Sporting fashion in the last two centuries has developed to allow women to don clothes designed to meet the technical demands of athletic play. As interest in female sporting competition increased, the hindrances of formal wear were brushed away.
Amelia Bloomer, nineteenth century women’s rights activist and advocate for reform in female dress, championed baggy knickerbockers (or ‘bloomers’) in the 1850s for use primarily in cycling. Wearers of these loose-fitting trousers were ridiculed by the media for their progressive stance, inciting early examples of the comedic phrase ‘she wears the trousers’.
Blanche d’Antigny (1840-74) and her Velocipede by Betinet, (19th century); Musee de l’Ile de France, Sceaux, France
Until the early twentieth century, female tennis players exclusively wore long skirts and restrictive clothing. Look at the outfit of Hélène Prévost, silver medal winner at the 1900 Paris Olympic Games, and note her ankle-length skirt, tight-sleeved blouse and hat.
Hélene Prévost won the silver medal of tennis women’s singles at the Paris Olympic Games in 1900
In 1922, however, revolution came in Suzanne Lenglen’s short-skirted appearance at Wimbledon. Lenglen became one of the first international female sports celebrities, revered as La Divine by the French press.
Suzanne Lenglen, New York, 1926; Private Collection; Prismatic Pictures
The Goddess paved the way for a coup against impractical demands on female athletes to dress conservatively, and in 1932 American tennis player Alice Marble began to wear shorts in major championships.
Trousers began to gain acceptance in female sports wear in the mid nineteen-thirties in sports such as golf, but not until the late sixties and early seventies was this progression in athletic wear mimicked in casual everyday dress. Short skirts and shorts were denied multi-purpose use in women’s style by a similar period of delay, and it seems that reform in female dress required practical justification before it could become acceptable.