The Advent of American Sportswear

1881 Tennis Dress, Harper’s Bazar

Today I have an up-dated version of what was originally a workshop for members and visitors at the Vintage Fashion Guild.   I later put it on my website, but I get the feeling that the poor neglected site isn’t of much use to people.

Until the mid 1800s, for most people in the US were not concerned with getting exercise.   People led active lives where their work provided enough physical activity.  But the Industrial Revolution changed all that.  In changing from rural to urban lives, people became more stationary.  As a result there was an increased level of diseases that are associated with a lack of exercise, such as heart disease.

In Europe the idea of gymnastics had taken hold, and this idea spread to the States through European immigration.   Gymnastic clubs formed, and schools started programs of physical fitness for both boys and girls.   At the same time there was an increased interested in the healthfulness of sea bathing.   Special clothing was developed for both gymnastics and for bathing.

Along with  sea bathing and gymnastics, sports and games began to appear at social occasions.   Among these sports were shuttlecock (badminton), croquet, and skating. Later, women took up tennis, golf, and bicycling.  The big difference between these activities and those of bathing (in the early days, at least), gymnastics and basketball, was that these sports were played in social settings with both men and women present.   For young, unmarried women these were occasions in which to check out and attract the opposite sex.  And so fashion took precedence over function.  Looking pretty was more important than making the shot.

So, in the 19th century women pretty much wore fashionable dress for sports.  There were a few concessions made partly due to safety concerns.  Skating dresses were often several inches shorter than regular dress.  Skirts were sometimes hiked by the use of buttons or by an “elevator,” a mechanical device that lifted the skirt several inches, exposing the petticoats.

1919 New Idea Quarterly pattern catalog

By the dawn of the 20th century, special sports clothing was being developed for those wealthy enough to have the time for leisure pursuits.  Riding habits, swimsuits, gymnastic suits, bicycling ensembles, and tennis skirts were an important part of not only the  upper class wardrobe, but that of the growing middle class as well.

By the late 1910s, the word sportswear was being used not only for active sports clothing, but also for the clothing that would have been worn for “outings,” or more casual outdoor activities.

In the years prior to WWI, knits became an important part of the sports wardrobe in the form of pullover and cardigan sweaters.  But it was the Great War which brought about major change.  Women needed comfortable clothing in which they could move and drive and work throughout a long day.  Chanel recognized this in Paris, resulting in her jersey knit dresses.  Even more radical, some women working on farms and factories began wearing overall pants or long bloomers in which to do their work.

From a 1917 Delineator, courtesy of Susan Grote

During the 1920s leisure increased and so did the demand for more casual clothing.  More and more people had the time and money to golf, play tennis, and take vacations.  Many department stores had opened sports shops by the mid 1920s, in which tennis and golf dresses, riding clothing, and even knicker ensembles for women were offered.

Increasingly, there was also “spectator” sportswear – casual clothing which was not for participating in a particular sport, but rather for watching.  These clothes were most appropriate for country wear, but were often dressy enough for town.  Some sportswear departments were even called “Town and Country” shops.

By the 1930s, the term sportswear had come to mean wear for casual occasions, not just clothing for active sports.  Fabrics were tailored and easy care – “tubable” instead of dry cleanable.  Cotton, in the form of chambray, shirting, pique, gingham, twill, and denim were used.  Washable linen was also widely favored, and for winter tweeds, jersey, flannel, gabardine, and Shetland wools were popular.

Tomorrow I’ll continue the story with how pants began creeping into women’s wardrobes.


Filed under Proper Clothing, Sportswear

6 responses to “The Advent of American Sportswear

  1. To read more:

    Buxbaum, Gerda, ed, Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century. Munich: Prestel, 1999.

    Chambers, Bernice G., Color and Design, New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1942.

    Chambers, Bernice G., Fashion Fundamentals. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1947.

    Kidwell, Claudia Brush, and Steele, Valerie, Men and Women: Dressing the Part. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

    Lee-Potter, Charlie, Sportswear in Vogue Since 1910. Abbeville Press:New York,1984.

    Martin, Richard, American Ingenuity, Sportswear 1930s – 1970s. New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Roshco, Bernard, The Rag Race. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1963.

    Warner, Patricia Campbell When the Girls Came Out to Play. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.


  2. Thanks for sharing this Lizzie. It’s fascinating to learn about and see how sportswear (and women!) became less constrained over time. 🙂


  3. Thank you so much for following my blog-I am sooo happy to find this page! We def need to share resources! Following you on FB too…this is beyond awesome 🙂


  4. Wow it is brilliant to see how women’s sportswear has evolved over the centuries, brilliant and fascinating read. Thank you!


  5. Pingback: White Stag and a Bit of Vintage Serendipity | The Vintage Traveler

  6. Pingback: The Colors of Summer: Red, White, and Blue | The Vintage Traveler

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