OTI Online
spring 1998

How We Got Rid of the Bloody Corsets
by Anngel Delaney

1887, Wimbledon's Centre Court: England's Lottie Dod races from baseline to net. Lunging, she returns her opponent's serve and, in the process, marks her place in tennis history as the youngest ever player to win a Wimbledon title. Dod, 15 years old, overwhelmed her more senior, more experienced opponents, and stunned spectators when she used the overhead smash and volley - the first time such techniques were employed in women's tennis.

In between matches, Dod and her co-competitors retired to the dressing room to free themselves of their floor-length skirts and petticoats, peel off their stockings and unhitch their bloodied corsets. As they endeavored to twist, turn and lunge on the courts, the women were repeatedly stabbed by the metal and whalebone stays of these cumbersome garments, which encased them from tits to tush.

The corsets were so injurious that a special bar was installed above a stove in the locker room on which the contraptions could be hung to dry Pity the poor player who forgot to bring a change of outfit: she was forced to wrap her body in the blood stiffened garment for yet another match. Not surprisingly, in outfits such as these, the pace of women's tennis, even at Wimbledon, was only as fierce as fashion dictates allowed. Regardless of the players' athletic efforts or skills, competitive matches more often resembled sedate garden parties.

On The Issues Magazine - women basketball players took to the hardcourt in 1913
Sportive for the era, women basketball players took to the hardcourt in 1913 wearing bloomers, midi- blouses and tennis shoes. - From Spring 1998 issue

It's hard for today's female athlete, raised on technically engineered sportswear designed to maximize performance and comfort, to imagine that women competed in garments so restrictive and damaging, or that tennis was once quite literally a blood sport for women. As you work out on your gym's StairMaster wearing formfitting Lycra shorts, run a 5-K in shoes pumped full of "gel" or "air," or hike with equipment perfectly proportioned for a woman's frame, consider our grandmothers' or great-grandmothers' generations. Sportive women of those eras were obliged to play basketball in full-length frocks, ride horses sit ting dangerously sidesaddle, and trudge up mountains or through tropical rain forests wearing high-fashion bustles and boots. All these outfits were de rigueur for one's reputation, yet they were more suitable for drawing room teas than exploring the great outdoors.

Through the ages, adventurous and athletic women have had to struggle not only with the harsh elements and a variety of adversaries, but also their clothing. Yet they competed for Olympic medals and traversed unknown regions, simultaneously defying death and natural fibers. Despite sartorial limitations and the lack of such modern-day essentials as Gore-Tex, polypropylene, plastic or nylon, our sporting female predecessors still went off to explore "Darkest Africa" and climb hazardous mountain peaks. Mercifully, times and equipment have changed, but then so have perceptions about women and their bodies. The idealized female form was once fleshily full and thus the epitome of fecundity, which was considered a woman's most important characteristic. Today a woman's body is more likely to be toned. We are no longer urged to cover ourselves from head to toe for the sake of propriety and our oh, so precious reputations. On the contrary, females who participate in sports are encouraged to shed as much clothing as safety will allow.

These days, we wax lyrical and at length about the titanium in our bicycle components, the water-repellent qualities of our outer shells, and the ability of our undergarments to wick perspiration away from our bodies. Where women's sporting attire was formerly an athletic handicap, now - from our designed-for aquatic-speed swimsuits to our sports bras - a woman's active wear is meant to promote rather than hinder her performance and her prowess. From Lottie Dod's era, it took more than 50 years of play at Wimbledon before women felt they could appear on court sans those lethal corsets or with their legs bared. Mayl Sutton, an American, was I barred from Centre Court at Wimbledon in 1905 because her forearms were exposed and her tennis dress revealed a "flash of ankle." She lowered her hemline, lengthened her sleeves and returned to win the singles title that year. Finally, in 1933, American Alice Marble broke through the "no skin" barrier at Wimbledon by wearing shorts. She shocked the public and the press, but delighted other female players.

The decorous and often dangerous garb of these early competitors shows how pervasive a society's values can be in the face of good health and reason, to say nothing of the desire to win. Dress was intended to convey and reinforce severe Victorian standards of propriety - this was a time, after all, when one didn't dare to mention any human body part in polite society, and even the legs of pianos were hidden under "modesty skirts." Women were weighted down by gowns that contained as much as 20-30 yards of fabric and that were worn over an additional five to ten petticoats.

