When Bristol City goalkeeper Sophie Baggaley became a sports bra ambassador last summer, it did not occur to her that she might be one of the 80 per cent of women who wear the wrong size sports bra.
“As a footballer, you might talk about your new boots, but you wouldn’t talk about your new sports bra,” Baggaley said. “The facts are actually quite scary – most women don’t wear the right-sized bra, but it’s just as important as any other part of your kit. I wear a high-impact bra because, as a goalkeeper, you’re diving, jumping and running, so there’s lots of different movement. But maybe it’s something we should talk about more.”
More than two decades on from Brandi Chastain’s jersey-shredding celebration in the 1999 World Cup final – when the world trained its eyes on the first of a female footballer exposing her bra – why have sports bras still not become part of the changing room chit-chat?
From its humble beginnings – two jock traps ingeniously sewn together in 1977 – the sports bra has become a state-of-the-art piece of kit, boldly weaving hi-tech versions of the “jock bra” into the fabric of women’s sport. The industry is big business, with the global market set to be worth an estimated £11.8 billion by 2025.
Since 2005, Prof Joanna Wakefield-Scurr, head of the research group in breast health at the University of Portsmouth, has helped shape the trajectory. The department leads pioneering research into breast biomechanics after uncovering the “figure of eight” pattern of breast movement during exercise.
“When I started research in this area, no manufacturer or brands were using science to inform the development of products,” Wakefield-Scurr said. “Now we have about 15 live projects with various sports bra manufacturers around the world. It’s great that they’re appreciating how science can inform and make better products.”
In their original research tracking 3D dimensional breast movement while running, Wakefield-Scurr’s team found that breasts can move up to 21 centimetres during bare-chested running. “We know that sports bras were effective at reducing that movement,” said Wakefield-Scurr. “But what we still don’t know is how much movement needs to be reduced. If we reduce 50 per cent of the movement, will that be enough? Or do we need to be reducing 80 per cent? We’re conducting a big study at the moment looking at the mechanical properties of the breast tissue itself to try and understand when damage occurs.”
Alarmingly, the damage caused by exercising without a sports bra or when wearing one that is incorrectly fitted is irreversible. While some bras claim to reduce breast bounce by up to 80 per cent in a bid to limit the damage, manufacturers and researchers argue over what is the ultimate formula for the perfect sports bra.
“The breast has two supporting structures,” Wakefield-Scurr said. “One is the skin, and the other is Cooper’s ligaments, which are a bit like a spider’s web that weaves throughout the internal glandular tissue of a breast. They go in all directions, they’re very thin and stretchy and they have different configurations for every woman. The more breasts move, the more chance there is of damaging those structures.”
With sports bras in high demand, Nike kitted out 14 teams with bespoke bras teams at last year’s Fifa World Cup, while Shock Absorber, for whom Baggaley is an ambassador, kitted out the Bristol City team and their rugby counterparts, Bristol Bears.
Last October, Adidas launched a groundbreaking product with its mastectomy sports bra, designed to keep prosthetics in place during workouts.
Smaller companies are taking the plunge in this arena, too. Irish sportswear company Queen B Athletics is one of them. In providing customised bras for the country’s hockey team last November it became the first business to secure a sports bra partnership with a national sports team in Ireland. “A sports bra is not underwear, it is kit,” said Brid Ryan, who founded the company with her sister, Aedin Corbyn.
“This is part of your uniform and we think it’s incredibly important in women’s sport that they are not considered an afterthought and definitely not something the athletes should be providing for themselves. That bra has to be earned.”
The Irish hockey team debuted their new kit in front of a 6,137 crowd, a record for a women’s international team in Ireland, and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics for the first time. “We think it gives them a psychological advantage,” Ryan said. “I haven’t personally asked them, but I think there’s something about knowing what a female athlete needs and providing for them.”
Ten years after winning the World Cup, Chastain’s iconic sports bra ended up in a storage bin after the New York museum it was housed in closed down. It is now framed on a wall in her house. “It took a year to get it back,” she said. “That was when I decided it just needed a home.”