The Best Sports Bras for Physical, Outdoor Labor (And What The Sports Bra Industry Needs to Improve)
Today's guest post is by Stella, a graduate student in forestry, who will be returning to full-time tree care following the completion of her degree later this fall.
When I started a job in late April working for a tree care company in a major metropolitan area in the Northeastern U.S., I was told what brand and color of pants to wear, which brands of boots would work well, and given a stack of shirts with the company logo, both short and long sleeve. I was given hats, safety glasses, a helmet, and all kinds of tools. But bras? No such luck. For the simple fact that I would be the only bra-wearer working in the field at the company.
I made a list of my requirements. I wanted a bra able to keep my nipples entirely concealed, even when cold or wet, meaning that it should be padded. The feel of underwire has started bothering me recently, so I wanted to avoid anything with wire (although I did want a bra able to keep my boobs securely in place while climbing trees, pruning, hauling brush, running saws, chippers, bucket trucks, and other machinery).
I decided to look for material that gets minimally hot and smelly, is durable in the washing machine, and is able to go in the dryer - even if the manufacturer recommends against it. Because I have relatively severe scoliosis, I also ruled out anything that wasn’t racerback or t-back. Bras with straight straps tend to fall off my low shoulder, no matter how I adjust them, and I didn’t want a strap suddenly falling across my bicep and limiting my movement. It was also important to me that the bra be available in professionally acceptable colors, such as black or grey, in case straps became visible over the course of the day.
Finally, I wanted a bra that would clearly show I have boobs under my uniform. While I thought that the first requirement - being padded - would probably take care of that, it’s something I still considered as a separate requirement in my search. This is because I anticipated (and encountered) surprise that I was able to complete such intense manual labor so competently with the body I inhabit. I wanted to be a visible representative of the fact that doing such work is totally possible with boobs. I didn’t want to smash them down too much.
I was glad I put this on the list: as I’ve seen over the course of doing this work, toddlers who will grow into all kinds of bodies love trucks and are fascinated by the people who are riding in them, and I was glad I was able to leave possibilities open for them. I should mention that the (very infrequent) overt surprise I encountered at my ability to do the work didn’t come from coworkers, but from clients.
When I looked at my current bra collection, I found one bra that maybe met these criteria. Searching for a bra online that met my requirements was not the easiest, but the specificity of the list I was able to make helped me to quickly rule bras in or out. Now, after three months on the job in the summer heat, I have some feedback on the four bras I was able to try for full-time, outdoor work in the summer, with temperatures ranging from 50-90 degrees Fahrenheit, sometimes in a single day.
Here’s my take, in decreasing order of the frequency with which I wear the bra at work. Right after the bra arrived I would try it on, and take notes on my first impression before wearing it at work. These initial notes are reflected below.
I should mention that I’m a 34C in most brands, or a M or Medium in sports bras that size that way, so definitely in the range of most brands’ core sizing. All brands below I ordered in either 34C or M. I researched and purchased all bras online, with the exception of the Reebok bra which I already owned.
After the first wear: my first impression of this bra was quite positive, but not as positive as my opinion ultimately came to be. It fit well, but the fabric felt somewhat plastic-y, and it seemed like it might stretch out fairly quickly.
After three months of wear: This bra is super comfortable, and regulates heat well. I wear it in all weathers, and I would wear it every day if that wouldn’t get nasty. The fabric is not an issue, and became way more comfortable after the first wash. I usually wear this bra for at least three days consecutively. As soon as I get home, I take it off and hang it up in a sunlit area to dry and air out overnight. Even when I’ve been soaked with sweat or rain during the day, it’s dry and relatively clean smelling within an hour or so of hanging it up. It doesn’t retain sawdust or stick against my skin or capture debris in the fabric, possibly because of the slick-ish consistency of the material. I wash it in warm or cold and throw it in the dryer on the weekend, and so far it’s holding up great. This is one of my top three favorite bras in my closet right now for when I’m off work, as well. I think it works under a variety of clothes. During the work week, I usually swap it out with the:
After the first wear: the cups seemed to be too widely spaced for my body, and the outside of the strap fabric rubbed against the front of my underarm in a very uncomfortable way.