Ninteenth-century female fashion dictated ridiculously tiny 18-inch waists. Women laboring to breathe in their too-tight corsets suffered swooning attacks so frequently that special "fainting couches" were strategically placed for the purpose. Such fainting attacks helped reinforce the stereotype of a frail and helpless creature unsuited to the rigors of sport. The medical opinion of the day - that physical activity of the sporting kind would damage a woman's reproductive organs - also held sway

Yet despite all the social, moral and physical restrictions of the last century, a number of wealthy and adventurous women left their cloistered homes to literally explore the world. French countess Henriette d'Angeville was the first woman to climb 15,771 ft. Mont Blanc in 1838, and she did so wearing an ankle length skirt. Frightfully British and utterly proper Mary Kingsley, who explored west Africa in the 1890s, believed that one had no right to be seen there in clothes one would be ashamed to wear in public in England. As she traveled through parts of the continent few Europeans had ever ventured into she was daily bedecked in white blouses with high, ruffled, necklines and long sleeves, and heavy floor-length skirts of black serge-wool.

For Kingsley, maintaining correct standards rather than promoting comfort, was key. She also slept in her tall lace- up boots because when they were soaked, as they frequently were, they would shrink overnight and become unbearably tight.

We can snicker at the "there'll-always-be-an England" image she must have made, but Kingsley claimed her Victorian wardrobe once saved her life. Traipsing through the jungle on one occasion, she fell into a 15 ft. big-game trap, and her massive skirt and multiple petticoats saved her from being impaled on the 12-inch ebony spikes at the bottom of the pit. Lost to history, of course, is whether she fell into the trap in the first place because of her highly impractical outfit.

Historians have suggested that explorers and colonialists - and in those days they were often one and the same - clung to their European styles of dress, no matter how unsuitable they were for the climate or terrain, because the clothes were comforting in their familiarity as well as symbolic of foreign power in the newly subjugated states. Whatever the reasons, they must have been compelling to keep women like Kingsley swaddled by their fashions as they waded through leech filled swamps or rivers, often up to their necks in water, or hiked through the tropical sun. But perhaps it was simply misguided vanity.

Over the years, women athletes began to modify their dress when they encountered adverse physical conditions. American mountaineer Annie Peck, a fashion pioneer, bravely ditched her skirts, petticoats and corsets when she headed for Switzerland's Matterhom mountain in 1895. She climbed the 14,690 ft. peak wearing an outfit that was very liberated for the era: canvas knickerbockers, puttees - strips of cloth wrapped around the legs, a forerunner of women's leggings - heavy wool sweaters, a felt hat and a woolen ski mask.

As women explorers were circumnavigating the globe in the late nineteenth century, back home the bicycle was becoming popular. Said Susan B. Anthony: "Bicycles did more to emancipate women than anything else in the world." Unfortunately for women cyclists, the emancipation from cumbersome clothing was less than immediate. To make bike-riding less treacherous, elastic loops - the precursors of toe clips - were attached to the bottom of skirts so women could hoop them over their feet. Tiny lead weights were also sewn into hems to prevent the fabric from becoming entangled in gears and wheels. By the end of the century, vast bloomers became acceptable as a wiser choice.

As sports for women gradually became less restrictive, so too did women's lives. Female athletes not only modified dress codes for women, they also changed attitudes about what "the weaker sex" was capable of achieving. And gender politics was not far behind. Annie Peck combined mountaineering with feminist goals when she unfurled a "Votes For Women" banner on the summit of Mt. Coropuna in Peru. And while not every sportswoman has considered herself a feminist, the accomplishments of female athletes have made them empowering role models - women who have gone beyond the limits imposed by society.

On The Issues Magazine - Annie Peck conquered the Matterhorn in 1895
Annie Peck conquered the Matterhorn in 1895 in this mountain climbing outfit of her own design, a more liberating style than previously used. - From Spring 1998 issue

The abandonment of corsets and petticoats, the rise of hemlines, and the acceptance of pants for women all had their beginnings in costumes that began in women's sportswear. By 1926, British Vogue was proclaiming: "Sport has more to do than anything else with the evolution of the modern mode." Just as tennis outfits influenced styles on and off the court, so too did the sweater filter into mainstream fashion via golf The adoption of these new sporty styles called for a sporty figure to match. Zaftig women began to slim down, as legs and arms were bared and torsos newly outlined. The one-piece, revealing swimsuit replaced the sack-like, woolen bathing costumes of yesteryear.

