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When the Girls Came Out to Play

When the Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth Of American Sportswear

Patricia Campbell Warner
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    When the Girls Came Out to Play
    Book Description:

    A study of the evolution of American women’s clothing, When the Girls Came Out to Play traces the history of modern sportswear as a universal style that broke down traditional gender roles. Patricia Warner shows how this profound cultural shift, which did not reach fruition until World War II, originated during the previous century with the gradual expansion of socially acceptable physical activity for women. Behind this development was a growing interest in sports and exercise that was further nurtured by the establishment of schools of higher education for women.The participation of women in athletic pursuits previously reserved for men began with the relatively genteel sports of croquet and tennis. With the founding of women’s colleges, these “ladylike” games were supplemented by more vigorous activities and competitive team sports, from gymnastics to swimming to basketball. At first, Warner points out, women literally had nothing to wear for these activities. Whereas such fashionable attire as corsets, petticoats, hats, and gloves could be worn while playing outdoor lawn games, more strenuous athletic endeavors required less physically restrictive clothing. Even so, change came only gradually, as women’s colleges, shielded from public scrutiny and prying male eyes, permitted the adoption of looser, more comfortable apparel for physical education. Many of these new outfits featured trousers, garments considered taboo for women, though they often remained hidden beneath voluminous skirts. Over time, however, the practicality and versatility of such clothing led to social acceptance, laying the foundation for the emergence of the now ubiquitous yet distinctly American style known as sportswear. Although we take it for granted, Warner observes, this is the first time in the history of the world that such universality has existed in clothing, and it has lasted now for well over half a century—in itself a marvel, considering the speed of fashion change in an era of instant messages and images.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-173-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xxii)

      (pp. 3-10)

      This book is about the origins of American sportswear, the most important clothing of the twentieth century and beyond. It is comfortable, easy, inexpensive, practical, and wearable by both men and women. It is undeniably American, yet it is worn by most people all over the world. We take it for granted. Yet this is the first time that such universality has existed in clothing, and it has lasted now for well over a half century—in itself a marvel, considering the speed of fashion change in this era of instant messages and images. Its pieces for women are readily...

      (pp. 11-23)

      As with most movements that revolutionize a nation, the impulses that led to the sports craze of the nineteenth century came from many different sources rather than developing in a clear, linear fashion. As for the clothing that was deemed suitable for the new activities, we have seen that there were decided societal reasons for it to remain closely tied in style and form to the fashions of the period. The clothes themselves, as all clothes do, sprang from the circumstances and the mood of the time and reflected the dominant cultural environment, so it is to those we must...

    • CHAPTER TWO WOMEN MOVE Out-of-Doors Croquet and Skating
      (pp. 24-42)

      A widely admired fashion theory states that many societal shifts are introduced by the upper classes and “trickle down” to those lesser mortals striving to rise to their level. To complete the cycle, when the fashion leaders see what they have wrought they hastily abandon it and move on to the next great enthusiasm.¹ Time and again, writers have claimed the truth of this when speaking of croquet, tennis, bicycling, even baseball. By and large, they claim, these pastimes were borrowed from English games and played, as no one would question, by the British upper classes. But a look at...

      (pp. 43-60)

      The first real sport for women to emerge following the craze for croquet was lawn tennis. Court tennis, orjeu de paume, as the French called it, had been a sport of kings. Akin to handball, it was played on a walled court, both indoors and out, from the misty depths of the medieval period. By the sixteenth century, players used a rudimentary racquet instead of their bare hands.¹ Henry VIII of England, who had a tennis court at Hampton Court, was an accomplished player—“it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play,” reported a foreign...

    • CHAPTER FOUR BATHING AND Swimming Seeking a “Sensible Costume”
      (pp. 61-83)

      The outdoor lawn games of croquet and tennis nudged women into a new awareness of the need for more suitable clothing for sport. In spite of this, sporting dress for both activities remained firmly within the boundaries of the conventional. Other kinds of leisure activity enjoyed at the same time, however, forced thinking—and clothing—in new directions. Even more influential in bringing about change was the popularity of swimming and bathing. And the clothing for bathing had much further to go. James Laver, the keen-eyed and witty observer of clothing and its role in society, once wrote that “the...

    • CHAPTER FIVE WOMEN ENTER THE Olympics A Sleeker Swimsuit
      (pp. 84-103)

      So far we have looked at the long, slow growth of women’s involvement in sporting activities. Clothes certainly played their part. But nowhere is their influence more evident than in the Olympic Games. And nowhere else can we see quite so clearly the position of women at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, no matter what the trends of the previous half century might suggest. Anyone living today within reach of TV knows how important new developments in textile and clothing designs are for the success of athletes competing in the Games. We saw...

