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Style and support in today's sports bras

Jennifer Brown, 30, from Pikesville, shops for bras at Under Armour in Harbor East.
Jennifer Brown, 30, from Pikesville, shops for bras at Under Armour in Harbor East. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Wearing sports bras that accentuate their toned and muscular bodies, dancer Misty Copeland, model Gisele Bundchen and surfer Brianna Cope stare down at customers from huge photos on a prominent display at the Under Armour store in Baltimore's Harbor East.

The towering wall, which showcases the brand's newest styles, symbolizes the growing importance of the $1.5 billion sports-bra market.

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The sports bra has evolved from a plain piece of clothing women once hid under T-shirts to fashionable garments flaunted in gyms and on athletic fields. Sales of sports bras have grown 5.2 percent so far this year, according to research firm NPD group.

More styles and colors of sports bras exist today than ever before and are found across the retail spectrum; from mass marketers like Gap to high-end brands such as Stella McCartney.

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Gone are the dowdy sports bras of the '70s — nothing more than cutoff tank tops in three sizes and a few basic colors sold in small boutique stores.

"What the brands finally figured out is that a woman who needs a D cup is different from a woman who needs an A cup," said Matt Powell, an analyst with NPD Group. " And it requires a totally different bra. Buying and wearing a bra is a personal decision and one you want to feel comfortable with."

Today's bras come in prints and bright colors. Some have straps that form intricate designs across the back, while others are T-shaped. Some zip in the front and have molded cups or plunging necklines to prevent the uniboob — when an ill-fitting bra smooshes a woman's breasts together into a shapeless blob.

Tank top designs now feature cutouts in the back or sides so the bra peeks through. And it is not uncommon for a woman to skip the tank altogether and exercise just in the bra. Women wear their bras as much outside the gym as they do when working out. The younger set in particular has traded in the training bra for the sports bra.

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Maintaining function with style, the newest bras include details like gel features to prevent straps from digging into shoulders, pockets to hold keys on runs, seams designed to prevent itching and fabrics that wick away sweat.

"When you drill it all down, it's about not having distractions," said Adrienne Lofton, Under Armour senior vice president of brand marketing. "Nothing ruins a workout faster than a bra that doesn't work. Because then you're thinking about it. You're uncomfortable and you're not going to get as good of a workout."

Bras also now come in a range of fits to best match the intensity of exercises. Some have minimal support and skimpier designs ideal for low-impact sports like yoga, while others offer more support for more intense exercises like running or boxing.

Some manufacturers, like Under Armour, see sports bras as a key component to their business — and as important as sneakers to a women's athletic performance. If they can get a woman to like their sports bra, the hope is she'll buy the other apparel as well.

"The sport bra category will help catapult our women's business," said Kelly Cortina, vice president of women's apparel & accessories for Under Armour. "We definitely see it anchoring every outfit that we are building for her. Because if you think about it, she really can't work out without a sports bra."

Jennifer Brown, 30, from Pikesville, was recently at the Under Armour store trying on bras. Brown said her No. 1 concern is support. But she also wants to look good when working out with her trainer. After all, there is a reason she is trying to get that killer body.

"It makes you feel more motivated," she said. "When you look good, you want to work out more."

At Lululemon, the bras have funky names with snarky descriptions about the fit of each style. The Cool to Street Bra zips in the front and is a "light-support bra" that means "we can easily slip out of it without knocking out our neighbors." The brand's "tata tamer II" "was designed to keep our ladies on lockdown when we're sweating our hearts out."

Victoria's Secret began testing the sports bra concept in 2006 and launched in 2013. The company figured it already had established a reputation as experts on day-to-day bras, so why not extend to sports bras?

On its website, the company has a customization tool on which consumers can enter factors such as color, support level, size and padding.

"Women are motivated to work out when they feel good and look good, so offering fashion in a sport bra helps build that confidence," the company said in response to questions through email.

Sports bras are only going to become more innovative and popular as more women get into sports, analysts said.

"Why has it grown?," asked Mike May with the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. "Because of the emergence of the serious and sophisticated female athlete."

Hinda Miller and her friends invented the first sports bras in the '70s called the jogbra. They were runners tired of their breasts bouncing and chafing in regular bras. They knew women who were binding their chests with Ace bandages or wearing two bras to ease the discomfort.

"Our mission was that no matter what your age, size or shape, every women has the right to the benefit of sports and fitness," Miller said.

Their first prototype was two jockstraps that pulled the breasts firmly to the body.

Miller said she is impressed with the strides sports bras have made and how technology is improving performance. In particular, she likes the Under Armour brand.

"I am thrilled at the innovation that is taking place," she said. "And they are making them very attractive."

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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