Twenty years ago, soccer champion Brandi Chastain kicked the winning goal for Team USA, ripped off her shirt to bare a swish across her chest, and opened her arms to greet sports legends like Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Billie Jean King, women whose down-to-the-wire, overtime efforts punctuated history with a jaw drop and a fist pump. While the defining moment of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup final was hopped up on all kinds of girl power, what remains most pronounced is the one piece of equipment that wasn’t repurposed from the men’s line that day: the sports bra, an essential garment for women who participate in any form of fitness.
In the decades since, we’ve updated silhouettes, we’ve adapted performance technology to women’s bodies, and yet recent research out of Australia finds that women with larger breasts opt out of higher-intensity activities, noting how breast size negative impacts their ability to work out. We can do better, and a handful of brands know it. The market is dotted with size-inclusive start-ups like Good American (sizing to 4X), Superfit Hero (sizing to 5X), or Girlfriend Collective (sizing to 3X), all of which offer pieces that are equal parts performance-driven and playful. At the athlete level, Nike is leading the charge. This week, the Nike Flyknit Sports Bra ($80) becomes an official component of the Women’s World Cup Soccer kits.
“I remember back in ‘96, and leading up to ‘99, there was a lot of new technology going on with sports bras. Actually the one that I was wearing was a prototype for that version. Even then, it was probably the first bit of what really matters to you as an athlete and as a woman,” says Chastain. “We were wearing men’s uniforms, men’s sweats, men’s cleats, and that was the one necessary bit of equipment that didn’t pertain to the other gender.”
Nike announced earlier this year that it will offer 57 styles of sports bras across across three support levels in sizes up to a size 44G. The brand invites footballers from around the world to its headquarters for a head-to-toe scan that find the best possible fit. While the Flyknit (available in sizes up to XL) is the official bra of the tournament, some players may choose another style for maximum comfort.
“The sport bra is her sneaker. [It’s important to realize] that no bra equals no sport. The level of detail and innovation that Nike brings to sneakers, we are now connecting and putting in bras, which is so important, because there are workouts you can do without shoes, but no workout should you do without a bra,” says Nike design director of bras and innovation Nicole Rendone. It’s true. Gone are the days when sports bras were made of two jock straps sewn together. The modern sports bra molds, supports, compresses, encapsulates; they’re modeled more closely after shoes than any undergarment.
With enhanced performance of the equipment itself, it becomes easier for athletes to do what they do best. Case in point: During the ’99 World Cup, Chastain changed her uniform at half-times because the material didn’t properly wick sweat away from her body. “Who knew that these new materials would become available and they would give you more freedom and flexibility and to do the things that you do?” Chastain asks.
And the same can be said for the sports bra. Now that we know a woman’s ability to participate in fitness lies in her ability to feel supported by the equipment she chooses, it’s time to chase better fits, new materials, and athlete-first solutions, just as Nike is doing. Today that means adding a sport’s bra to the official Women’s World Cup uniform; twenty years from now, who knows what’s possible.
Yes, it really is true that the sports bra was first designed after a jock strap, but the good news is that there have been some very important updates and some cool technology to update it and take it to the next level.
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