In the summer of 1977, alumnae Hinda Miller ’76 (MFA, Design for Stage & Film), Polly Smith ’75 (MFA, Design for Stage & Film), and Polly’s friend Lisa Lindahl found themselves seeking an answer to a question that had never been addressed before: Why isn’t there a comfortable bra for female runners?
At the time, women’s participation in athletics was still relatively new. Title IX had only passed five years prior, introducing a landmark piece of legislation in leveling the figurative playing field for men and women. The first woman to ever run the Boston Marathon had only done so 10 years prior (and had done so despite significant backlash from her male competitors). It only became legal for women to participate in the Boston Marathon in 1972.
Lindahl was an avid jogger, and like many female joggers, she experienced pain from wearing a regular underwire bra during runs. Many like her came up with inventive ways to keep their breasts from hurting when they ran, including binding them tightly with elastic bands, wearing multiple bras at a time, and taping bra straps to their shoulders. However, it wasn’t until the summer of 1977 that the dilemma had an unofficial task force.
Lindahl raised the issue to Smith given her training as a costume designer. Smith brought in fellow costume designer and runner, Miller. Together, the trio began collaborating on what would become one of the most significant contributions to the athletic apparel industry in modern history - the sports bra.
Miller, Smith, and Lindahl are to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2022 (they had originally been nominated in January of 2020, but the ceremony was postponed until inductees could gather once more in person).
Alex Manges of NYU Tisch Alumni Relations recently sat down with Miller and Smith to discuss their time at NYU Tisch, the origins of the sports bra (then called JogBra), and their respective journeys following that fateful summer.
Alex Manges: You both graduated from the Masters Program of the NYU Tisch Theater Design in the mid-19070s. Is that where you first met? And what drew you to the program?
Hinda Miller: Exactly yes that's where we met, although I don't think it was the School of the Arts when we went there. It was in the Lower East Side right beside a butcher shop – there was always blood running through the streets, and it was a very small little place. It wasn't the magnificent Tisch building that I know is there now.
I had a design background from Parsons, and I had done a tiny bit of theater, and wanted to find a way of translating design into community. That’s what initially drew me to the program.
Polly Smith: I went to a girl's country day school where we had to wear uniforms, but it was the beginning of the swinging 60’s. My mother didn't want to spend money on more clothes after buying my school uniforms, but she would always buy me fabric, so I became very focused on making things for myself.
I went off to art school and studied fashion design, and I learned a lot of skills that have carried me through to this day. In my senior year, I got an internship at Dartmouth College in their costume design shop. They were not co-ed yet, but they needed help sewing. It was there that I just fell in love with costumes - I love how much art and history you can bring into costuming, and how you can paint and rip and dye etc. It was just so much more “me” than fashion design.
From there, I took a job at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I met Lowell Detweiler who had recently graduated from the NYU Theatre Design department. I saw his portfolio and just thought, “Wow - I want this. I want to be him.” So I applied to NYU.
I almost went to Yale, but it just wouldn’t have worked. Because it was being in New York, through New York connections, that got me to The Jim Henson Company. I shudder to think what would have happened if I hadn’t come to NYU.
AM: Where did the idea for the JogBra first come from?
HM: After graduation, Polly and I both got into the costume union. Polly went to Vermont to work at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival. I applied after her because I had an affinity for skiing outside of Burlington with my family.
PS: I got a summer job at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival, and Hinda tracked me down looking for a summer job.
HM: It all started with Polly’s best friend from childhood, Lisa Lindahl. Running was a big new thing, and Title IX had just passed, which was huge for women's sports. I was a runner, as was Lisa.
One day, Lisa’s sister called her up and said “why isn't there a bra for women runners?” And Lisa thought, “well that’s very interesting.”
PS: Lisa had the big boobs. She knew she needed something - so she came to me because I was her sewing friend. But Hinda was a jogger, and I wasn’t. So then we all started talking.
HM: I remember we began by going into a lingerie store, and we said “give us a bra for running,” and they said “I don't know what you're talking about.” So we bought two or three bras, and just started tearing them apart and putting them back together and taking notes. And nothing worked.
And then one night, Lisa’s husband pulled a jockstrap out of the laundry basket and said “Look - JockBra.”
So Polly put two jock straps together, I think Lisa might have drawn up the criteria, and we designed a prototype. Later, we changed the name to “JogBra” after finding that many women at the time didn’t like to consider themselves “jocks”.
PS: When Lisa’s husband put the jock strap on upside down, it was like - this could work!
So I came back to New York that fall, and at the time New York was still a big manufacturing city. But there was no Internet, so to find manufacturers and fabrics I was just flipping through the Yellow Pages! One day I stumbled into this place that was making cotton Lycra, which was a new fabric on the market. I got a sample yard of that, and some elastic from my college friend’s husband who worked in an elastic place, and kept making new prototypes to send up to Lisa in Burlington.
AM: So how did the JogBra as you created it become the modern sports bra that we know today?
PS: So I made prototypes for about a year, but I had just started at the Muppets then. And Hinda was down in South Carolina, where there were more manufacturers. So we ended up sending the sample to her, she found a manufacturer and got some money from her father to start. I just sort of backed out at that point.
HM: My father gave us our first loan when I was down in South Carolina. Lisa and I manufactured 60 dozen bras and started selling them to local small mom-and-pop shops that catered to passionate runners. What was interesting was that all these small boutiques were owned by men, but they would always have a very smart assistant who was a woman. And we would tell them that this was a serious piece of equipment, like a running shoe – which was how we saw it. And the mom-and-pop shops started to buy.
