What will the athletes be wearing at the forthcoming Olympic games? This seems to have created a lot of interest in the case of the womens beach volleyball teams. This reminded me of an image I once saw in a book of some nineteenth century female holidaymakers. They were riding camels across the desert in front of the Pyramids – wearing full bustles, hats and corsets.
As the social status of women began to improve towards the end of the nineteenth century, the scope of their activities expanded. Leisure time increased and sports and travel became popular. There was no such thing as “sportswear” at the time. However, women began to develop more practical clothing so that they could engage in some of these new activities. The white suit pictured below shows the type of simple and practical garment which would have been worn for playing tennis in the 1890s.
A hat would have been worn, probably a straw boater, and some kind of blouse beneath. It was thought that white was a more practical colour as it would not show perspiration stains so easily as darker shades.
The jacket does not fit this particular mannequin very well but you can see the tailored shape of the jacket. The skirt is around ankle length, to allow the wearer to run around a tennis court more easily.
The idea of women wearing trousers was unimaginable at the time. Fifty years earlier, in the 1850s Amelia Bloomer had proposed loose “Turkish trousers” as clothing for women. Initially this idea was met with ridicule. However, by the 1890s the idea of bloomers became a little more acceptable, worn especially for riding bicycles.
Although it was more socially acceptable to wear trousers, many women still opted to cycle in skirts, as is the woman in this advertisement for a bicycle retailer from 1909. The advert also lampoons the large hats fashionable in the 1900s. We have a lovely surviving pair of cycling breeches from this period in the Calderdale collections. They are extra special for us because the buttons say that they were made by a Halifax firm.
Another leisure activity which developed around this time for the lucky few who were able to afford it was motoring. Cars were an expensive luxury item. Motoring in an open topped vehicle called for a whole new wardrobe to protect car passengers from cold wind, dust and dirt.
This coat, known as a “duster coat”, from around 1910, has survived in fantastic condition. It is one of a number of items which were used by the wardrobe department of a local theatre group for many years and donated to the museum in the 1960s.
Although it is now in slightly sad condition, this motoring coat is another interesting survival. It was made by the “automobile tailors”, Alfred Dunhill and Sons of London in about 1911.
In keeping with the dramatic social and fashionable changes which had occured between 1911 and the 1930s, the next examples of sportswear which we have in the collection are very different. We have several tennis dresses dating to the 1930s.
The mother of the donor wore them in the 1930s to play at Birdcliffe Tennis Club in Hebden Bridge. They are all made from a beautiful white silk fabric, each with details in the design to differentiate them from one another. In the above example you can see the elegant rounded collar and trimming of three black buttons on the neckline. The design seems incredibly revealing contrasted with the 1890s tennis outfit!
By the 1930s it was also socially acceptable to play tennis with a bare head. Whilst the first women to play tennis at Wimbledon wore full skirts and hats, in 1922 Suzanne Lenglen caused a stir by appearing in a calf length skirt with short sleeves.
This dressmaking pattern given away with Roma’s Pictorial in August 1932, encourages readers to “run up” this tennis dress for only four shillings.
The design is much more practical than some of the clothing worn for sporting activities earlier in the century. The sleeveless bodice would allow for plenty of freedom of movement, the calf length skirt is both fashionable and practical. The light cotton fabric would keep the wearer cool on the tennis court.
There is a big difference between the outfits of the 1890s and the 1930s. Both are drastically different to the sportswear of today. But I don’t think there is much difference in contemporary reactions to the first short sleeves at Wimbledon or the skimpiness of modern beach volleyball outfits.