A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

Welcome to Patentspin. I'll use this space to take a look at some strange or interesting patents related to the world of sports. I will then, probably, make fun of them.

Jogging was sweeping the nation in the 1970s, and Title IX's passage was ushering even more women into athletics. These may have been boom times for American fitness, but they were bad ones for American breasts. Undergarment technology hadn't kept up with the brisk pace of exercise fads and social justice, leaving the nation's brassieres woefully unequipped to handle the demands of a new era. We were a sore and unsupported country, chafing beneath the seams, forever adjusting our straps, bouncing uncomfortably into a more equal day. Obviously, there was a demand for something better.

The Early Ancestor

In 1975, Glamorise Foundations Inc. introduced the "Free Swing Tennis Bra," the first commercially available sports bra, which offered more support than regular bras, reducing breast movement and discomfort. While Glamorise is to be commended for using irony in product-naming before it was the cool thing to do, the Free Swing still wasn't close to what we'd consider a sports bra today. I couldn't obtain a picture of it, but this 1978 newspaper ad should give you a sense of how useless this bra would be for jogging:

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

In case the thin straps—which could fall down, dig into the shoulders, or do some combination of both—didn't give it away, "jogging" and "running" are conspicuously absent from the list of activities undertaken by active women. The ad really only addresses the freedom of movement provided by the "Bra-Net action sides" and ignores the issue of support. Maybe this wasn't a problem for Twiggy here, but it was for real women.

The First Real Sports Bra

Fortunately, a group of non-cartoon-model women in Vermont were coming up with a better solution. Lisa Lindahl had tried jogging in her regular bra and found it wanting. After speaking with her sister, another jogger, Lisa came up with the requirements for what she and her sister jokingly (at first) called a "jockstrap for women." "The straps shouldn’t fall down," Lindahl would say. "There should be no poky hardware. And it should eliminate breast bounce." From this list came an invention process that can best be described as "weird":

[Lindahl] enlisted the help of costume designer Polly Smith, and together they tried out a few prototypes. But it wasn’t until Lisa’s husband paraded around wearing a jockstrap on his chest that the pair saw their solution. “Here’s your jockbra, ladies,” he clowned; and for a while the name stuck, especially after Polly stitched two supporters together and found that a jockstrap for women was the way to go.

So, to recap: regular bras were so poorly suited for athletic activity that cramming one's breasts into two non-breast-shaped athletic crotch cups was reckoned an improvement to comfort. Alas, there are no pictures of Lindahl's husband's contribution to this process. However, unlike when you or I put a jockstrap on our chest and show it off and simply get banned from our local Arby's, the moment helped sustain a revolution in women's sports. That famous picture of a jubilant Brandi Chastain in her sports bra at the 1999 World Cup? It's more or less traceable to the day some guy in Vermont decided to wear his jock on his chest in the late 1970s. The '70s were weird.

So what, exactly, did the Vermont trio of Lindahl, Smith, and Smith's assistant, Hinda Schreiber, come up with and patent? Let's have a look.

Athletic Brassiere—U.S. Patent 4,174,717

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

Tragically, they did not attempt to patent the original "jockbra." Instead, their representative figure looks a lot like a sports bra we'd see today.

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

Please note the name of the Athletic Brassiere's primary examiner. Doris L. Troutman is not the name of a woman who approves of young ladies jogging. Doris L. Troutman is the name of a headmistress from an early-1980s teen-sex raunch-comedy who, in the (cinematically) climactic scene, faints upon seeing a bra run up a flagpole. Kudos to her for seeing past these (totally made-up) biases and rewarding Lindahl, et al, for their hard work.

Troutman undoubtedly was swayed by the recitation of problems this sports bra was intended to solve:

Another object is to provide for improved breast support during rigorous activity.
It is another object of the present invention to provide a new and improved type of brassiere for athletic women which holds the breasts firmly against the body and limits the movement of the breasts.
It is yet another object of the present invention to provide a brassiere with adequate support and comfort for women athletes.

It is still another object of the present invention to provide an athletic brassiere without hardware or internal seams and with straps designed to avoid slipping off of the shoulders, and made of a perspiration resistant material or fabric which eliminates irritation.

It is still another object of the present invention to provide a brassiere that will help avoid the cutting, chafing, bouncing and pain that plague women runners wearing conventional undergarments.

