece of functional underwear celebrates the 40th anniversary of its creation, the sports bra also celebrates just how far it’s come since then. These bras are now composed of super-advanced fabrics and stitching, taking into consideration the unique needs of every woman’s bodies, breasts, and range of motion.
And if you’ve noticed a decided uptick in the comfort and functionality of your own sports bra over time, you can undoubtedly thank Dr. LaJean Lawson for that. As the Sports Bra Science and Marketing Consultant to Champion Athleticwear for the last 30-plus years she’s helped push the technology behind this piece of apparel forward. She was also kind enough to jump on the phone with PeopleStyle to discuss just how far the sports bra has come, what challenges she’s still facing, and what she sees as the future of this product in an ever-evolving sportswear landscape.
What was your initial involvement with the Jogbra project?
I can’t claim to being one of the actual inventors, but I started very early in consulting with Jogbra. I included the original Jogbra in my Masters’ research at the university and I had been wearing the Jogbra as a runner soon after it was invented, so it was both science and real life for me to become involved with it.
For my Master’s piece, I studied 60 women at Utah State University, [sizes] A-D, seven different sports bras. Women came to my lab for biomechanical testing, which is measuring how the breasts are moving with cameras. Back in the old days we actually rented movie cameras from Hollywood, using seven millimeter black and white film, which was very expensive and extremely laborious to analyze the 100 frames per second. By contrast, in my lab I now have a state of the art optoelectronic system where I can get immediate results. The research I did back in 1984 is one of the original, seminal papers on sports bras that still gets read and cited on average about once a week. So it was a big deal. Very soon after presenting the results to the American College of Sports Medicine and getting it picked up by Self magazine, Jogbra came back to me and said they were really interested in how their bras work, especially for various sizes of women. That was 1977, and I have been doing one to two scientific studies a year for Champion ever since.
So before your involvement, Jogbra didn’t have that kind of research or scientific component behind its product?
No, actually no companies were doing anything in that area in academic research. Jogbra was the first sports bras in the modern era, the first sports bra released since about the 3rd century AD. This is the one product that we couldn’t borrow or steal from men. It’s something that is a product for women that we need for our sport experience so we’re not being held back because of our anatomy and who we are as women.
The very original sports bra that I’m aware of from the 3rd century AD was used by women in the Olympic events back then. You can go to Sicily, to Kamarina, you can see the actual mosaics. They have barbells, they’re hitting balls, they have olive wreaths on their head and they have these wonderful little bandeaus around the breasts and little bikini bottoms. They’re known as the bikini girls. And then we went into the dark ages.
Why do you think it took until 1977 for the Jogbra to be invented?
Two historical things that are so important and really work together. One was the passage of the legislation in 1972 called Title IX, which mandated equal opportunity for girls in school and education, including sports. So all of a sudden we have the opening of doors for girls at elementary, high school, college age who then needed gear to support them in these new opportunities they had for play. They had the running boom coming along at that time too in the mid-70s, so these were phenomena in our history that meant if women were to participate, they needed the product. There were women and girls beginning to discover the joy, the strength and the power, all the really great benefits that we get from participating in sports and exercises.
It solved some really major problems. The straps crossing in the back wouldn’t slip down, it was this wide, comfortable band, there was no hardware, and the pouches from the Jogbra actually formed this compression over the breast instead of the traditional cup. And really that DNA is so amazing I could hold up a sports bra that was just released in 2017 and it would have the same basic architecture.
Can you talk a bit about how the sports bra has evolved?
