I think it is pretty incredible that any vintage gymsuit exists. Talk to almost any woman who had to wear one and you’ll get a long list of what was wrong with the garment, starting with unflattering and ending with hideous. It seems to be a universally held memory by women over a certain age that the gymsuit was invented to lower self-esteem and inflict psychological pain.
One would think that on the last day of high school gym class there would have been mass ritual burnings of the garment. Why would anyone keep such a hated thing?
To be honest, I can’t remember what happened to mine. I graduated high school just as my sister started junior high, so it is possible that my mother made her wear it. Not that there could have been much life left in it after I’d been abusing it for six years. That’s right; I wore the same gymsuit for the entire six years of secondary school. This was back in the day when mothers bought clothes a bit big so the child would “grow into” them. Not that I grew much after age twelve.
But people did for one reason or another keep their old gymsuits. I have fourteen of them, the oldest dating to around 1865 – 1870. But until recently I did not have one that was similar to the one I wore in the late 1960s and early 70s. Above you can see the latest addition to my little collection.
Gymsuits can be hard to date, as the styles tended to be used over a long period of time. I was still wearing in 1973 the suit my parents bought in 1968. And it was really similar to ones I’ve seen from the 1940s and 50s. But there are a few things that told me this one was newer.
The button-down collar was the first hint. According to a 1962 Moore Gymwear catalog I have, a style that was introduced the previous year was very popular partly due to “a sophisticated Ivy League, button-down collar.” This suit was called the “Matadora”, and it is almost identical to my latest gymsuit even though mine was made by Champion.
In fact, my suit has every single one of the features shown in the diagram.
“Nylon and cotton elastic at waist for slender look”
“Button-down Ivy League Collar” and Snaps
“Princess Styling – Long Lines for Comfort” and “Tucks for Form Fit” This suit has it all!
As I said, this suit was made by Champion. The RN number is another big help in dating. The labeling law changed in 1959, and it is known that the first number under the new law was 13670. Since my number is 26094, I know the number was issued after 1959. There is an RN number database, but it is of limited use. For example, this number is now owned by Hanesbrands, which owns Champion.
I’m sure that this gymsuit was once white and that it has been dyed. You can’t really tell in my photo, but the label is also green. And the color is terribly uneven.
I love it when the original owner’s name is embroidered on the gymsuit, but I am so grateful my teachers did not have us do this. It would have severely limited our ability to borrow a suit from a neat friend on inspection day!
These come up for sale quite often on ebay and etsy, but I don’t know of anyone other than myself who collects them. They aren’t really “fashion”, but they are an important part of the shared history of women who came of age before the gymsuit was finally eliminated by most schools in the 1980s.