When Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey after Team USA clinched the 1999 World Cup, she created a moment that inspires goosebumps to this day.
Her show of emotion said so much: the hard work of that women’s national team came down to a tense shootout against China before 90,000 people in the stands, and millions more watching on TVs around the world as Chastain celebrated the win in her black sports bra. Women’s sports had reached a whole new level of global phenomenon, and the American women were leading the way.
But at the time, the level of bra technology wasn’t so astronomical. In fact, to see it now, Chastain’s now-iconic black Nike sports bra looks more like something one could sleep in, and less like the most crucial support equipment for any athlete with breasts. Two decades later, her bra and signed jersey were displayed at Nike’s Paris unveiling of uniforms and equipment it created for 14 of the 24 teams competing in this summer’s World Cup in France. Let’s just say the women of the 2019 World Cup will be better equipped than their predecessors of the late ‘90s, even if the design plays homage to them.
In addition to sorely-needed innovations in sports bra technology, a woman-led team at the company collaborated with several of the athletes, using data and feedback to create lighter, more form-fitting (while remaining covered-up) soccer uniforms for players on the field this summer.
“We are laser-focused on solving problems for athletes,” Nike’s Vice President of Apparel Innovation Janett Nichol told journalists at the event on Monday. One simple way the design team has been adjusting its apparel for women athletes over the years is remembering they’re not just smaller versions of their male counterparts. The other motivation was that “women are not only different from men, but women are also different from each other.”
That idea came through Nike’s emotionally charged runway event, featuring models and athletes from around the globe, including WNBA player Sue Bird, her partner and US Women’s National Team player Megan Rapinoe, South African runner Caster Semenya, gymnast Simone Biles, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, 10-year-old skateboarder Skye Brown, and, of course Chastain herself. The show featured Nike streetwear, appealing to both the mass of fashion influencers in the crowd who came in their own Nike cool-kid looks, and anyone who likes to wear Nike gear on the court, the gym, the yoga studio, or the grocery store. But most importantly, at the center of it all, were players from the 14 teams around the world who unveiled their new uniforms.
In the 20 years since the US took home its landmark World Cup title, it’s clear, as Nichol said, “Fit is the single-most important thing to create access to sport for anyone.” What could have been characterized as a slightly smaller version of the men’s uniform in ’99, now looks like something tailor-made for the bodies of women athletes. This has proven to be true not only in soccer, but in several sports where apparel for women was initially an afterthought.
“I think there was a period of time where there weren’t any basketball clothes — I’m not joking, you had to wear men’s clothing,” WNBA player Bird, who has been in the league since 2002, said to Out. “And so you would see a lot of women in men’s clothing. That doesn’t always fit, figuratively and literally. But now you have more options in the women’s basketball department. We have boobs, we have hips — that’s just the reality. As a female athlete, as a female basketball player, it’s allowed you to finally find what you actually like versus ‘Oh this is all they have.’”
New Zealand’s Ali Riley, told Out the change has been drastic during her time at the elite level. “I remember the 2008 Olympics, the jerseys — they were huge, and we had thick, heavy uniforms, and it was really hot. So this makes a big difference.”
When it came to innovating the uniforms for the World Cup, the team of designers and engineers began with honing in on the needs of elite footballer’s bodies. Cassie Looker told journalists at the event, “Men like the uniforms to be tight.” On the other hand, women players prefer a little more comfort: form fitting, but not skin-tight, not revealing.
“It’s not impossible to figure out how to size for women,” Rapinoe says. “The sports bra is supportive but not too tight, and not so tight up on the shoulder. We want short-shorts but not too short, and we don’t want them down to our knees. It’s also important to find the balance of a strong female body. We don’t always fit a sample size, so how can they be adjusted to fit our kinds of bodies? So every year, it feels like the jersey is kind of lighter in your consciousness. It sort of becomes part of you.”
The big difference in the years she’s been playing has been that more women designers have been involved in the process and the male designers working with them are also understanding more and more that a “woman’s shape is not” a man’s boxier shape with angular curves where hips are supposed to go. Rapinoe joked the Nike team was probably sick of her constant feedback on the minutiae of her gear, but that the feedback has led to a uniform that feels good.
“The more I’m messing with [my uniform], the less focused I am, so if I put something on and don’t have to mess with it, I’m just locked in and ready to play,” Rapinoe told Out. “It’s a good feeling.”
Correction: The 1999 World Cup title was not the first for the U.S., it was the second! Michelle Garcia totally knew this but wrote it wrong, and regrets the error.