Specialized women's sports clothing is an industry that has sustained a growth paralleling the rise in the number of women engaged in both competitive sport as well as numerous other forms of exercise activities such as aerobics, yoga, and Pilates.
The growth of the women's sport fashion industry is also related to an increase in marketing exercise clothes specifically made for women, in terms of both style and the intended specialized fit for the female body. Items such as shorts and tights for exercise or training purposes are designed to take into account the wider female pelvis relative to leg length; additional clothing items, such as sports bras, take other female physical characteristics into account.
The breasts are a region of the female athlete's body frequently exposed to injury. The inadequate covering of and lack of support for the breasts are also common causes of physical interference in athletic performance. The human breast is composed primarily of fatty tissues, which enclose the mammary glands (designed for nurturing an infant), and the capillary network that supplies nutrients to the breast tissue. There are thin ligaments that intersperse the breast tissue and provide a limited
As a general physical proposition, the larger the athlete's breasts, the greater the forces that will be directed into the supporting muscle structures of the shoulder, upper back, and upper chest through the undulating movements of the breasts. This repetitive movement can cause significant discomfort for the athlete if the breasts are not properly supported, as the result will be an imbalance between the breasts and the function of the upper back and shoulder muscles.
The female breasts are often a source of irritation and interference in the desired athletic function. If breasts are incorrectly supported or placed in repeated contact with material that creates irritation, the condition known as jogger's nipple (intense soreness, dryness, inflammation and/or bleeding of the nipple) will occur. This condition may also occur in male athletes for the same reasons. Additionally, with the female athlete, the risk of a permanent stretching of the ligaments in the breast tissue is present.
For these reasons, the sports bra is the most important female sports clothing essential. The specialized bra did not exist until the 1990s; previously, female athletes typically improvised a supportive bra from commercially available products. Popularized by the successes of the 1996 U.S. women's soccer team, the sports bra is a product of both form and function. The most important aspect of the selection of a sports bra is the fit; the bra must be tight to the athlete's body, without being constricting, and sufficient to ensure that the breasts have minimal movement during exercise.
There are hundreds of different sports bra styles; for all sports where the athlete will be perspiring to any extent, sports bras are constructed of a variety of polypropylene and Lycra-based fabrics, which permit both stretching and the ability of the material to "wick" away moisture (remove perspiration from the skin surface through the material) to keep the skin relatively dry through competition.
The type of support required by the sports bra is a function of the breast size of the particular athlete. Support is provided in varying degrees in each of three general types of construction. A compression sports bra is designed to pull the breasts into the body during motion; the compression model is best suited to women with smaller breasts. An encapsulated-style sports bra fits around each breast to secure the tissue against excess movement; this model is usually recommended for women with larger breasts. Underwire sports bras are the third type; this construction is found as a distinct style or it can be used in combination with the encapsulated style.
The breasts are also vulnerable to injury in sports where a direct trauma is possible. As a sensitive glandular structure, a direct blow can cause a contusion, with resultant discomfort, swelling, and bleeding within the tissue. Some models of sports bras have additional padding that can be inserted into the bra cups for protection. In a number of sports, including martial arts, fencing, boxing, and rugby, specialized chest guards can be worn by female athletes. In both rugby and soccer, some jersey manufacturers have designed built-in chest protectors for female athletes
In sports such as ice hockey, field hockey, and lacrosse, where players, particularly the goaltenders, are exposed to an object directed at them at high speed, female athletes can wear a specialized groin protector (known as a "jill," in contrast to the well-known male equipment used to protect the genitals, the "jock" strap). This protector is fashioned consistent with the structure of the female body.