It reads like a sort of manifesto—the Port Huron Statement of underwear. Looking at the various elements of the bra in claim 1—remembering, as always, that a patent only protects what is claimed, not what's in the drawings, or description—we can see exactly how these goals were achieved:

at least one front panel disposed to cover the front of both breasts when worn, without seams in the vicinity of the nipples, said panel being substantially flat and not shaped to uplift the individual breasts when worn;

This front panel reduces breast motion by compressing them against the body. The other, more modern kind of sports bra reduces breast motion by "encapsulating" the breast (we'll look at one of these later). The panel's design also addresses the chafing caused by seams rubbing against the nipples.

at least one side panel sewn to each side of said front panel such that the stitches of the seams are on the exterior surface of the panel away from the wearer when worn;

Don't let the seams rub against the skin, in other words. Sounds reasonable enough. Our trio admits in the patent that this element wasn't novel: A seamless bra was patented in 1967 and might have existed earlier. The combination of this element with other elements was novel, however, which is the important part when seeking a patent.

a wide elastic rib band connected to the bottom of said front and side panels and extending continuously around the body when worn, the front portion of said band being on the front of the wearer when worn and the back portion being on the back of the wearer when worn;

This is what provided comfort and mobility, much like our old friend, the Free Swing Tennis Bra.

two elastic straps, one of said straps being connected at one end thereof to said front panel on the right side of the wearer when worn and connected at the other end thereof to the back portion of said rib band on the left side of the wearer when worn, and the other of said straps being connected at one end thereof to said left front panel on the left side of the wearer when worn and connected at the other end thereof to the back portion of said rib band on the right side of the wearer when worn such that said straps cross in the back when worn.

This is the crossing pattern of the bra straps visible in Figure 3:

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

This design prevents the straps from falling off the shoulders during exercise. Later claims address bras that completely lack hardware (again, for comfort), as well as different materials used to make up the bra, but the combination of these four elements was all that was necessary to meet the requirements for patentability. And thus, the first true sports bra was born.

Oprah's support

The compression-style sports bra was, obviously, a big improvement over the existing ways of dealing with breast movement during exercise, but it wasn't perfect. It didn't always provide adequate support for larger breasts, or for more vigorous exercise. Worst of all, the compression tended to create what is commonly referred to as "mono-boob" (do not Google that; the internet is terrifying).

Encapsulating sports bras, as mentioned before, are the yin to the compression-style yang. They surround (i.e. encapsulate) each breast separately, and avoid the cycloptic-breast look that can result from compression-style sports bras. The two styles aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, either; there are encapsulation-compression sports bras that combine the best of both.

One of the most successful hybrid bras has been the Enell bra. This brand was invented by Renelle Braaten (get it?), a busty volleyball player who'd found that her regular sports bras simply weren't up to the task. Enell bras are targeted at larger-chested women; their website lists a size range from 32C to 50DDD (!). They got a huge boost in popularity when Braaten managed to get none other than famous busty person Oprah Winfrey to try one. Oprah liked it and recommended it in her magazine, which is the most surefire way to become a millionaire in this country. Let's take a look at the patent:

Sports Bra—U.S. Patent No. 4,816,005

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

No wonder it took a while to get Oprah to try this. It looks like a compression bra had a baby with a Victorian-era corset.

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

That's right: Phantom breasts. Happy Halloween, everybody!

Anyway, the patent explains the primary functional advantage this has over compression style bras:

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

Put simply, each breast has its own pocket to hang out in. Not complicated, but effective.

Both the compression-style and the Enell bras were mere stepping stones for what future scientists will undoubtedly recognize as the greatest scientific breakthrough of our, or any, generation.

The Greatest Scientific Breakthrough Of Our, Or Any, Generation

Piezoelectrically Controlled Active Wear—U.S. Patent No. 6,198,204

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

In this figure, three piezoelectric strips cover each breast. Piezoelectric materials generate an electric charge when pressure is applied to them, or they are deformed. This is known as the "piezoelectric effect." There is also a reverse piezoelectric effect, in which electricity applied to a piezoelectric material generates some sort of mechanical force or strain. This video shows the primary piezoelectric effect in action:

This majestic sports bra uses both the direct and reverse piezoelectric effect. Let's look at those three strips a little more closely:

A Brief History Of The Sports Bra

The two outer strips, called "actuating strips," stiffen upon application of current from the electrical package, which is hidden in the bra's base band, according to Figure 1. This make the bra's resistance variable, which is an interesting change in and of itself, compared to the other two bras we've looked at. Still, though: Where did the electricity come from in the first place? The middle strip. Or, to be more precise:

[A] force F is applied to a breast due to the effects of exercise on the breast as the breast is coupled to the torso. Breast dynamics determine the acceleration of the breast aB. Breast kinematics transform the breast acceleration aB into a breast displacement xB. The bra coupling to the breast displacement xB results in a bra displacement xBR which deflects the sensing strip. A sensed voltage Vc is then induced across the sensing strip by the direct piezoelectric effect, and the magnitude of the sensed voltage Vc is proportional to the amount of deflection.

In short, the middle strip generates electricity when it is deformed by the moving breast itself. At the dawn of the new millennium, science gave the world an electric sports bra that is actually powered by bouncing boobs. We've come a long way, baby.


Bring Back Anthony Mason is an attorney in New York. He does not actually think the Knicks should bring back Anthony Mason, at this point.

Top image by Jim Cooke.

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