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As the Women's World Cup gets underway, a look at the history of the sports bra

England's striker Chloe Kelly celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 final match between England and Germany on July 31, 2022.
Franck Fife
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AFP via Getty Images
England's striker Chloe Kelly celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 final match between England and Germany on July 31, 2022.

Updated July 22, 2023 at 12:12 PM ET

The sports bra is a contradiction: It constricts and restricts, compresses and muzzles — yet offers freedom to bodies that move in ways that are powerful.

"She's always there for me, you know, always supporting me," says soccer athlete Amanda Carrillo-Perez, 26, of Washington, D.C.

Carrillo-Perez plays midfield for a co-ed rec league. She remembers wearing two sports bras in high school for added support.

Forty years ago, she might have been wearing a jockstrap on her chest.

From Jockstrap to sport bra

The first sports bra was invented in 1977 by sewing two jockstraps. Today, the original prototypes are preserved in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

An early sports bra prototype made by Hinda Miller is preserved at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Hugh Talman / Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History
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Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History
An early sports bra prototype made by Hinda Miller is preserved at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

"My rather large breasts were uncomfortable bouncing around," says Lisa Lindahl, who helped create the garment after taking up running. She tried wearing regular bras — one size smaller for compression — but the straps would stretch out and loosen. So, Lindahl sought to make something that would work, a type of jockstrap, but for breasts: "Same idea. Different part of the anatomy, right?"

Her friend Polly Smith sewed two jockstraps together and made the elastic bands cross in the back. They named their creation the "jock bra" before rebranding it as the "jog bra." Competitors would eventually call their products "sports bras."

Their invention has changed the perception of what women can do.

Sports bra inventors (middle three, from left to right) Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller and Polly Smith at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum, which featured a sports bra exhibit in October 2022.
/ Lisa Lindahl
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Lisa Lindahl
Sports bra inventors (middle three, from left to right) Lisa Lindahl, Hinda Miller and Polly Smith at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum, which featured a sports bra exhibit in October 2022.

The power of the sports bra in women's athletics

After scoring the winning goal in the 1999 Women's World Cup, Brandi Chastain tore off her soccer jersey in celebration, revealing a black Nike sports bra, creating one of the most iconic moments in the history of soccer. The garment had only been invented 22 years prior.

"Before the sports bra, no woman would ever take off her shirt. But that's not what's important," Lindahl says. "What's important is the sense of confidence and the ability that the correct athletic gear gives you."

"There's power in just being a female athlete," says Megan Bohan, who has played soccer since she was in elementary school. "It doesn't matter exactly what underwear you wear."

At a co-ed soccer game on a Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., dozens of athletes met to play despite it being 88 degrees that day and swampy.

"l have literally never forgotten to wear a sports bra," says Keishi Foecke, 24, a communications specialist who joined a soccer rec league shortly after moving to D.C.. "This one has a clasp on the back which is really helpful for me," she says.

The sports bra levels the playing field, says 29-year old Madison Ethridge, who works for a global health NGO. She says that without her sports bra, she'd be too uncomfortable to play at the same level as her co-ed teammates. "With it on, women and men can play all the sports and run and it's all kind of the same," she says.

Lisa Lindahl helped invent the modern sports bra in 1977.
/ Lisa Lindahl
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Lisa Lindahl
Lisa Lindahl helped invent the modern sports bra in 1977.

For Lindahl, the sports bra let her follow her passion for running.

"I loved it for spiritual reasons," she said. "It made me feel better. I had energy. I was creative."

Running also helped her deal with her epilepsy, which she's had for her whole life.

"I was never friends with my body, because I would have convulsions and my body would betray me on a regular basis," Lindahl says. "And running really helped me cope with that."

How to find the perfect sports bra

First, you'll need to decide what activity you'll be doing in the sports bra, says Jennifer Lava, assistant store manager at FP Movement in Georgetown, Washington, D.C..

Jennifer Lava is an assistant store manager at FP Movement in Georgetown, Washington, D.C..
Claire Murashima / NPR
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NPR
Jennifer Lava is an assistant store manager at FP Movement in Georgetown, Washington, D.C..

You'll probably want a high-impact sports bra for an activity like running, boxing or a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class, whereas a low-impact sports bra will probably suffice for yoga, a spin class or walking.

Lava says that if you're looking for a high-impact sports bra, she wouldn't recommend a V-neck cut. "It may be more comfortable, but it's not going to give you that same support even if you're wearing a tank top or a T-shirt over it."

And in general, sports bras with larger armholes may be versatile because they are often hidden under tank tops, though lower sides generally means less support. Lava says that their top selling sports bra is high-neck, and sometimes people will wear two for extra compression.

Sports bras at FP Movement.
Claire Murashima / NPR
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NPR
Sports bras at FP Movement.

Don't be afraid to ask the store stylists for advice.

Lava recommends shopping for sports bras in person. If that's not an option, order multiple sizes. "Always ask for help and always try it on," she says. And it never hurts to try on a size up or size below even if you think that the one you like fits.

Even within the same store, each bra is different — dyes can also affect fabric in different ways.

"Everything's different from store to store, everyone's body is different, size is made up anyway, so it doesn't matter. You just gotta feel good," Lava says.

The audio version of this story was edited by Adam Bearne. The digital version was edited by Erika Aguilar.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.