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Dressed for Action

By Jayne Shrimpton

With the focus now on the Olympic Games, we look back at nineteenth and early-twentieth century sports and sportswear. Before the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, men enjoyed energetic activities like football, rowing and athletics, wearing comfortable adaptations of regular dress or early sportswear. Conversely, undertaking strenuous exercise and winning at competitive events weren’t deemed appropriate for Victorian ladies and underlying these issues were deep-rooted concerns over dress, particularly the ‘immodest’ exposure of the legs, or even their clothed outline. It wasn’t considered decent for women to wear the kinds of clothes that would provide the physical freedom needed to excel in sports and early female sportswear aimed to conceal, hampering the progress of female competition sport. Only in the early-1900s when clothing conventions began to relax, did a shift occur, the gradual development of more modern, movement-enhancing sportswear furthering the expansion of the Games and sporting prowess.


Archery was a recommended pursuit for genteel ladies, who were urged to perfect poise as well as their talent. A fine female figure wearing a picturesque costume, whilst holding a bow and aiming the arrow drew much admiration from spectators. As novelist George Eliot remarked in Daniel Deronda, (1876) ‘Who can deny that bows and arrows are among the prettiest weapons in the world for feminine forms to play with?’ Victorian archery outfits were fashionable and ornamental, although outer skirts could be draped back for access to the arrow heads, contained in a pouch suspended from the waist. When women’s archery entered the Olympics generally a blouse, tailored skirt and large hat were worn, as, for example, by 1908 gold-medallist ‘Queenie’ Newall. Male archers favoured regular suits in the early Games but often removed jackets and waistcoats: some wore comfortable jerseys in 1920, before archery was temporarily discontinued


Horse-riding has traditionally been an elite sport, and Team GB generally shines in Olympic equestrian events. Historically riding dress followed fashion, with various modifications. Mid-Victorian horsemen wore smart riding or morning coats with trousers in town, or knee breeches for country wear, teamed with gaiters and ankle boots. Later the more relaxed lounge jacket became fashionable, with long boots and riding breeches, flared jodhpurs ‘strapped’ with leather inner thighs, favoured from the 1890s. These remained a ‘fossilised’ style well into the twentieth century, worn with a various coats, jackets, often a shirt and tie and a top hat, bowler or cloth cap.

Ladies’ tailored riding habits comprised a fitted jacket or jacket-bodice, matching skirt, and a masculine-style top hat or bowler. Early habit skirts were dangerously voluminous, but narrowed during the 1860s/1870s. In 1875 reputedly the first ‘safety’ skirt was worn, a back slit being unfastened when mounted to minimise the chance of an unseated rider becoming entangled in her skirt. Underneath, for modesty, ladies wore riding trousers or breeches of chamois leather or material matching the habit. Increasingly from the 1910s women rode astride, discarding skirts and wearing a tailored jacket with riding jodhpurs.


When bicycling grew fashionable in the late-1800s, men usually wore knee-breeches or knickerbockers with a woollen or flannel shirt, jacket or comfortable sportsman’s jersey and special heelless shoes. Edwardian cyclists dressed in similar fashion but between the wars, with cycling now a mass activity, tailored shorts and open-necked sports shirts became acceptable. Meanwhile, competitive cycle racing required more streamlined gear than casual weekend clothing and body-hugging long-sleeved vests or jerseys became standard for cycle racing during the early-mid twentieth century, teamed with fitted shorts. The many female cyclists of the 1890s usually wore a tailored jacket, blouse and ankle-length skirt, while an unconventional few adopted masculine knickerbockers or ‘rationals’. A pioneer was 16-year old Tessie Reynolds, who in September 1893 rode a man’s racing bicycle from Brighton to London and back in 8 ½ hours, wearing cycling ‘rationals.’ Her father, R J Reynolds, was a Brighton bicycle agent/dealer, athletics coach and umpire for professional races, who encouraged his eleven children in cycling, fencing, boxing and other sports. Tessie’s impressive record-setting ride was reported in the Bicycling News yet was not officially recorded, as female achievements were not admissible. Meanwhile, Tessie’s radical cycling attire also attracted attention, her jacket and knickerbockers pattern lent to members of the Brighton Ladies’ Cycling Club who wore full cycling ‘rationals’ by 1894.


Modern lawn tennis was played from the mid-1870s, initially by the leisured classes. Early male players wore a loose white shirt and trousers or knickerbockers, the jacket worn at start of play soon removed. In the 1880s striped sports shirts or jerseys and white flannel trousers became popular, teamed with rubber-soled canvas shoes, and by the 1890s coloured flannel blazers were fashionable. Edwardian players usually wore white or cream flannel suits: only from the late-1920s were sports shirts accepted, shorts appearing even later, from the 1930s. Tennis was a conservative game and Victorian ladies played in fully-fashioned thick serge, flannel or jersey costumes shaped by corsets and bustles, and accessorised with hats. Professionals favoured pale or white garments and during the early-1900s a white blouse and ankle-length skirt became customary. After WW1, Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen popularised lightweight cotton frocks with short sleeves and during the late-1920s shorter hemlines evolved, followed by revolutionary divided skirts in the 1930s, which eventually inspired female shorts.


Gymnastic exercises were initially practised by men and boys but were also extended to girls and women. School gym wear was relatively liberating: Vera Britten remembered the long hot summer of 1911 in Testament of Youth (1935): ‘Only in the gymnasium class did our handicapped limbs acquire freedom…’ Edwardian schoolgirls usually took PE lessons in blouses and calf-length skirts, the knee-length tunic-like gymslip becoming popular after WW1, not only for PE and team games like hockey, but also crossing over into regular school uniform. Female teams first presented gymnastics demonstrations in the 1908 Olympics, British ladies wearing modest black blouses and knee-length skirts with black stockings. However the ‘Danish Dianas’ wowed audiences with their graceful movements and ‘charming’ long-sleeved cream blouse, knee-length divided skirts (culottes) and daring amber stockings. For some years blouses and culottes or knee-length dresses remained common for synchronised floor exercises, with shorts adopted for apparatus work in the 1920s. Men’s gymnastics have always featured in the Olympics, the first gymnasts wearing close-fitting long- or short-sleeved white vests with white knee-breeches and knee-length socks, or narrow trousers. Soon trousers came to predominate, usually worn with sleeveless vests by the 1920s.


From the mid-1800s onwards, men wore distinctive garments for athletic events, and by the 1870s a short-sleeved vest and slim-fitting knickerbockers were common for hurdle-racing and cross-country running, more recognisable athletics outfits evolving from the 1880s. By the 1896 Olympics most athletes wore a white round-necked vest with short sleeves and cotton knee-length drawers. Subsequently garments became briefer, liberating the limbs, a T-shirt-style vest remaining standard until the late-1930s, when a singlet and brief shorts became the norm. Unsurprisingly, women’s track and field events trailed well behind those for men. A few were introduced into the 1928 Olympics, early female athletes usually wearing a short-sleeved, round- or V-necked blouse with loose shorts. By the 1930s a sleeveless vest and shorter ‘knickers’ (shorts) had finally become acceptable. Past generations of athletes were not only sporting heroes but also bold pioneers of rational, modern dress.

Posted in History on Aug 01, 2016