WOODLAND PARK, N.J. — Lisa Lindahl still isn’t sure why she got kicked out of The Kimberley School in New Jersey in the late 1960s, but there’s a good chance that smearing a chocolate cupcake into her friend Polly Palmer Smith’s face in the hallway, or letting Smith hold her by her ankles out a school window, had something to do with it.
“My behavior was not ladylike,” she said. “I didn’t do things by the book.”
Her penchant for doing things differently ultimately paid off. In 1977, after joining the jogging craze but finding it painful without a supportive bra, she hit on the idea of sewing two jockstraps together to create the world’s first sports bra.
She enlisted the help of Smith, who had become a costume designer, and her assistant Hinda Schreiber Miller. The trio patented the JockBra, later renamed the JogBra, and it was bought by Playtex in 1990.
This spring, the three were honored at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington for their invention, which Runner’s World magazine recently called “The greatest invention in running — ever.”
The prototype of the invention is in the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Next October, the three women will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, part of the U.S. Patent and Trade Office.
According to the patent office, theirs is one of only 4% of patents held exclusively by women.
Boosted by the fitness craze and the 1972 passage of Title IX, which opened athletic opportunities for women, the sports bra was an instant success. In her 2019 book, “Unleashing the Girls: The Untold Story of the Invention of the Sports Bra and How It Changed the World (And Me) ” Lindhal discusses its impact on a generation of women’s lives and health, and on the fashion industry, where it launched a new era with an emphasis on comfort rather than just appearance.
“The invention of the sports bra is not just about being able to go out and play more sports,” she said. “It’s about empowerment and freedom for girls and women.”
Now an artist living in South Carolina and Vermont, Lindahl was never the athletic type. Being diagnosed with epilepsy at 8 years old didn’t help. As students, she and Smith avoided gym class, opting to bowl instead.
But while studying art at the University of Vermont, Lindahl fell in love with jogging for weight control, and how great it made her feel.
“Jogging made me much stronger and more comfortable in my body,” she said.
Except, that is, for the “bouncing boobs” problem, as she calls it. And the bra straps that would slip down, the hardware that would dig into her skin, and the material that would chafe it raw as she ran.
One day, her sister called to commiserate and asked, “Why isn’t there a jockstrap for women?” After the two had stopped laughing, Lindahl hung up and sketched out a no-hardware bra that would stop the bouncing, wouldn’t chafe, and whose straps wouldn’t slip.
She showed it to Smith, who was staying with Lindahl while designing costumes for summer theater, and Miller, her assistant.
Smith asked Miller to buy two jockstraps at the campus store, then cut them in half and sewed them together in UVM’s costume department. The two pouches became cups and the waistbands became a rib band with the straps crossed in back.
Lindahl went running in the prototype while Miller ran backward in front of her to “see how much I bounced,” Lindahl said. The bra worked.
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With seed money from family, the three found a Lycra fabric blend and a South Carolina company to cut and sew the bras. They ran an ad in running magazines that gave Lindahl’s address and phone number for mail orders.
“We couldn’t keep up,” Lindahl said. “It was amazing. We were scrounging for clean boxes behind grocery stores to ship them in.”
But when they tried to get a business loan to hire staff and rent office space, they hit a wall.
“No bank was going to lend us money,” Lindahl said. “As one banker said, “Three girls with a bra?!”
Fortunately, as women, they qualified for minority aid from the Small Business Administration. Their first year, they turned a profit and continued their “phenomenal growth” until the buyout, with sales in the multi-millions, Lindahl said.
Thinking outside the box was a factor in her success, she said. “If I were a business student, no one would have advised me to start a bra company in the ’70s, when women were burning their bras, not wearing them.”
It’s an accomplishment that she has come to appreciate as an artist as well as a businesswoman. “Even mathematicians know that, as well as solving a problem, an elegant solution is also beautiful,” she said.
Follow Julia Martin on Twitter: @TheWriteJulia.