A bra is born

Sports bra inventor Lisa Lindahl now lives in Charleston, where she paints and sculpts.

In this weekend’s upcoming Cooper River Bridge Run, thousands of women of all shapes and sizes running the race will likely have one garment in common: a sports bra.

They can thank a fellow Charlestonian for that.

Lisa Lindahl, who lives in the Holy City, invented the first sports bra in 1977.

For 67-year-old Lindahl, then in her 20s, the problem was personal. Sports bras didn’t exist back then and she was a runner.

At the time, she just used a bra one size too small on her runs. The idea for a special bra designed for athletic activity occurred to her after a phone call one day with her sister. Her sister joked that they needed a jock strap for women.

But to Lindahl, the idea was something. She knew the bra couldn’t chaffe, and that the straps had to stay up.

She took the idea to her childhood friend, Polly Smith, a costume designer who was living with her that summer in Vermont.

Smith rolled her eyes. Bras were hard to build, she pointed out. The only thing harder to make was a shoe.

That didn’t stop them.

The pair started working on different bra prototypes at the costume shop at the University of Vermont, where Lindahl had gotten her Bachelor of Science in Education and was pursuing her graduate degree.

Lindahl also served as the model, trying out the bras they’d come up with.

“We went through all these different variations and ... nothing worked,” she said. “She’d make something, I’d go out and run in it, and nothing worked.”

Until it did.

One day, Lindahl’s ex-husband, joking around, put on his jock strap as a bra.

Then Smith tried it on. Turns out, he was also onto something.

Smith sent her assistant down to the store to buy two jock straps. She cut them apart, sewed them back together, and Lindahl went out for her run. Her assistant ran backwards in front to see how Lindahl moved.

That was the one.

It just needed some comfier material.

“I like any sort of challenge,” said Polly Smith, Lindahl’s childhood friend who helped design the bra. “It was fun trying to figure it out.”

After all was said and done, the sports bra “was a pretty simple thing,” Smith said.

Despite coming up with an idea that would change the exercise experience for women, Lindahl didn’t know it at the time. She put an ad in a running magazine.

“I thought it would be a nice little mail-order business on the side,” she said.

Not so. The company turned a profit in its first year.

“We didn’t know that that was unusual,” she said.

Jogbra Sports Bras saw an increase in profits by 25 percent annually, Lindahl said.

“By the time we sold it, we were a multimillion dollar international company privately owned,” she said.

Lindahl worked for her company for more than a decade.

Then, in 1990, she sold the firm to Playtex Apparel. Playtex Apparel was eventually bought by Champion Sportswear.

“The sports bras you see under the Champion name all came out of primarily the Jogbra design wheelhouse,” she said.

About five years before Lindahl invented the Jogbra, Congress adopted Title IX, the federal law that forbids federally funded programs from discriminating against those who can participate in education programs or activities based on gender.

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“The invention of the sports bra helped remove a barrier for women and girls being active in sports,” Lindahl said. “It and Title IX really conspired together to help” them.

Lindahl briefly worked for Playtex Apparel after the company acquired Jogbra, but she eventually started working with the Epilepsy Foundation of America, where she served on the board for nine years. Lindahl, who has epilepsy herself, specifically focused on women who have epilepsy. She created a women and epilepsy initiative.

Then, Lindahl ventured back into sports bras.

“A woman came to me who had been treating breast cancer survivors,” Lindahl said. “They get lymphedema.”

With lymphedema, a patients’s lymph nodes struggle to function and fluid pools in parts of their bodies.

Compression clothing helps ease the swelling, but nothing existed at the time for swelling in the chest, Lindahl said.

One woman she met was jerry-rigging sports bras for patients who needed compression for their chests.

“She showed me pictures and I couldn’t say no,” Lindahl said. “I mean, these women were in such pain. Oh, my God.”

And that led Lindahl to company No. 2, where she helped create the Compressure Comfort bra, Bellisse. Lindahl worked for the company for five years.

Decades after creating the sports bra, Lindahl now lives in Charleston where she works on art and a book about “true beauty.”

Some of her art is on display at Fabulon, a gallery off Wappoo Road.

As for her sports bra days, some of the Jogbra archives are on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

But her fame also lives on in sporting goods stores and women’s exercise departments.

“When I walk into a department store or any store and see a whole wall of different sporst bras by different makers ... it cracks me up,” she said. “Something that came out of my brain and then now it’s just reality ... that’s great.”

Reach Allison Prang at 843-937-5705 or follow her on Twitter @AllisonPrang.

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