You might have noticed over the past two weeks that I’ve made repeated references to one book, When the Girls Came Out to Play, by Patricia Campbell Warner. I actually surprised myself because I was sure I had reviewed this book years ago, but a look back into the archives showed that I merely recommended the book back in 2006 when it was released.
The book is an outgrowth of Warner’s doctoral dissertation , but it does not read like an academic journal. It was written in an easy to follow narrative style, but it is also richly annotated with end notes. This is really my favorite kind of book – one that reads like a conversation with a very knowledgeable friend.
Reading the book for the first time was like a revelation. Even though I’d been studying fashion history for a long time, there were no scholarly studies on the progression of American sportswear. Through Warner’s research, I was able to fill in a lot of gaps in my own knowledge and thinking about the subject.
One of the big ideas in the study is that starting in the Nineteenth Century there were two separate trends in sports attire for women. There were clothes that were appropriate for public wearing, such as tennis dresses, bathing suits and bicycling ensembles. In these areas, women were mixed with men and were expected to follow the rules of proper dress.
The other trend was clothing for a more private environment, especially that of the woman’s college. In places where women were not mixing with men, they were freer to don less feminine garments like bloomer gym suits.
Eventually the two different sports clothing strands began to merge. Women who had worn bloomers at summer camp or college were used to wearing the pants, so to speak. It was an easy leap to wearing knickers for outings and beach pyjamas at home and at the shore.
Over the years I’ve repeatedly referred to this book, and I see it as the foundation of my own studies of sportswear. As with any study there are always new things to be discovered, and there is still a lot to be learned about how women became pants wearers. It is a fascinating topic, with all kinds of historical and social strands of learning.
When the Girls Came Out to Play can be purchased quite inexpensively from Amazon, but the great news is that it can be read free online in the pdf form. Either way, this is a must read for those interested in the development of sportswear for women in America.