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1881 Tennis Dress, Harper's Bazar

People became more interested in sports and physical activity in the mid 1800s. Along with an interest in sea bathing and gymnastics, sports and games began to appear at social occasions. Among these sports were shuttlecock (badminton), croquet, and skating. Later, women took up tennis, golf and bicycling. The big difference between these activities and those of swimming (in the early days, at least), gymnastics and basketball, was that these sports were played in social settings with both men and women present. For young, unmarried women, these were occasions in which to check out and attract the opposite sex. And so fashion took precedence over function. Looking pretty was more important than making the shot.

So, in the 19th century, women pretty much wore fashionable dress for sports. There were a few concessions, made partly due to safety concerns. Skating dresses were often several inches shorter than regular dress. Skirts were sometimes hiked by the use of buttons or by an "elevator," a mechanical device that lifted the skirt several inches, exposing the petticoats.


By the dawn of the 20th Century, special sports clothing was being developed for those wealthy enough to have the time for leisure pursuits.  Riding habits, swimsuits, bicycling ensembles, and tennis skirts were an important part of not only the  upper class wardrobe, but that of the middle class as well.

By the late 1910s, the word "sportswear" was being used not only for active sports clothing, but also for the clothing that would have been worn for "outings" or more casual outdoor activities.

In the years prior to WWI, knits became an important part of the sports wardrobe in the form of pullover and cardigan sweaters. But it was the Great War which brought about major change; women needed comfortable clothing in which they could move and drive and work throughout a long day. Chanel recognized this in Paris, resulting in her jersey knit dresses.

1919 New Idea pattern catalog

1930s Linen Nautical Themed Spectator Frock

During the 1920s leisure increased, and so did the demand for more casual clothing. More and more people had the time and money to golf, play tennis and take vacations. Many department stores had opened "Sports Shops" by the mid 1920s, in which tennis and golf dresses, riding clothing and even knicker ensembles for women were offered.

Increasingly, there was also "spectator" sportswear - casual clothing which was not for participating in a particular sport, but rather for watching.  These clothes were most appropriate for country wear, but were often dressy enough for town.  Some sportswear departments were even called "Town and Country" shops.

By the 1930s, the term "sportswear" had come to mean wear for casual occasions, not just clothing for active sports.  Fabrics were tailored and easy care - "tubable" instead of dry cleanable.  Cotton, in the form of chambray, shirting, pique, gingham, twill and increasingly as time progressed, denim, were used.  Washable linen was also popular, and for winter, tweeds, jersey, flannel, gabardine and Shetland wools were popular.

Women continued to experiment with wearing pants. By the mid-1920s, daring ladies were wearing "trunks" under their sports frocks. By the early 1930s they were called shorts. A garment called a playsuit, quite similar to the gymsuit, was a one piece shirt and shorts, and it came with a matching skirt that was removed for the beach or picnic, put back on for the return to town.

I'm afraid I can't say who came up with the idea for the playsuit, but I feel certain that it did not come from the swimsuit. In structure it is much more similar to the gymsuit. But I do know that it first appeared in the very early 30s.  It remained popular through the early 1960s, and in the mid 1970s made a brief reappearance.

1940s Romper Set.
The skirt covers the shorts beneath.

Early 1930s Beach Pyjamas

Slacks for women appeared in the 1920s, first in the boudoir and on the beach as pyjamas, but by the early 1930s they were worn for skiing, sailing and other leisure activities. Increasingly, pants and even men's style trousers, were seen in magazines on actress like Katherine Hepburn. By the late 30s, women were wearing slacks in movies.

But it took World War II to really turn American women into pants wearers. During the war, slacks or overalls were a necessity for women working in factories and farms. When the war was over, women continued wearing the practical and comfortable slacks for casual events and in leisure time.

A very important development during this time was the concept of co-ordinates, or separates. These were garments made from the same or matching fabrics that were bought one piece at a time to mix and match. Separates became very popular, partly because women found that with separates they could have more "looks" with less clothing.

Practical considerations were all important in sportswear.  For the first time, women's clothing began to have pockets.  Some designers took pockets to a whole new level, as in Vera Maxwell's travel jacket with plastic lined pockets, and Bonnie Cashin's skirts and coats that had snap-purse pockets.

By the 1940s, sportswear designers were beginning to gain recognition.  Claire McCardell was one of the first to make a name for herself, designing simple and easy to wear clothing.  Her "Pop-Over" dress, a wrap and tie kimono-style dress was made for years in dozens of different fabrics.

Many of the designers of the 1940s became known for their takes on exotic and ethnic wear.  Among there were Tina Leser, Louella Ballerino and Carolyn Schnurer. These designers scoured the post-WWII world for design inspiration. Bathing suits, sun dresses and other play clothes had an international appeal, but with American style comfort and ease.

A Tina Leser Swim Dress; there are little shorts beneath.

The growth of the movie industry led to Southern California becoming a vacation resort. Pictures of the stars in Palm Springs and lounging around their own pools combined with a climate that allowed year-round outdoors activities gave rise to a certain casual lifestyle image.

As a result, California became a center of sportswear manufacturing. Many of these firms, such as Catalina and Cole of California, got their start making swimsuits, and swimsuits remained an important part of the industry.  Other California sportswear names to remember are Addie Masters, Pat Premo, Agnes Barrett, Mabs, DeDe Johnson, Louella Ballerino, Alex Colman, Lanz and Koret of California.

Early 1950s design from Tom Brigance

These 1940s separates are from Lorch of Dallas

As the biggest clothing making center, New York City had dozens of designers and manufacturers who made primarily sportswear. The best known are probably McCardell and Cashin, along with Leser and Schnurer. Also important were Tom Brigance, Jeanne Campbell for Sportswhirl, Clare Potter, Dorothy Cox for McMullen, Vera Maxwell, BH Wragge, Emily Wilkins, David Crystal and Joset Walker.

Sportswear was not confined to the two major centers. There were great sportswear makers all over the country - Bill Atkinson at Glen of Michigan, Lorch of Dallas, White Stag, Jantzen and Pendleton (all in Oregon), and dozens of Hawaiian and Floridian makers.

By the 1960s sportswear was no longer a novelty.  Most Americans were dressing in an increasingly casual manner.  Today, the wearer of sportswear from the 1930s - 1950s would seem to be "dressed up" in many communities.  These clothes have stood the test of time and the casual wear from the mid 20th Century still has a freshness that makes it a delight to collect and wear.

Buxbaum, Gerda, ed, Icons of Fashion: The 20th Century.  Munich: Prestel, 1999.

Chambers, Bernice G., Color and Design, New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1942.

Chambers, Bernice G., Fashion Fundamentals. New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1947.

Kidwell, Claudia Brush, and Steele, ValerieMen and Women: Dressing the Part.  Washington:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Lee-Potter, Charlie,  Sportswear in Vogue Since 1910.  Abbeville Press:New York,1984.

Martin, Richard, American Ingenuity, Sportswear 1930s - 1970s. New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Roshco, Bernard, The Rag Race.  New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1963.

Warner, Patricia Campbell
When the Girls Came Out to Play. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

A mid-1920s man's sports sweater

To view vintage photos of people wearing sportswear, see my photo galleries:  Swimsuits, Hiking, Other Sports

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