Amelia Bloomer in her famous Freedom Costume
Courtesy of the Seneca Falls Historical Society
Quite unbelievably, our local schools start tomorrow. If I were still teaching I’d be terribly upset, but since I’m not I thought I’d add insult to injury and post an article I wrote several years ago. There’s nothing like a good gymsuit story to get one in the mood for Back-to-School.
Much is made of Mrs. Amelia Bloomer and her famous gathered pant ensemble. People are well aware of the existance of bicycle bloomers in the late 19th century. And most of us have seen how the bloomers beneath a bathing dress shrank into the shorts and tank of the modern swimsuit. But one garment that was very important in the emergence of women wearing pants is often over-looked. This garment is the gymsuit.
The gymnastics movement began in Germany, and newly arrived immigrants started the first gyms in the USA. These were primarily for men, but as early as the 1830 there are references to women doing gymnastic exercises. By the 1860s it was being suggested that women wear a “gymnastic dress” while exercising.
an 1860s gymdress, minus the overskirt
The gymnastic dress was similar to the Amelia Bloomer costume. It was made of a loose-fitting blouse, a fitted but loose waist, and a gathered skirt. The dress was worn shorter than fashionable dress of the time, but usually about six inches or so from the floor. There are lots of period photos and drawings of young women wearing this dress, and it is often mentioned in the literature of the time. By 1865 the exercise dress was often bloomers attached to a blouse, with a shorter skirt that was worn over the bloomers.
The origin of the gymsuit as we know it goes back to the women’s colleges that were being opened in the second half of the 19th century. Many of the colleges built gyms, as exercise was an important part of the schools’ programs. By the 1880s, the gymnastic dress was sometimes replaced by very full, long bloomers, actually more like a full divided skirt that had the appearance of a skirt. This was worn with a loose-fitting blouse.
a late Edwardian gymsuit
It was the advent of organized team sports, in particular, basketball, that banished the skirt from the gym. Basketball was invented in 1891, and by mid-decade the game was being played at most women’s colleges. The sport was just too vigorous to be played in so many bulky clothes, so the skirt went, and the bloomers were shortened to just below the knee. Still, if leaving the gym, the women had to wear a skirt over the bloomers. It was just not acceptable to be seen wearing pants. (A note: this is the reason women’s field hockey teams have always worn skirts. The game was played outside, and so a skirt must be worn.)
The early 20th century gymsuit was a big improvement over the dresses and skirts of the past, but there were still some major problems. The biggest one was the fabric. Gymsuits were being made from wool, a fabric that was heavy, hot and largely not washable. Also, the top often buttoned to the bloomers at the waist, which could gap open.
A big leap forward, in terms of comfort and hygiene, happened around 1910 with the introduction of the middy blouse as exercise wear. Sailor-type tops had long been favored as playwear for little boys and girls, and in the late 1800s had been seen in women’s reform dress. The middy was made from washable cotton duck, and could be paired with either short “sports skirts,” or knee-length knickers, which were also soon to be made from cotton.
At about the same time, the middy and bloomer combination became standard “uniforms” at a new institution – the summer camp. The first camps for girls were opened in 1902, and within a few years they were located throughout the eastern US. Because these camps were for girls only, the prohibition against wearing pants in public did not apply, and in photos of even the earliest camps you see girls and young women wearing bloomers. By the 1920s middies and bloomers were standard wear at camp. In a 1920 list of articles to bring to Camp Keystone near Brevard, NC, girls were instructed to bring 8 middies, 4 bloomers and a heavy sweater. Skirts were not mentioned at all.
The photo above was made at Camp Merry Meeting, circa 1925
So the younger sisters, and even daughters, of the pioneering college students who first wore bloomers on a regular basis spent their summers attired in the relative freedom of middies and bloomers. Before long, this “uniform” was pretty much standard schoolgirl attire, although middies were worn with skirts outside the gymnasium. The girls of the Teens became women in the Twenties and Thirties, and were the first generation of women to wear shorts and slacks in public. Not surprising, really.
As for the gymsuit, throughout the 1920s, the baggy knickers became less voluminous and shorter, and the middy became streamlined and lost its long sleeves and collar. In the early 1930s gymsuits were either a shirt and shorts romper-like garment, sometimes with a detachable skirt, or were a very short dress with matching pantie-bloomers, much like a tennis dress. The romper-skirt combination also became very popular for regular casual wear, and remained so into the 1950s.
My mother, who was in high school in the 1940s, wore the dress-bloomers type. She talked about how girls would roll the bloomers up very short, and then tuck in the hem of the skirt. I suppose this was similar to the girls in my 1970s gym class who rolled the legs of our romper suits as short as possible.
As late as the 1960s, women at co-ed colleges were required to wear a coat over their gymsuits when crossing campus. And in the early 1970s, my gym classes were still sex-segregated, though we often shared a field with the boys. This might help explain the rolled shorts legs.
In the 1940s/50s gymsuit above, notice the embroidered initials. Many schools required the owner to embroider her name or initials on the gym suit. This may have helped the teacher with identification and remembering names. But I can think of another reason the initials were required – to keep the girls from borrowing the suits from each other.
When I was in school in the 1960s and 1970s, there were strict rules about taking the suit home to be washed. The problem was that we refused to take the nasty old things and carry them to our lockers, and then to carry them home. So whenever word got around that gymsuits were to be inspected, there was a rash of suit borrowing from more fastidious classmates.
By the 1980s, gymsuits were becoming a garment of the past, largely replaced by shorts and tee shirts, and largely forgotten as the innovative garment that helped ease women into wearing pants.