How the sports bra undercut the underwire | Working from home

The sports bra, once a neglected piece of gym kit, has officially become a wardrobe staple for women as comfortable bras chip away at the hegemony of the underwire in the working-from-home era.

In the past 12 months, the number of sports bras sold in Britain has jumped by a third to 7.1m as women swap underwired-cup oppression for stretchy elastic heaven. In sales terms, spending on sports bras jumped by a quarter to £72.3m to account for nearly 10% of total bra sales, according to retail analysts Kantar.

This bra revolution has not gone unnoticed. This week statisticians revealed that sports and crop top-style bras had been added to the list of 700 products used to calculate the inflation rate. In its annual shake-up, the Office for National Statistics also revealed men were being freed of their shackles as the traditional suit – present in the basket since its inception in 1947 – was axed.

The pandemic had helped to increase Britons’ awareness of fitness, with many people working out at home during lockdown periods, the ONS said. “With this has come a rise in expenditure on sports clothing,” it said.

Customers shopping for athleisure clothing during the Covid pandemic.
Customers shopping for athleisure clothing during the Covid pandemic. Photograph: Susan Moran/AP

But analysts suggest women are buying sports bras with Netflix rather than Joe Wicks’ workouts in mind, as the lifestyle changes triggered by pandemic lockdowns turbocharged the catwalk-led “athleisure” trend for sportswear as fashion.

“We are seeing a massive increase in demand for anything athleisure-related,” said Rebecca Watterson, a consumer insight director in Kantar’s fashion team. “So even though the [bra] market declined during the pandemic and is now flat, people are buying into sports bras.”

“We saw a big uptick in people doing sport during lockdown, but the reason we are being given for buying sports bras is general daywear – so it’s more comfort-led.”

Soozie Jenkinson, the head of lingerie design at Marks & Spencer, said the long-term shift away from formal to casual dressing was having an impact on the styles of underwear its customers bought even before the pandemic, as athleisure became mainstream.

woman’s outstretched hand holding an underwire bra
Since lockdown, underwired bra sales have fallen. Photograph: Alamy

“When Covid-19 hit, and we were all thrown into different ways of working, it accelerated that trend and women’s approach to clothing as well as bras changed,” she said. Comfort became the “number one factor” and there was a big shift towards selling non-wired bras, crop tops and bralettes.

While some women opted to buy more comfortable bras to wear at home, others wore their old ones or ditched them altogether – leading to reports of the great lingerie liberation of lockdown. In the year to 9 February 2020, women had bought 75.7m bras, spending nearly £780m, but in the first year of the pandemic stores sold 13.1m fewer bras, with nearly £140m wiped off sales, according to Kantar, which said bra sales had now almost recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

The athleisure trend means that the categories of bra are “more blurred than they ever have been before” Jenkinson said, adding that the “sporty look” is holding sway even in everyday bras. “The sports bra has become quite a generic term because of the way that the fashion trends have been going over the last few years.” New hi-tech fabrics, such as M&S’s Flexifit with its promise of “4-way stretch technology”, were also altering the market as retailers were able to design more invisible and seam-free garments, she said.

This new aesthetic has been given by pneumatic lift by Kim KardashianWest’s shapewear company Skims, which has struck gold with products such as the £32 “fits everybody” bralette made out of the “softest, stretchiest butter fabric”. Its sales are going gangbusters and a recent fundraising saw it valued at more than £2bn by investors.

Within the lingerie market, there is an ongoing shift towards buying more comfortable non-wired bras, including crop tops and bralettes, according to market researcher Mintel, and high street retailers are keen for a piece of the action. John Lewis is selling one of its £18 seam-free Anya bras every 25 minutes, while Uniqlo’s £20 wireless bras with moulded stretchy cups are also converting underwire wearers.

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Tamara Sender, a senior fashion analyst at Mintel, said the popularity of sports bras was part of an evolving sports fashion trend as women wore sporty clothing styles in their everyday life as well as for exercising.

The growing focus on health and wellbeing may continue to fuel demand for sports bras, according to Sender, who also detects winds of change. “We are seeing young women, who tend to be driven to buy new items as a result of fashion trends, showing a penchant for sexier styles of lingerie such as bodies and bodysuits as pent-up demand for going out and getting dressed up once again is released.”

The bra is dead, long live the bra.

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