Acceptance and even idealization of the athletic female body in the early part of this century led to what has been called the Golden Age of Sport. Women's swimming debuted at the Olympics in 1912. hi 1926 Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel and did it faster than any man. Five years later Aviator Phoebe Omlie won the first National Air Race between men and women. And in 1934 Babe Didrickson pitched a full inning against the Brooklyn Dodgers. (Over the years a handful of women have played in men's pro leagues, but never for very long.)

Post-WWII, as women became more competitive and serious about sporting pursuits, concerns arose that they were becoming "unladylike and masculine." A backlash occurred, with hysterical charges of lesbianism in sports. After all, went the claims, female athletes who exhibit tenacity, toughness and competitiveness are displaying specifically masculine characteristics. These fears of a new, threateningly "butch" woman athlete seemed to require sporting attire that was blatantly feminine. Women's sportswear was manufactured only in pastel colors, and tennis underpants were adorned with tiers of ruffles more suitable for the rear ends of real infants.

As part of this retrograde trend, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League added charm school to spring training, teaching players how to walk, sit and talk in a 'ladylike" manner. Team players were responsible for maintaining "feminine" propriety during competition, and fines were imposed on those who transgressed the strict rules regarding hair styles, dress and behavior off the field.

At the same time, athletic clothing and equipment improved drastically. Nylon, first developed in 1938 and used by the military in WWII, suddenly became the fabric of the moment in active wear. Lightweight nylon backpacks with aluminum frames replaced the poorly designed, heavy canvas and wooden models. As a result more women took up hiking.

In the 1950s and '60s, the female athlete temporarily took a backseat to the highly domestic image of June Cleaver and the shapely, yet not in shape, "ideal" body of Marilyn Monroe. Fashion reversed itself again a decade later. The sporting image became prized once again when the passage of Title IX in 1972 led to increasing numbers of women and girls participating in athletics. Within a few years, the "Me Generation" appeared and women joined men in taking up jogging, aerobics and Ming weights in search of the "body beautiful." Though more women became physically active, they lacked high-end sporting gear designed especially for their body sizes. Those who were serious about sports had no choice but to buy or borrow equipment and clothes that were designed for men. Looking like kids in their big brothers' cast-offs, they rolled up the overly long sleeves, swamped their torsos in male parkas and wore men's hiking shoes - which caused painful blistering because they were too wide in the heel, says Andrea Gabbard, a senior editor at Outdoor Retailer Magazine, who also tests and evaluates women's sporting gear for fitness magazines. (In fact, not until the late 1980s did hiking boots sized to women's feet become readily available.)

A decade ago, manufacturers finally took note of the ever increasing numbers of women participating in sports and began to develop specialized women's sportswear and equipment. Initially, this represented little more than paying lip service to form and ignoring function. The only real difference was a wider choice of colors, since the "new" garments were simply smaller versions of men's designs. The first sports bra was based on the idea of two jock straps sewn together, a fitting reflection perhaps, of how men viewed women's needs. And it wasn't until 1987, when 42 percent of all runners were female, that the first women's running shoe came on the market.

In the 1990's sports manufacturers began to invest time and money in developing designs based on a woman's physique. "In the last three years, women's lines have taken off," says Robyn Hall, design director for Columbia Sportswear. "We've sold twice as much as we anticipated." This is not surprising since, according to the U.S. Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, women now spend more money on sportswear than do men. Women's sports apparel accounts for 40 percent of purchases, compared to 36 percent for men and 24 percent for children. And women pay more per item than men do, reports Maria Stefan, executive director of the SGMA. This, of course, is not good news, but simple industry sexism, stemming from the same unwritten law that decrees a woman's dry-cleaning and haircuts must cost more than a man's.

Lottie Dod and Mary Kingsley might be scandalized by our modern sportswear, but they would also be a great deal safer and a lot more comfortable. Today's women know they can go the distance, and they are no longer held back by what they wear.


Anngel Delaney writes about sports when not participating in them. She is a recreational long-distance runner and cyclist.

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