This post should have a subtitle. Maybe “Sometimes You Just Get Lucky.” Probably though, “It Pays to Be a Bookworm” is more appropriate. The truth is, unless I had read and reread my favorite book on women in sports, When the Girls Came Out to Play, by Patricia Campbell Warner, I would never have had an inkling of the purpose of this garment. As it was, it took me a while to actually figure out the purpose of this set, mainly because spotting it on Instagram was so unexpected.
The set has three pieces, and the seller, @vintageloftny, photographed the set with the blouse over the top of the skirt. That’s understandable, as there is elastic in the bottom of the blouse, and it makes sense that it would be on the outside of the skirt. However, something made me stop and visualize the blouse tucked into the waist of the skirt.
Once I saw the blouse in a different light, it rang a bell. The nautical details and the marine blue color pointed to a garment that was worn on the water. I ruled out sailing or yachting because I have been involved in studying issues of Harper’s Bazar from the 1860s through 1900. All the boating costumes shown (and there were a surprising lot of them) were styled in the current fashion, and were worn over a corset. The top two bodices are good examples.
My blouse does not follow the style of the late 1800s. Its loose fit pointed to a use in sports. I suspected it might be for rowing crew, and as good luck would have it, When the Girls Came Out to Play has a whole chapter on how Wellesley and other women’s colleges formed crew teams in the late 1870s.
Warner showed quite a few crew uniforms from the 1880s. Each class at the college had a crew team, all with their own special uniform. You might be surprised that the crew teams were not for racing. They were for performing musical spectacles for the public. This would explain why skirts were used instead of the bloomers the young women were accustomed to in gym class. Bloomers were not for public consumption.
Warner put forth the possibility that bloomers could have been worn underneath the skirts, but that there is no evidence of that. My set tends to say no, because it is complete with blouse, skirt, and belt. I would think that if these three pieces had been kept together for 135 years, if bloomers had existed, they would be present as well.
My set is made of the loveliest blue wool, and it appears to have been made by an expert dressmaker. All the tiny eyelets where the string fastens the blouse were made by hand. The white braid was laid on by hand.
Unmistakably nautical in design.
The skirt is also gathered and attached to the waistband by hand.
And the nicest surprise of all is the presence of a nice, deep pocket.
I have dated this piece as probably 1880 through 1886. After 1885 the crews began to turn from comfort to fashion, and most adapted a stylish corseted bodice. However, it’s not quite as silly at it sounds because these bodices were often made of jersey, which did afford a degree of comfort.
The blouse top did remain, however, and was used for gym class and other outdoor activities. I have read articles from the late 1800s that advised women hikers to wear a sports blouse. The page of Butterick patterns seen above is from 1889, and you can see that the puffed sleeve creeping in. My smooth capped sleeves are prior to that date.
I have long kept a list of older sportswear pieces that I would love to own, but a crew uniform was not on the list. I guess I thought that since they were such a specialized item, used for only a short time and in only a few places, it was doubtful one would ever turn up. But in the world of antique clothing, you just never know. Thanks so much to Mary Caroline of Vintage Loft NY.