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Leaders in Innovation

2022 NIHF Inductee Polly Smith: The Skillful Designer

Before National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Polly Smith became a renowned costume designer for beloved characters such as those on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, she was sewing together a garment that would change the world.

In the summer of 1977, Smith was working as a costume designer for the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Burlington, Vermont. She was renting a room in Burlington from her childhood friend, NIHF Inductee Lisa Lindahl, whom she’d known since eighth grade. At the time, Lindahl had been running 30 miles each week and couldn’t ignore the serious discomfort of exercising in a regular bra. After a phone call with her sister sparked the idea of creating a “jockstrap for women,” Lindahl enlisted Smith’s help to design an improved garment for running. It took some convincing, but eventually Smith agreed to work on a few prototypes.


Experimenting with Design

Initially, none of the samples seemed to work with Lindahl’s vision of providing comfort and support. One day, however, Lindahl’s husband noticed that the two women were frustrated by the failed samples and decided to lift their spirits. He walked into the room with a jockstrap over his chest and said, “Here’s your new jockbra!” Lindahl jumped up to try on the garment herself and turned to Smith in surprise. It was in that moment that the women finally understood the concept of what this garment would be.

Part of Smith’s hesitation in joining the project was feeling uncertain that designing a bra was in her realm of creative ability. Like shoes, bras are one of the most difficult items to design due to their need to be structured and supportive. Still, Smith says that once she and Lindahl found that initial flicker of inspiration, the intimidation of creating the sports bra quickly dissolved.

A list of requirements they had for the garment included that it must “stay in place, be comfortable, compress the breast, straps could not fall off the shoulders, and have no pokes that are going to dig into you,” Smith recalled. “Once we had the list and did a little sketch, it was not that complicated. I just needed to get one in Lisa’s size to see if it worked. And it did.”

Smith asked NIHF Inductee Hinda Miller, who had been working alongside her as an assistant costume designer, to help gather some of the initial materials for the bra and to join Lindahl in testing it while on a run. Not long after an effective design was in place, Smith had to go back to New York to begin working on a new project. While there, she sourced wide elastics with a fuzzy back and gathered samples of cotton LYCRA®, finding that they were the best materials to work with. She made a sample in accordance with Lindahl’s measurements and sent it back to Vermont, allowing Lindahl to determine what the next step would be.


A Lifetime of Creativity

Though Lindahl and Miller eventually went on to commercialize and manufacture the Jogbra® by co-founding Jogbra Inc., Smith chose to follow her true career passion: costume design. Smith had been a serious design student prior to creating the Jogbra, having earned her bachelor’s degree in fashion design from Moore College of Art & Design and a master’s degree in costume design from New York University. She landed what she called her “dream job” in 1978 working for The Jim Henson Co. when she was brought on as a costume designer for The Muppet Show. She enjoyed a decades-long career with the company, going on to design for Sesame Street and a number of films that gave her the chance to live and work in London. Smith has won seven Emmy® awards for her work and has been nominated several times as well.

In remembering what it took to make the sports bra the global success it is today, Smith believed it took the contributions of each of the women involved.

Lisa was the idea, I was the fabrication, and Hinda was the driving force behind making it happen. And this is one of the things we all agreed on — [that] it couldn’t have happened if one of us had been missing — because it needed all three.”

To learn more about the other inventors Inducted in Polly Smith’s class, view our Inductee search page.

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