Missy Ball, President, Title IX Sports

(WOMENSENEWS)–In the last decade, the doors of opportunity for female athletes have not only swung open, but also nearly sprung their hinges. Women’s leagues and athletes are hot. Women’s sports magazines are big. Fashion magazines are dedicating pages to women in sports-life settings.

Then why is it still hard for most women to find a well-fitting sports bra or a hunting jacket without ape-length sleeves?

This despite the fact that a 1998 Sports Apparel Products Council survey shows that women spend about $28 billion annually on sports apparel and gear. Women also buy 80 percent of all sports apparel, regardless of who wears it.

Moreover, women are the fastest-growing segment of the athletic gear world, according to the council’s survey. But many adult women are dissatisfied with poorly fitting unisex styles and limited selections.

Nike is just one of the large retailers recognizing it’s profitable to tailor products to women’s bodies and tastes. Two years ago the company best known for its athletic shoes and brilliant marketing teamed up with renowned bra manufacturer, Vanity Fair Corp., to make and market bras and underwear. The venture benefited from enormous publicity when U.S soccer star Brandi Chastain kicked the winning goal at the Women’s World Cup Final and pulled off her shirt, displaying her sport bra with the Nike swoosh.

The other big boys of outdoor equipment–The North Face, Patagonia and Sierra Designs–are even getting in on the action. North Face and Sierra Designs now both make sleeping bags not only tapered to fit a woman’s frame, but also made with added insulation at the torso and feet where a woman’s lower metabolic rate tends to leave her chilly.

Smaller, Women-Run Companies Entering the Market

Smaller companies, however, comprise the bulk of the women-friendly apparel industry, offering everything from the Liberator–a bike seat with a strategically cut-out oval–to many boot companies, like Cabela’s, Dunham, Northlake and Wolverine, that make quality women’s boots.

A large number of innovative, women-tailored sports apparel companies have entered the market, but many of them folded quickly. Despite high product quality, many women’s apparel companies have bitten the dust just months after startup. Agate Pass, which made custom-fitting hunting and fishing gear; apparel company Lucky Lady and Pupule Sports, an all-sports Web site, are just a few companies that shut down when their seed money ran out.

“A few companies had such beautiful things,” says Christine Thomas, an outdoorswoman who developed Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, a program that teaches woman outdoor skills. “Even people who didn’t hunt or camp would buy their stuff just to wear it around the house.

“But, it’s a Catch-22: Retailers don’t often buy women’s sizes because they don’t think the clothing will sell. When they do get women’s clothes, they put them on the rack with the men’s wear and don’t make a big point of displaying them. Women don’t know clothing is available in their sizes, so they don’t ask for it.”

Most of the hardy survivors were created by women themselves who understood the importance of adjusting for narrower backs, narrower waists, wider hips and shorter arms. And, in the process, they have given women more comfortable, safe and stylish options for fitness and recreation.

Women’s Equipment Has Different Dimensions

For female hikers, Kelty designed the Tioga Pack, which sits lower on the hips to accommodate a woman’s lower center of gravity. For river rafters, Lotus Designs’ Lola life vest breaks at the bust line, keeping breast squish to a minimum.

Even female mountain climbers can buy products for vertical support. They can choose Alaska Black Diamond’s Calypso Harness, a specially contoured harness that takes into account that the space between the top of the hips and the bottom of the ribs is different in men and women. Or, they might prefer Arc’Teryx’s Vapor Harness, which offers internal seams that reduce bulk and provides adjustable leg loops for the woman whose thighs are a bit bigger than the average male’s.

Many of these small companies, mostly Internet and catalog-based, were built by women whose personal searches for products ended in frustration. Elyse Dunnahoo’s company, Koulius Zaard, is winning awards for its women’s cycling clothing. Swiss alpinist Dode Kunz created Wild Roses, the first technical outdoor clothing line for women. She realized that though women have been climbing mountains since the 1800s, the available clothing has been designed for men’s bodies.

And, when it comes to outdoor urination, men have always had a tactical advantage over women. Kunz developed the Wild Roses P-System to afford a similar freedom to women–a blessing when there’s no convenient shelter and exposing the backside to the elements is chilling. The P-System incorporates long, front-to-back zippers and overlapping fabric designs into all garments so in spite of layering, women can relieve themselves without removing it all.

Nicole Bailey, founder, Women's Outdoor Gear“Some of our most successful products are waders, says Nicole Bailey, a biologist who started Women’s Outdoor Gear so that other women would not need to search high and low for the proper gear and clothing. “A lot of places offer high-end $300 waders. But most of the women who use our site, who would buy waders, either work for fishing and wildlife organizations or environmental agencies. They just don’t have the budget to pay that much.”

Whether large or small, almost every company offering women-specific apparel prides itself on carrying one major product–the sports bra.

“Significant technical advances are being made, where motion control, breast support and moisture management are critical,” says Ellen Wessel, president of Moving Comfort, a women’s sports apparel company. “Different body shapes respond to different levels of impact from various sports and require different construction and fabrics.”

Catch 22: Women’s Products, When Available, Often Cost More

The women’s sports apparel industry still has a long way to go. Most companies don’t offer plus-size gear for fuller figures. And, many basic garments, like the traditional yellow rain slicker, can cost more than $200, while a man can find the identical slicker for less than $100.

Further, most companies offer just a few sizes in an attempt to accommodate greater changes in girth rather than in height. Wild Roses is one of the few exceptions.

But it’s comforting that many of these companies pay attention to essential details: The Juno parka has stitched a tampon pocket into one of its jacket pockets. Athleta makes sunglasses with smaller lenses and nose bridges to prevent them from slipping off.

“The success of women in Olympic sports has brought attention to female athletes,” says Mike May, Director of Communications for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. “There are not too many sports that women haven’t broken barriers in, and through this they’ve told the world that they are a force to be reckoned with. We can be certain that the women-specific sports apparel industry will not only keep growing, but will possibly surpass the innovations of the men’s industry one day.”

Melynda Bissmeyer is a free-lance writer in New York. She has written for local and national publications, including the Washington Square News, the Pike Creek Review, ACE Magazine and Cachet Magazine.