Article by Rita Brown

OMEN HAVE PARTICIPATED in some form of sport for centuries, but it was not until the mid-19th century that they truly engaged in sports other than riding and swimming. The clothing worn for these various activities has evolved over time.

On early Greek vases we can see trouser-clad women riding astride, their garments serving as decorative features on these exqui­site pots and vessels. The Wife of Bath, as described in the Canterbury Tales at the end of the 14th century, sat cross-saddle on her horse wearing scarlet hose and spurs, while in the late 1420s Joan of Arc led her men into battle, clad in armour, and riding astride, like her French troops.

Both Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots were accomplished riders and als0 played golf. They managed to do this completely encased in typical Elizabethan garb of starched ruffs and fine lace. To protect their sumptuous garments, a type of skirt or apron was tied over the dress. Elizabeth’s inventory also included practical clothing such as skirts, doublets, and riding cloaks, which she wore while riding and hunting.
Before 1600, riding astride was common for all classes, but then it fell out of fashion and the accepted form for a lady was sidesaddle, mainly because voluminous garments severely restricted their movements. In modern times, it has only been since the late 19th and early 20th centuries that women have worn breeches and jodhpurs, and publicly ridden astride.

Riding habits, the first specific garments for women to participate in sport, were mentioned in contemporary writings, inventories, and personal diaries of the late 16th and 17th centuries. These habits were inspired by men’s coats or military jackets, often made in regimental colours and fashioned with the same sartorial elegance.

Samuel Pepys lamented in his diary of 12 June 1666, “I find the Ladies of Honour, dressed in their riding garbs, with coats and doublets with deep skirts, just for all the world like mine, and buttoned their doublets up the breast, with perriwigs and with hats; so that, only for a long petticoat dragging under their men’s coats, nobody could take them for women in any point whatever; which was an odde site and a site that did not please me.” Many of his contemporaries agreed with him.

Early portraits of the Duchesse de Bourgogne, by Pierre Gobert circa 1704, and of Frances Pierrepont, Countess of Mar, by Sir Godfrey Kneller circa 1715, show both women in riding dress. There is also a splendid portrait of Lady Worsley, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1779, wearing a stylish red habit, in the mode of her husband’s regiment, complemented with a black-plumed hat.

Following the constant movement of fashion, the riding habit of the 18th century and the “Tailor-Made” or “Tailleur” of the late 19th century evolved through the 20th century to become the power suit of the 1980s. As the “Tailor-Made” often crossed over into the sporting wardrobe, other garments of the late 20th century—track pants, T-shirts, and baseball caps, to name but a few—have become part of the everyday wardrobe.

During the reign of Henry VIII, real tennis, the foundation of modern lawn tennis, was played at Hampton Court Palace just a few miles from the world’s most prestigious courts at Wimbledon, where from 1874 onwards it gained international significance. In the 1870s and 80s, women played tennis in confining bustle dresses with little practical consideration, except perhaps for a tennis apron, often embroidered with small racquets and tennis balls, with long pockets to hold the balls.

It was not until the 1920s that the modern woman demanded the simple outfits worn by the French tennis star Suzanne Lenglen. Both her on- and off-court clothing was designed by Jean Patou, a Parisian designer. His simple, pleated frocks were often embellished with Art Deco motifs as well as his own initials as a logo. Lenglen also made the wearing of a simple bandeau and a mannish cardigan the “ne plus ultra.” By the 1940s and 50s, women on tennis courts everywhere were wearing shorts, sometimes covered by a skirt, as part of their costume, changed little in today’s game except perhaps in briefer versions.

Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel, a contemporary and rival of Patou, borrowed men’s fashions and made them her own. She is said to be the first designer of women’s sportswear in the sense of it being casual dress. Besides her simple jersey jackets and skirts, Chanel also popularized the suntan and beach pyjamas.

The earliest bathing costumes were simple, long, white cotton or linen shifts, evolving in the 19th century into the typical Victorian, heavy, woollen serge bloomers and dress, often in navy blue or red, with sailor collars, trimmed with white braid and nautical motifs, worn with black stockings. Train travel had made excursions to the seaside affordable for most people, if only for the day off. The cumbersome costumes of the 19th century gave way to the sleeveless and backless swimsuits of the 1920s in bright colours, often with stripes, consisting of a pair of thigh-length trunks attached to the tunic at the waist. Swimwear was also influenced by the Art Deco movement, so often seen in the stylish resort posters of the 1920s and 30s promoting the sunny coasts of Britain, France, and North America. Later, the bikini made its appearance, in the mid-1940s.

In 1851, the American social reformer Amelia Bloomer had advocated the wearing of trousers as a practical garment for women.

This did not catch on as a fashion, and it was not until the 1880s, with the advent of the bicycle, the true emancipator of women, that the “bloomer” was worn by the daring “New Woman” or the “Advanced Woman” for this specific activity of cycling.

From the mid-19th century, we see from fashion plates, paintings, and later in photographs, that the day-to-day fashions of each period were also being worn for sporting activities. Dresses were adapted or modified for a certain sport, the skirts shortened to just above the ankle, often with the help of dress elevators, making the playing of croquet and tennis much less encumbered and facilitating ice skating and roller skating, which were a craze at the end of the 19th century. Women showed their petticoats and just a glimpse of stocking promenading at the seaside. The shortened skirt seemed to be the only concession to the wearer at the time, since the upper half of the woman’s body was still constricted by tightly laced corsets and fitted bodices. Eventually, with the need for a complete range of motion in most sporting activities, “bloomers” and bifurcated skirts became acceptable dress not only for cycling, riding, and the playing field, but they also crept into the clothing being worn on a daily basis.

Other factors, including women’s suffrage, rational dress, and World Wars I and II, also greatly influenced the changes in female apparel. Women had to take on the jobs that men had left behind, and their clothes reflected this. The second half of the 19th century saw informal clothing in the form of the “Tailor-Made,” a practical skirt and jacket over a blouse which could be worn for work in an office, for travel, or for leisure activities such as walking, rambling, and hiking, as well as more sporting activities.

In the 20th century, more women participated in the newer sports of baseball and basketball. Field hockey and ice hockey became the rage, particularly in North America, as did figure skating, with indoor arenas springing up everywhere. Skiing, gymnastics, and fitness programs also found popularity and today, of course, soccer. Most of these sports were taught throughout the century in schools and spilled over into daily life. These activities called for appropriate garb for the individual and uniforms for team sport, which manufacturers readily supplied, with new fabrics continually appearing to reach the maximum comfort for a complete range of motion in this specialist clothing.

Excerpted from Spring/Summer 2013 Ornamentum. Click here to subscribe.

Rita Brown, retired Senior Cutter for women’s costume at the Shaw Festival Theatre, is writing a book on the history of women’s sportswear.

French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen,
1920 Bibliothèque nationale de France Dressed for golf,
early 1900s Agence de presse Meurisse Courtesy of Golf Canada