After three months of wear: the outside of the strap wasn’t a big issue. The bra is a very comfortable temperature in most weather, and sweat dries quickly. The straps in back, though, have gotten progressively more scratchy and uncomfortable. I think because the straps are too thin, and also partly because of the material. Wearing this bra actually led to a new criterion for future work-bra purchase: thicker straps are a must. The chest band underneath already seems to be loosening, making the bra less supportive. I’m not sure how long this bra will last, but at the moment it still meets all my criteria. Online reviews suggest it might not be supportive enough for larger cup sizes. I don’t think I’ll buy this bra again (the back straps are just too uncomfortable), but I’ll definitely wear this one until it wears out. It doesn’t seem to be holding up as well in the washer/dryer as the Champion bra either, so I suspect it’ll wear out pretty quickly.
After the first wear: quite honestly I don’t remember it, because this is the bra I bought at a store a few years ago. I wear it pretty frequently when not working, but I was concerned that it would be too hot for summer work.
After three months of wear: it is, in fact, super way too hot for summer work. It might be better in the winter. We’ll see. It’s very supportive and online reviews suggest it might also be a good bet for larger cup sizes. I tend to wear it on colder days. I wouldn’t say it meets all my criteria, largely because it’s so hot and heavy-duty. It also is the only bra of these top three where twig and sawdust entrapment tends to be a big issue. I feel like when I wear this bra to work, I’m constantly having to take a minute to subtly dig sticks and schmutz out of the cups and cleavage. Recently, this bra has gotten super uncomfortable and scratchy in the cleavage area. At first I thought it was lodged sawdust, but even after washing it and wearing it for not-work it’s still been unbearably scratchy. I think it’s something to do with the fabric, and I won’t be buying this bra again.
After the first wear: I thought this bra was beautiful, but I was concerned that it might show some nipple.
After three months of wear: this bra was a HUGE disappointment in the field. It was kind of nipple-y, although not as nipple-y as I was concerned about. The main issue was that it was surprisingly hot, especially given all the mesh. I didn’t even wear it in temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and it was already far too hot. As the temperature rose, it became WAY too hot and clingy, and the mesh was incredibly uncomfortable when carrying logs on my shoulder. I wore this once or twice in the field for review purposes and haven’t worn it since. I don’t intend to ever wear it for work in the future. Definitely doesn’t meet my requirements.
Here are a couple more bras that seem to meet my criteria, and that I may try in the future:
(Given the lessons I learned with the Danskin bra, I think I might find the straps on this bra to be too narrow.)
In conclusion, my original requirements accurately captured my needs in the field, with the exception of strap size, which I didn’t adequately consider. Unless I can find a bra that works just as well as the Champion bra from a more ethical and smaller business or try on a bra in a store that works even better, I’ll continue to rely on the Champion bra. And I'll probably purchase one or two or three more when the Danskin bra wears out.
From a marketing, design, and shopping perspective, it’s incredibly challenging to find bras that are both designed and marketed for physical labor. In fact, all of the bras I purchased were designed for dance or exercise, not for work. As I see it, the major difference in activity between short-term exertion and physical labor is that in working out, the main concern of many people is limiting bounce, which can be uncomfortable.
In my line of work, and, I suspect, in many other forms of physical labor, bounce is not such an issue, because rarely am I moving that fast, especially along the vertical axis. Instead, I need the protection that padding can offer - not only for reasons of modesty, but also to protect a sensitive area of my body from protruding twigs on logs that I’m carrying pressed to myself or to supply some padding underneath when the bucket on the bucket truck jerks up against my chest. I see how combining this kind of highly protective padding with fabrics that are designed to stay cool and dry quickly could be a challenge, but it’s one that I’d love to see designers embrace.
It’s also important to me that the top of the cups and the top of the bra be tight against my skin, in order to limit the amount of material that’s able to fall into the cups. Similarly, the chest band, while it should be snug, shouldn’t be as snug as a bra that’s designed to limit bounce, because it needs to enable any material that does enter the bra to fall through without getting lodged (or at least enable me to momentarily pinch the chest band up off my chest to let the twig fall through). Generally, it seems like bras that are not made for physical labor place more importance on the snugness of the chest band than the snugness of the top.
I would also love to see some brands embrace the reality that, realistically, many of us need to throw our bras in the laundry with everything else and make durable padded bras that can stand up to a weekly wash cycle.
Another valuable move on the part of lingerie brands would be to reach out with their products that are designed for physical labor to the online suppliers of clothing for these occupations. For example, the TreeStuff site has an underwear section...with no bras. Similarly, no bras can be found on Arborwear or Sherrilltree, other large sites for the tree care industry (and the former is dedicated to clothing). I’m sure similar sites exist for other occupations, on which the presence of bras might be welcome.
Do you work a job requiring physical outdoor labor? If so, what bras do you rely on? What requirements do you have for those bras?