Americans have celebrated many bras as significant cultural artifacts.
Mrs. Robinson’s leopard-spotted lingerie in “The Graduate.”
Madonna’s pointy coned number, the handiwork of French designer Jean Paul Gaultier.
Kramer’s “Bro” — or “Manssiere” — on “Seinfeld.”
But for American pride, not to mention pure utility, none of those bras — and perhaps no bra in history — can top the one U.S. soccer star Brandi Chastain revealed to the world two decades ago.
In celebrating her game-winning penalty-kick goal in the World Cup final against China, Chastain tore off her jersey, and there, for millions to see on TV, was her black Nike sports bra.
“The bra heard ‘round the world,” some headline writers called it, playing off the sports world’s original “Shot Heard 'Round the World” — Bobby Thomson’s 1951 pennant-winning home run. (His celebration did not include removing his jersey.)
On Sunday, Chastain was in Lyon, France with other members of the 1999 team to cheer the 2019 women’s squad on to a 2-0 victory against the Netherlands.
As the American women made their run to their fourth World Cup title, soccer fans and the media circled back to Chastain and her bra — not just to relive the incredible victory but to celebrate the growth in female sports participation, especially soccer, that Chastain’s kick and bra helped unleash.
“I don’t think there’s enough words to explain that moment,” Chastain recently told USA Today. “Everyone will look at that differently.”
One way is how Chastain, in revealing her sports bra to the world, trained the country’s eyeballs on a neglected aspect of the women’s liberation and equal rights movement — the humble, utilitarian sports bra invented in 1977 by Lisa Lindahl, a Vermont woman who had taken up jogging.
In an ESPN documentary, Lindahl said her sister, who was also starting to jog, called her up one day with a question.
“What do you do to control your breasts?” Lindahl’s sister asked. “I mean it hurts so much.”
Lindahl replied that she had resorted to wearing a bra one size too small.
Her sister had another question: “Why isn’t there a jock strap for women?”
So together with a few friends, Lindahl tinkered around with jock straps, sewing two of them together. Several prototypes followed. They found a manufacturer and came up with a name for their new product: Jogbra.
In launching a new subcategory of women’s undergarments, Lindahl put an important coda on the passage of Title IX five years earlier — the landmark civil rights law outlawing discrimination by sex in education or other programs receiving federal funding.
The law had a profound impact on collegiate sports. As for sports bras, they quickly became one of the fastest-growing sporting-goods items, allowing women to more comfortably and successfully compete in sports, whether it was golf, soccer or lacrosse.
Chastain sees the sports bra — and the iconic pictures of her baring hers — as a key part of the female journey to athletic afterthought to athletic equal. It’s a battle currently being waged in women’s soccer, basketball and other sports.
“That picture is a picture of confidence and preparation and a journey,” she said in the ESPN documentary. “It was not just by happenstance or by luck. That was a long time in the making.”
The sports bra, she said, “is part of the story. To get where we are now … everything has an evolution.”
As for Chastain’s iconic black Nike bra, its societal value was less immediately apparent than its financial worth after her winning kick. Chastain was offered several hundred thousand dollars for it multiple times. She always said no.
“I didn’t want anybody to think that that moment was anything but as spontaneous and organic as it was,” Chastain said in an Oprah Winfrey interview.
To Chastain, it was just a sports bra — her sports bra, the one she occasionally even used after it became the bra heard ‘round the world.
She eventually donated it to the Sports Museum of America in New York, which folded in 2009.
Now it’s framed, hanging in her home.
“I look at it every day,” she told USA Today, “because I walk past it in my house. I don’t sit there and contemplate it as often as I probably should.”
As the women she helped inspire marched to triumph in France, a piece she wrote in the Players Tribune five years ago is making the rounds again. In “Letter to My Younger Self,” Chastain recounts the challenges she faced and how important it was to persevere.
“The journey,” she says, “rarely begins the way you script it.”
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