Around that time, I found that the women in South Carolina that ran, they didn’t like to consider themselves jocks. Originally it was called JockBra because it was made out of jockstraps. So I called Lisa and I said we should change our name to “JogBra”. So that's how we got the name, and then found that translated well globally. That’s how we built an international presence.
We owned the business [JogBra Inc., JBI] for 12 years and then we sold it in 1990 to PlayTex. They appealed to us because they understand our mission - to fit all women. We were adamant about this because our mission, our vision, was no matter what your size, shape or age - this is for you. Every woman and girl is entitled to the benefits of exercise.
AM: When you created the first prototype of the JogBra, did you know then the impact it would go on to have on modern society?
HM: Oh no, no, no, no, no, no. No, no, no, listen, we were I think 27 or 28. We knew nothing – only that we wanted to do this. We were just trying to survive.
PS: I don’t think any of us knew the potential impact. I mean, how could we? We didn't even know if we could get this off the ground.
HM: What you have to understand at that time, everything was new. Nike was new! Adidas was a German company, but they still were new in the running industry and people were generally very open to new products.
PS: We knew enough - or at least, Lisa and Hinda knew enough - to sell to athletic shops as a piece of sports equipment. You know, it wasn’t really a bra.
But no, I don't think anybody could have predicted what it was going to become. I just did my thing - I was going off to London to work on The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth, and the Muppet Show, so after a little while I stopped thinking about it as much. But fortunately, it worked out for everybody.
AM: Polly, can you tell us a bit about your journey into the Jim Henson Studios?
PS: Back when I was an NYU student, all of our professors were working in the theater industry and they quite often needed help on their productions. You just started working! I was Carrie Robbins’ assistant and she came in one day and said very pointedly “if anybody’s got any time this weekend, the Brooklyn Academy is looking for some assistants!” So I went, and that’s where I met Carol Spier, who was my stepping stone to the Muppets.
I came in when the Muppet Show had been on the air for two years. I worked in the costume shop during the show’s third year. They were filming in London and I was able to go there to design the puppet costumes for the final season in 1981. It was just fabulous and so much fun - I can't even begin to describe it.
Then, on the heels of that they were starting production on The Dark Crystal, so I stayed in London all through the 80s until the mid 90s. It became my second home, and I just loved it.
I graduated in 1975, and started at the Muppets in 1978, so in between then it was three years of doing regional and off-off Broadway shows - schlepping bags of costumes around town feeling like a bag lady. My final show was a modern dress off Broadway show which really made me rethink my career choice. I was ill equipped to deal with all the personalities involved in a big production. Fortunately for me the job at the Muppets came along just then. The puppets may have big personalities, but they leave them at the door and allow themselves to be costumed without uttering a peep.
AM: Of course, I have to ask - who is your favorite Muppet?
PS: You know it’s funny, that used to be a psychological quiz question. And I always said Gonzo, but I don't know what that says about me. He wasn’t my favorite to costume, I just liked him best.
My favorite to costume though was Rizzo the Rat, or Pepé the King Prawn - they’re just smaller. I like the smaller size, it’s more challenging to find fabric that works and make teeny buttons. Sometimes we would just pick a Muppet and refurbish its entire wardrobe, and in my mind Pepé had a really rich fantasy life. So I drafted all of these costumes - a toreador, a mariachi, a Scottish thing with a kilt, a brunhilde costume. It was just endless.
Jim was very good at telling you what was needed, and then letting you run with costume ideas and see what you came back with.
AM: Hinda, you served as a State Senator after you sold the business. What drew you to politics after your career in design and entrepreneurship?
HM: My draw was that I realized that I was very passionate about women’s issues. And so I was kind of a big fish in a small town, and I took on a lot of business responsibilities like, Chair of the Chamber of Commerce.
Personally I'm Canadian. I had to become American which I was glad to do after everything this country offered me. Now I coach women entrepreneurs, and I'm still very keen on women's intelligence and ability to cooperate – you know the many balls we juggle.
I didn't know if you read Peggy Noonan in The New York Times last week. It said “man-ning up did not work for us, and now is the time for the feminine.” And it really is!
AM: What would you say has been your proudest moment in this journey of watching the JogBra become what it is today?
HM: I don't know if I had a proudest moment, but I have had a huge learning curve that I am very proud of.
Keep your eye on the ball. Don't get ahead of yourself. It’s like, in a spiritual path you do – or any path. You want one step at a time. You can't just get distracted.
It’s all about gratitude. All of these benefits, like you talking to me now and telling the alumni and students about what happened in the early educational system of Tisch – we as women stand on one another’s shoulders, and we learn from each other. And I’m very proud of that. Besides, my two children, of course, but that's another category of my life, and besides my spiritual path of yoga for 40 years.
Ultimately, I don’t think we could have ever understood how important this product would be. Because it wasn’t just our success - it was the success for women’s evolution.
I remember the Washington Post ran an article that said the two most transformative moments that changed women’s participation in sports was the Title XI bill, and the sports bra. So that that's a very good lineage to be part of.
PS: While I have been very proud to win Emmys and to be inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame, topping all that (but most likely due to the induction fame) was being a question on Jeopardy this past summer. Lisa and I were in Vermont having dinner when messages started pouring in.
I feel I can truly retire now. What more can one hope for?