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The turn of the nineteenth century brought on a new cultural trend- Health.

 

Resorts such as the infamous Battle Creek Sanatorium were springing up around the country. They proposed a radical concept- healthy foods, diet and exercise were keys to curing disease and living longer.

 

Sport and exercise quickly became all the rage- even for women. Games and sports such as tennis, basketball, archery, croquet, cricket, skating, fencing and swimming swept the world. These activities became acceptable social interaction for young men and women. At the time, it was a growing belief that the best way to develop the minds of young people was to develop their bodies as well, that learning and athletics went hand and hand. In 1886 French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympic games.

 

For the first time in modern history women were encouraged out of their homes, away from their domestic life to take part in these new activities. This new era of sport and gaming triggered a cultural and societal change for women. It is proposed that the outlet gave them confidence and awakened a competitive spirit they'd been long forced to repress. But I think it was more than that. I think it was the first time girls saw themselves as equal to boys, and it set that generation of women on a path of expectations greater than any generation before them.

 

It was a starting point, which has allowed many of us, not just the chance of competing, but even greater opportunities of college and even professional athletic careers. While this was truly the beginning of women in athletics, it wasn't the only cultural impact sports has had on the modern era. Athletics brought on a significant change in the way women dressed.

 

Thank God! Because for centuries prior women were cloistered behind long gowns, veils, petticoats, girdles, corsets, stockings, and other contraptions meant to please the eye, but did little for the comfort or ease of the wearer. Clothing wasn't just a statement but a barrier to success for women. A barrier that sports helped to change.

 

While exercise and calisthenics were done alone, in private. Sports were played in public. Women needed to be able to run. To move. To swim. But there was literally nothing available for them to wear to compete. In fact, in the early 19th and 20th century many US cities had laws barring women from wearing trousers or other garments deemed 'male' or 'mannish'. Female fashion of the day was not designed for functionality but aesthetic. Women who stepped outside of that normal ideal were deemed to be 'cross dressing,' and, 'in disguise', and believe it or not, were often arrested under anti-vagrancy laws.

 

It took nearly a decade before a new style of clothing, called 'sportswear' was introduced to the general public. Sports separates like long skirts, blouses and bloomers allowed women to participate more freely in games, while wool, shoulder to ankle bathing dresses created proper modesty, finally allotting women the chance to publicly swim.

 

While these items might have allowed greater movement, they were cumbersome, heavy, and still worn with a corset. It wasn't until 1880 that the first short sleeve

double-suit for swimming was introduced. A gown from shoulder to knee with thick leggings that went from waist to knee or ankle.

 

Would you believe it was 1916 when Jantzen Sports introduced the first once piece fitted tank suit? Changing the name from bathing suit to swimming suit they were able to justify the more revealing suit as athletic. And finally, by 1920, women threw aside corsets, hats, gloves and long skirts while competing!

 

These innovations forever changed the way women dressed both on and off the sporting field, though it would be another fifty years before it was acceptable to be seen publicly in trousers, even on the tennis court. Still, progress was long fought, and women were not going back, but that did not stop some from trying. As late as 1974, Cincinnati, Ohio passed a law trying to stop women from 'cross dressing'- by wearing pants!

 

So, next time you put on your sweatpants, or your speedo remember those women who came before you, to borrow a phrase, we have come a long way baby!

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