There was a certain freedom with the Jogbra, to pull a bra over your head and go, which is still absolutely current. The ability to pull something on that stretches, adapts to your body, that has straps that aren’t going to fall down, that gives you either a moderate or high level of support based on the intensity of the exercise—there’s just certain needs in that package that are the same for the Jogbra as it is now. Now what is really great 40 years later is all the technology that we have at our disposal. We have moisture wicking, velcros that are very body friendly, we’re able to construct bras using forms of lamination or we have polymer where we melt pieces of fabric rather than stitching them together. So in the toolbox we have some very evolved methods, all geared towards the goal of making the garment more comfortable because there’s less chafing, making the bra handle sweat better, of creating more support with a lighter construction. But the basic problem of these elastic breasts hooked on to your rigid skeleton that produces a lot of force when we run remains the same. I just think we’re able to solve it much better, and certainly in much cuter ways, than the original Jogbra.
What are the biggest logistical concerns that you help solve?
Personally, it’s really learning how to build bras so they work for various sizes. Just yesterday, I had a 42 triple D woman in my lab. Bodies of different sizes respond differently. So actually testing bras in a scientific way using state of the art equipment has helped me and Champion to understand how to build bras that really work and to be able to verify that they work. I know on Champion bras it says high impact, medium impact, maximum impact because it’s been through the lab experience, it has met the criteria that is set by Champion so we guarantee that it’s going to perform this way. Also part of my work over the years is not just measuring support, but giving insights into how women like their bras to feel, to look, is the fit correct. Our bodies are so diverse. I would say there is no piece of apparel more difficult to design well than a sports bra.
It must be very challenging to create as every woman’s body and breasts are completely different and you have to make something that adapts to all of that.
A part of the work is to understand the body, another thing that’s important to Champion is our consumer insight, we really drill down into specific style aspects and personal preferences. Like why would women pick a padded bra if it would potentially make her hotter? There are women that value that for really good reasons and we’re able to understand why. One of my theories is we now live in an era of our lives where there’s always a phone with a camera available. You go to the gym, you take an Instagram. And when you’re working out there’s always a chance you’ll be photographed. Our whole lives are more visual, so it’s not just this inward facing how do I feel in my sports bra, but also this outward facing how do I look in my sports bra? And at Champion we’re very aware of that from our focus groups and watching what goes in the market. In some of my focus groups we’re realizing how many women say ‘I’m a woman, I have breasts, I don’t want my breasts to move, but I also don’t want to look like a boy. I feel good about my body, I like my womanliness, and I want a sports bra that doesn’t hide that.’ I think that’s one of my biggest surprises in more than 30 years of serious research is the shift I needed to make in understanding more of the specific cultural dimensions and personal dimensions of the sports bra. There is no other piece of athletic gear that curates the same significance.
Right, it’s not just our bodies that are unique, it’s our outlook on them and preferences, and you have to come up with a way to accommodate all of that in these pieces of clothing.
I think it’s important to take it seriously, like we do at Champion. We have a sincere interest in knowing and honoring these deeper dimensions, but I can tell you that I keep getting surprised over and over. There are some women who want to be both strong and sexy, they’ll go to the gym in a very plunging bra and do a tough workout, and there are others who are like, man, feeling sexy while I’m working out is just one more pressure I don’t want to have to feel. We’re diverse, and the point is that were designing products that are meeting these diverse psychological or personal expression needs that women have.
What’s been a recent surprise?
The most recent surprises have come with working with women in plus size bodies. To me, they’re just goddesses, just amazing women and amazing athletes. For many of us, there is a lot of coherence between our skin and the underlying muscle. But if you have 2-6″ of body fat between your skin and the muscle, the bra on the body acts differently with more kind of free float. I’m learning so much, and the products only get improved by putting them on a variety of bodies. It’s so important that regardless of where you think you’re going to go with your body size that you have the gear you need right now that you feel good in, that it supports your breasts, and it enables you to enjoy the same healthy things that every other women of any size should have the ability to enjoy and get all the benefits from. The courage and the readiness and the juiciness of these women, this is something that I feel very honored to work with. I feel like I have so much to learn still. We’re at the 40th anniversary of the Jogbra and, I have to say, I’m still excited every day about what I do.
Did you know the sports bra was invented so recently? How do you hope to see sports bras evolve in the future? Sound off below!