Victorian Exercise Dress and Edwardian Gymsuit

I was recently able to purchase fourteen pieces of vintage sportswear.  The family of a  long-time collector of historical dress was selling her collection due to illness.  They hired a person to inventory the collection, who contacted me.  From the inventory I was able to reserve some pieces I was interested in, which was a good thing because they soon found a buyer for the entire collection, minus the fourteen pieces they promised to sell to me.

Sometimes photos can really be misleading, especially if you think you know what you are seeing.  The person doing the inventory tagged this as a 1900 gymdress, and from the photo she sent to me, I was inclined to agree.  So I was really surprised when it arrived, I put it on the form to photograph it, and realized that the bloomer legs were much longer than the just below the knee length common during Edwardian times.

To test the proportions, I tried the suit on myself (quite scratchy..can’t imaging actually exercising in this!).  It was then that I noticed how dropped the shoulder line is. And the bloomers came almost to my ankles.  I’m short, but the fit and proportions were correct.  After consulting several people who know much more about Victorian clothing than I, the conclusion was reached that this probably dates to around 1865 – 1870.  That makes this a very early exercise dress!

Unfortunately, there would have been a skirt, probably 6 to 8 inches shorter than the bloomers, that the wearer would button over the bloomers.  I’m afraid they were separated long ago.  And the waist was enlarged, with a waistband of different fabric inserted.  The gold braid is original.  Could it be college or class colors, as this was most likely worn by a college girl?   Sometimes I wish these old clothes could talk!

Another of the pieces I bought is this circa 1910 gymsuit.  At first glance it looks a lot like the 1870 one, but many improvements were made in the 40 years between them.  This one is made from cotton, and it is much shorter and less bulky.  The short sleeves and the looser neckline provide so much more comfort to the wearer.  The collector seemed to think this came from U.C Berkeley, but she could not say why she thought that.

The buttons at the neckline come undone, and there are a series of snaps obscured by the belt.  The gymnast would just step in and button up.

This photo was taken in 1912 in Riverside, California.  The woman is probably holding an exercise wand, a weighted stick that the exerciser would wave around to strengthen the arms.


Posted by KeLLy Ann:

The second one is just so, …righteous!
I love it.

Friday, October 29th 2010 @ 8:11 PM

Posted by Jan:

So much fabric! I can’t imagine actually exercising in them but they are fabulous nonetheless 🙂

Saturday, October 30th 2010 @ 5:04 PM

Posted by Em:

Utterly amazing!

Saturday, October 30th 2010 @ 6:59 PM

Posted by Lisa:

The second one looks too fancy to be used for exercise – such cute details! As always, I love the fashion history that you provide. I learn so much from your posts.

Sunday, October 31st 2010 @ 5:54 AM

Posted by Sarsaparilla:

Oh my! What fabulous finds! I would think that this 1865-70 exercise dress must be one of the few surviving examples.
I would have loved to see you modeling it! Too bad so scratchy – it would make a fun Halloween outfit.
– Susan

Sunday, October 31st 2010 @ 6:21 AM

Posted by Amanda:

That woman with the exercise wand is scary – reminds me of a school nurse I once had who scared the bejesus out of me!

Tuesday, November 2nd 2010 @ 3:29 PM

Posted by Lizzie:

I’m glad you all found these to be interesting. It is amazing what used to pass as “Comfortable.”Amanda, maybe she was the gym teacher and the wand was used not on the arms, but one the students!

Thursday, November 4th 2010 @ 6:38 AM

Posted by Ingrid:

Love this post. I used to wear my Mother’s 40s wool hockey tunic as a jumper when I was in high school in the early 70s.

Saturday, November 13th 2010 @ 12:56 PM


Filed under Collecting, Proper Clothing, Sportswear, Vintage Clothing

2 responses to “Victorian Exercise Dress and Edwardian Gymsuit

  1. Great post! Would you mind if I used your pictures and linked back to your site? I’m doing up a post on turn of the century exercise wear. You have such awesome examples!



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