Two things have occurred recently that bring me to the page today: March being Women’s History Month and the Smithsonian Museum of American History contacting me about my role in that history.
Really?! Well, yes — but it is so very nice to have the Smithsonian recognize it!
“…the sports bra revolutionized women’s sports more than any other development besides Title IX.”
And one of my claims to fame, as they say, is that way back in 1977 I invented the very first sports bra (it was called a Jogbra at the time), and founded the Company that marketed and sold it. Of course, I was only 10 years old (kidding, kidding). Many years later we sold our entrepreneurial success to a big corporation.
Since there are so many urban — and suburban — legends about how this woman’s Horatio Alger story unfolded, I think the occasion of Women’s History Month and the Smithsonian’s active recognition of the sports bra’s influence in said history is an opportune time to tell the early history of the birth of an idea and its transformation into a thriving business that facilitated the entry and performance of women in sports.
The 1970s were the beginning of the fitness “revolution” in this country. At the time I was in the vanguard of those who were “jogging.” Logging about 30 miles a week I found myself with an annoying and private problem: uncomfortable and sometimes painful breast movement while running. One day my sister telephoned me, complaining of a similar concern and distraction, asking me if I had any solutions. I told her of wearing a bra one size too small, of wearing nothing, of cutting runs short. We bemoaned our predicament. Then she quipped: “Why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?” We laughed uproariously. “It would just be on a different part of the body,” I said between laughter hiccups. Today she claims I went on to say “I think I’ll do that, make one of those.” I don’t remember. What I do remember is after the call, sitting down and thinking that it wasn’t such a silly idea; why not a “jock bra?” What functions would such a garment have to fulfill to make me and my sister happy, comfortable? I sat down with pencil and paper and made a list.
Polly is my childhood friend who grew up to become a successful costume designer (6 Emmys to date). In our 8th grade sewing class she got an A and I flunked. She and I would try to cut gym classes together. Neither of us liked the silly gym uniforms they made us wear back then; we were artsy, not athletic. Field hockey!? Yuck! So imagine her surprise when in my 20’s I became a jogging fanatic. Which she discovered when she took a costume design job in my town and rented a room in my house for the duration of the job’s run.
So it was up the stairs I went to Polly on that early summer day. “Pol, can you make me a bra for jogging? Here’s what it would need to do.” She rolled her eyes at me. She explained that bras were engineered, not just designed and draped, as they had to support as well as cover. I didn’t take no for an answer, and so embarked our summer of making prototypes.
We weren’t having luck. One day, my then-husband decided to crash our design meeting and cheer Polly and me up. He came in the room wearing his jock strap over his head and around his chest upside down, declaring loudly “Here’s your Jock Bra, ladies!” We laughed and laughed. I took it from him and imitated what he’d done, pulling the jockstrap over my head, its cup embracing one of my breasts. Stunned, I looked at Polly. “Polly. Look — the straps could cross in back. Two cups. Wide rib band… might work!”
And the first working prototype was born the next day when Polly sent her assistant, Hinda, to buy 2 jockstraps. Polly cut them up, sewed them back together, cup next to cup, and I went running in it later that day, with Hinda jogging backwards in front of me to see how much I bounced. So, yes. For all those people who ask me if it is true that the first sports bra was two jockstraps sewn together, the answer is: yes.
My report on that prototype: best yet. But the fabrics were awful. One of my most important design criteria was that the bra not chafe. Polly booked a flight to New York to shop better fabrics for our new baby, asking Hinda to watch over the costume shop (and her job) while she was gone. We were excited. Returning about a week later, Polly had a then revolutionary new fabric in hand: poly/cotton/lycra. She’d also found acceptable elastics and thread, no easy task I learned. Who knew there was more than one kind of thread? Polly sewed up a final prototype and I went for a run. What I did know: it was a winner.
The summer was drawing to a close. Polly finished her job and decamped back to home in Manhattan. Hinda went off to teach in South Carolina. I had my prototype, the precious prototype. What next? I called my brother-in-law, my sister’s then husband, for business advice. He contacted one of those “we’ll market your invention” companies and signed a contract with them. I got all huffy. He wasn’t me! He had no authority to sign the contract! He’d given them money. He got all huffy. Oh dear. I paid him back the money and tore up the contract. Thanksgiving that year was a bit sticky. I could have left all this bit out of my story, but I think that it is important to note mis-steps as well as good steps. Life and progress ain’t all roses.
An attorney friend suggested I incorporate, using the share issuance as a way to acknowledge Polly for her help. But I knew Polly would not want to leave her path and go into the Jog bra biz. She’d said so. And Hinda had been very enthusiastic. She hadn’t been cutting gym classes growing up. And she was a skier. And she knew how to sew! So I incorporated and issued myself, Polly and Hinda shares in the fledgling business.
At this point one might say “and the rest is history”… stock ownership kerfuffles, seizures, pregnancies, Brandi Chastain, Playtex Apparel, Sara Lee, Champion Sportswear and all. That is, alas, missing out on some of the most important and dramatic parts, not the least of which is the significant role that Hinda came to play. Or the personal growth that occurs in learning to run a business; all the great employees who grew with us — such stories! Learning to operate within a partnership; to run a women-owned business selling women’s products in a male-dominated industry: sporting goods. To learn what it takes and what it means to sell a business that was “your baby.”
Or what happens to and for three women over the course of three decades as the result of one idea — the right product at the right time. But this is a blog, not a book…so
Happy Women’s History Month!
And here’s a challenge for my readers: Does True Beauty show up in this tale?