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Sports bras part two: History, design and material

In News

Sports Bras - then, today, and in the future

Exercise and sport for women didn’t really break into the mainstream until the 1970s, after the US made it illegal to discriminate based on sex for any program receiving federal funding, such as sports. Running around, getting sweaty, being competitive, participating in the activities that men used to get away from women - well, now how dare we, right? 

If you’d like to learn more about the history of the sports bra, check it out over on Wikipedia. We’ve come a long way since the days when two women got tired of bouncing, friction, and pain, and in their desperation sewed two jock straps together. 

There are two main types of sports bras kicking around on the market today, as well as hybrids of the two. 

Compression sports bras do what they say on the tin - they compress. They are usually seamless, made of a knit and stretchy material, and they are designed to squish your breasts to your chest so they don’t move. This is also known as the style that gives you uniboob (if the bra fits you) quadriboob (if it’s too tight) and dropouts (if it’s not tight enough.) It’s basically trying to make your breasts one unit that move with your chest.

Encapsulation sports bras also do what they say they do, but since that word is an odd one, I’ll explain. These bras have two separate cups that enclose your breasts. They usually have a wider band and separate straps (straps that aren’t entirely the same material as the rest of the bra.) There are some that also have underwires. The materials of these bras are usually not as stretchy, as they are designed to lift and hold your breasts in place to minimize movement. There are often layers of fabric or molded foam cups. They typically have a way to get into them that doesn’t involve wrestling awkwardly with your arms trapped over your head - either a front closure or a normal back closure - but again, some designers just like to make our lives more difficult it seems!

Hybrid bras try to do both. They often have molded foam cups with a compression layer over them. They also frequently have a bewildering strap configuration that I end up tangled in, more sweaty than I would have been had I actually done any exercise. (Note, not actually a characteristic of these bras, just wanted to give you an insight into my clumsiness.)

A word on friction. When it comes to your bra, it can be both your friend and your enemy. 

What? That makes no sense, Abby. 

Yes it does, trust me. And if you can’t trust me, trust physics. 

You want the bra, no matter the style, to have enough friction with your body so that it doesn’t shift around on your body when you move. But you don't want it to have so much friction it is painful, or friction in sensitive places.

Fabrics and Design

Designer love playing with fabrics, and sports companies like to try making fabrics out of new things, so they can trademark it and sell it for more. When it comes to sports bras, there are some fabric basics that you’ll want to know. 

Almost all modern bras, sports bras included, use some form of knit or stretch fabric and/or elastic. Sometimes it’s a compression bra knit by machine, all in one piece, so that there are no seams. These bras are typically heat molded so the fabric has, for lack of better words, “boob pouches” in it. Encapsulation bras will often have this stretchy material in the back band, while a less stretchy material is used on the cups. Or molded foam cups, which are also made by fancy expensive machines in bra factories (not in my studio, sorry.) 

In terms of fabric and design, you want to look for bras that:

  • have fabric that that feels smooth and firm, but still has some stretch
  • have a percentage of nylon, elastane, spandex or lycra. 100% cotton, bamboo, hemp, etc. knits don't have the "memory" you need and will quickly stretch themselves out if you use them for medium to high impact activities.
  • have enclosed seams and smooth seam/elastic interfaces anywhere they are going to touch your skin. (see above regarding friction)
  • any fasteners (zippers, hooks) have protective fabric guards that keep the metal and hooks from touching your skin. Same goes for any design features.
  • have straps that do more than just look pretty - they hold you up, in, and don't hurt.

Okay, that last bullet point deserves a bit more expansion. 

So many, many beautiful sports bras have really cool strap designs. They are wide, they are thin, they are woven together, they cross over, they boggle the mind. If you're using them for a low impact activity, That's fine.

What they really, really need to do is hold your boobs up and in without digging into your shoulders, falling off your shoulders, or stretching so that you start falling out of them. Before you buy that amazing strappy bra, check to see it has the backing and support you need out of it. Be especially careful if the straps are made out of a stretchy knit without something to stabilize them and stop them from growing faster than mold on the pile of dishes in your teenager's bedroom. 

But how do I find a sports bra that ACTUALLY fits me??

In the next post, we'll look at how to choose the style that is best for your body and the type of activity you'll be doing. That includes what a great fit in a sports bra will look and feel like, because sizing is so completely different between companies and styles. 

Thanks for reading!