Culture  /  Explainer

How Sports Clothes Became Fashion

The evolution of women's sportswear.

This was because, until very recently in the twentieth century, exercise itself was considered a controversial feminine activity. Women—especially if they were white and middle class—did not have designated sports clothes because they were not supposed to engage in sports of any kind. In fact, the most effective way of keeping women from playing was by showing that sports were not compatible with femininity, and certainly not with feminine attire.

While white middle-class women performing physical activity was seen by some as problematic, the late nineteenth century saw a new attention to athletics, mainly in the “Seven Sisters” college campuses of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, and Wellesley, which included sports as part of the curricula for their all-female students. There, students were actively encouraged not only to take exercise and gym lessons, but also to participate in competitive sports such as basketball, field hockey, and rowing.

As students searched for practical clothes that would allow increased mobility, the gym suit—a short loose dress or skirt (often without a corset) worn over a pair of bloomers—became the unofficial uniform for exercise. By the 1900s, as new styles came into the mainstream, popularized by the image of “The New Woman,” the suit was adapted to forego the dress in favor of a shirtwaist or a blouse and a pair of visible bloomers.

The gym suit was designed with comfort as its first priority and was meant to allow free movement to the woman who wore it. While no doubt bloomers, or trousers, allowed for a wide range of motion, especially during basketball games, they also conveyed feminist ideas regarding the liberation of women’s bodies. Bloomers had a long reputation as a radical outfit, ever since woman’s rights advocates adopted it in the 1850s as a symbol of their plight for equality. The inclusion of pants made the bloomer outfit associated with masculinity, which challenged not only the limitations placed on the female body in movement, but also ideas regarding gender hierarchies in society. However, the single-sex college environment, and the privacy of the gym, provided students with the freedoms to experiment with their sporting clothes without receiving too much censure.