Rock steady: The development of sports bras

They’re a crucial part of any athletic kit and most lingerie brands make them. So why is it that sports bras are still a novel concept to so many customers? Hallie Engel asks how brands are developing their athletic appeal.

Sports bras have long been the redheaded stepchild of the lingerie world. Considered an ugly and only semi-effective necessity, they’ve traditionally been maligned for their unflattering fit, smooshing the breasts together to form a flat mass nicknamed the “uniboob”. It’s hardly a wonder so many women wear the wrong size or model, or just skip them altogether and try to work out in a standard, underwired bra.

The times, however, are a-changin’. Sports bra manufacturers now rely on science and research to create quality undergarments that support the breasts during everything from marathons to Pilates classes, having realised that different approaches are necessary for different activities.

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However, many women remain unaware about industry developments and the damage caused by poor support, making communication a key part of increasing sales.

Shock Absorber, the UK’s top sports bra brand, has been leading the way with this approach for several years. By rigorously studying the effect of physical activity on the breasts under varying circumstances, they’ve developed bras for almost every sport. Yet many small-busted women still think they don’t need a sports bra.

They couldn’t be further from the truth though, as Martina Alexander, the company’s marketing manager, explains. “A lot of women say, ‘Oh, I’ve an A-cup chest, or a B-cup chest, so I don’t really need a sports bra,’ which is quite a myth. You really do, because you still get up to four centimetres of breast bounce with an A-cup.”

As bra size increases, the problem worsens, and Alexander says a woman wearing a G-cup could experience up to 14cm worth of bounce and movement. More buxom customers often labour under the misapprehension that there’s nothing much they can do about the problem, particularly if they’ve had fitting and size trouble in the past, an all-too common complaint. This represents an untapped market segment: women who know they have a problem, but not how fix it.

Different activities also require different types of sports bras. This simple concept translates well into marketing, emphasising the need to let women know there is a bra specifically designed for their athletic needs, in addition to their size and body type.

Alexander explains that Shock Absorber has a “range of eight styles in the collection. We don’t just have one model that needs to fit everyone, because we find it comes down to the sort of exercise women are doing, the intensity of the exercise, and the style of the bra.”

Of course the look of a sports bra also plays a major role in luring in shoppers, and offering something with flair will speak to women who dread putting on a drab, utilitarian model that lacks feminine appeal. Just as some women prefer sporty models that double as tops, others want “more of a lingerie style that looks and feels like a normal bra,” says Alexander, adding that Shock Absorber also makes a “padded model, just in case you want a little more breast shape and enhancement, but still want the support of a sports bra.” This style is a convenient way to combat the flattening effects of many sports bras, which stifle the figure and hide curves – the exact opposite of what many women want, even when they’re working up a sweat.

Other manufacturers are combining intensive support with the latest technology. For example, PureLime’s Compression Sports Bra HRM is designed to hold a heart monitor. A small device can be fastened into the bra, where it remains in place without the need for annoying wires and other accessories that might hinder a workout. Moulded cups and padded, anti-bounce straps complete the bra, which retails for £44.99. Though this is a more expensive model, it’s ideal for customers looking to invest in a quality undergarment that serves more than one purpose and is particularly appealing for women
who train and exercise vigorously.

Moulded sports bras are also a good for women wanting natural shape but reliable support. Georgina Powell, the designer behind Eveden’s Freya Active line, also seeks to create a sports bra that provides a smooth silhouette.

“We have a lot of demand for modern style,” she explains, “so we’ve created a slightly different shape in the cup, which also encapsulates the breasts. This provides more support, separating the weight of the breasts and avoiding the effect of one
large mass that you get with a compression bra.”

Following customer demand, the newest Freya model comes in a colour dubbed “hot crimson”, and is free of stitching that creates unsightly lines beneath clothes. Keeping the breasts individually supported also decreases the stress they endure during a workout. “By halving the weight that would cause damage,” explains Powell, “the breasts move with less speed when they change direction as you exercise,” stabilizing delicate tissues to prevent stress, and eventually, sagging.

Like Shock Absorber, Eveden also requires an intensive trial period before a bra can hit the market. However, Freya Active bras are tested outside of the lab, on everyday women.

“We test across all band and cup sizes, making sure the bra works for all body types, all shapes, all kinds of sports – everything,” says Powell.

The company recruits women with varying figures to wear the bras and report back. Based on what she hears, Powell then makes adjustments to the band, cups, straps and anything that needs tweaking, until she creates the perfect product.

The new Freya Active sports bra is the product of more than a year of research, though Powell began with a previous model, changing it as needed.

“Because this style was taken from another bra, we had a solid basis to start from, but it’s still something we worked on for 12 months.

“We spend a lot of time doing the patterns and fitting, creating various versions and then testing them, making changes to try and see if a tiny adjustment makes a difference.”

No matter the style though, communicating the importance of a sports bra to customers is key to encouraging healthy sales at retail. Alexander states that 72% of women report discomfort while they are exercising and are often unaware of the permanent damage a lack of support can do to the breasts.

Contrary to popular belief, the ligaments in the breast, one of the few parts of the body that has no muscles, cannot be repaired or strengthened through exercise, Alexander points out.

“A lot of people do think there are muscles in the breasts,” explains Alexander, “and they just assume that you might be able to do certain workouts in the gym and get your breasts back into good shape. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.”

While Alexander doesn’t want to rely on scare tactics to get women shopping, she states that the potential for damage is simply “the truth”, and something “we communicate, as
the special support of a sports bra really will help to prevent sagging.”

Her words drive the point home, emphasising the importance of communication. Letting women know what they need, why they need it, and that it’s possible to find something that actually works, will lead to stronger sales, happier customers and, hopefully, improved health.

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