      (pp. 104-138)

      On the surface of it, because of its single -minded if slow drive to free the female body, clothing for swimming offered the greatest change in women’s dress worn in public. As the early Olympic experiences show, however, the underlying demands of modesty—the need to cover limbs and the constancy of skirts prevailed even in that realm until the second decade of the twentieth century. Even then, although they were created for the specific purpose of competition, the streamlined new suits stirred up disquietude, ambivalence, and a certain amount of embarrassment. The task of that clothing was not easy....


      (pp. 141-148)

      In Part One we saw the rise of various outdoor games, sports, and pastimes that became popular in the nineteenth century. The clothing that women wore for them was, as we have seen, simply the fashion of the day, suitable for mixed company. A few minor modifications allowed for the physical demands, if any, of the activities. If women got into trouble over the clothing they chose to wear, it was generally because they overstepped the limits of acceptability. Invariably, the difficulties arose when they wanted to wear trousers, as with the bicycle bloomer. Throughout the entire nineteenth century, men...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN TROUSER Wearing Early Influences
      (pp. 149-157)

      Trouser wearing in the West was a jealously guarded male prerogative and remained so for over five hundred years. Over the centuries, women adapted many styles and items of clothing from the men of their time, everything from doublets and ruffs, to Cavalier beaver hats, to redingotes and spencers, to starched collars, ties, boaters, and bowlers—even high heels. But the one thing they could not touch, it seemed, was any kind of bifurcated garment, or trousers. As we have seen, each time women appeared in public wearing them, they were ridiculed to such an extent that they just gave...

      (pp. 158-176)

      As the fascination for the Oriental underwent a change with the onset of Romanticism, the simplicity in women’s dress that had characterized the more carefree and lusty Empire and Regency periods eroded, to be finally lost in the 1820s. With its passing, the concept of freedom of movement in women’s clothing disappeared too. Instead, serious corsetry took the place of the emphatic cantilevering of the bosom that had sufficed in the years of the high waist, while new layers of underskirts began to shape the fuller skirts that were to continue to expand in size over the next half century....

    • CHAPTER NINE INNOVATION AT Wellesley A Uniform for Crew
      (pp. 177-195)

      The years between Dio Lewis’sNew Gymnasticsand Senda Berenson’s introduction of basketball for women in the early 1890s saw a continuation of the interest in sporting activities and exercise. They also witnessed a slowly growing acceptance of the notion of women’s higher education. Schools for women, some of them connected to existing men’s colleges (Barnard and Columbia, Radcliffe and Harvard, Sophie Newcomb and Tulane) and founded during the last thirty or so years of the nineteenth century, offered girls an education supposedly comparable to their brothers’. Most of the schools appeared in the 1880s and later, and all of...

      (pp. 196-226)

      Out of the enduring interest in gymnastics and sports came the inevitable need for leaner, more sensible clothing for women who wanted to participate. While the Dio Lewis costume described in chapter 8 remained a staple for over a quarter of a century, it bowed to greater pressure when “boring” calisthenics finally gave way to challenging and competitive team sports, mainly in women’s colleges in the 1890s. The first indoor team sport for women, basketball, devised by Senda Berenson at Smith College and based on the men’s game, demanded a newer kind of clothing, a uniform style of dress that...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN TAKING EXERCISE CLOTHES TO New Places Women Biologists at Woods Hole
      (pp. 227-241)

      By the 1890s, the seeds of change in women’s dress had been planted. Inevitably, they came from outside the world of fashion. The dress reformers who elected to wear the “rational dress” at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893 argued that the sight of many women attired in the revolutionary costumes would go far towards convincing a frankly skeptical nation that simplified clothing was preferable to the fashionwear of the day.¹ They readily admitted that the reform dress on single individuals would be “almost sure to be condemned as ugly at first sight,” just as the original bloomers were, even...

    • CHAPTER TWELVE THE MERGING OF Public and Private Sportswear and the American Style
      (pp. 242-248)

      The women biologists at Woods Hole cannot have been alone in taking the physical education clothing they had worn as students out of the gymnasium and wearing it for activities that demanded more common sense than fashion in dress. The impetus that inspired them to adopt it for their collecting was likely the same one that made the middy-bloomer combination the uniform of schoolgirls everywhere by the late teens and 1920s: it was tough, hard-wearing, easy and comfortable, even if somewhat bulky. Further, it signified a certain youthful air, and a casual but reasonable rejection of the social proprieties that...

  7. NOTES
    (pp. 249-278)
  8. INDEX
    (pp. 279-292)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-294)