Sport and fashion

As a celebration of all things sporty, we at RBKC libraries have cast an eye over Chelsea’s fashion collection and found a few sportswear gems from the past that we thought we would share…

Long before the days of lycra and spandex, ladies wore the height of fashion to cycle: this keen 1820’s cyclist (on a Pilentium, or early tricycle), wore a long-skirted white dress and tall bonnet trimmed with flowers (difficult to imagine Victoria Pendleton’s Olympic record of 200m in 10.724 seconds  in this get up):

"A Pilentum" or "Lady's accelerator", 1820
“A Pilentum” or “Lady’s accelerator”, 1820, from “English Costume for Sports and Outdoor Recreation” by Phillis Cunnington and Alan Mansfield

Judging by a 1978 illustration, men’s  and women’s cycling fashion was a little uncomfortable: a tight, military-style jacket for men with a little pillbox hat, and “the really smart wearer of this outfit carried a bugle to warn pedestrians of his approach” (from “Costumes & Fashion” by James Laver). Bradley Wiggins, take note!

Male and female cycling costume, 1878-80
Male and female cycling costume, 1878-80, from “Costumes and Fashion” by James Laver

Swimming next, and a poster of strapping young Agnes Beckwith (note the illustrations on the poster which show her many feats, including swimming with hands and feet tied, walking the water, and rescuing drowning men).

Agnes Beckwith
Agnes Beckwith, from “The Swimsuit” by Sarah Kennedy

While not an Olympian, Agnes Beckwith fought with British authorities to allow women to wear less cumbersome and restrictive garments in the water, although the 1870’s outfit she wears above still looks uncomfortable and heavy to our eyes. Below is a picture of three winners from the 1912 Women’s 100-metre freestyle Olympic swimming championship – their outfits, now knitted by new swimsuit company Speedo, look very different from those sported some forty years before. But strangely, not that dissimilar to those worn now? (Have a look at this blog post picture).

1912 Women's 100-metre freestyle Olympic swimming championship
1912 Women’s 100-metre freestyle Olympic swimming championship, from “The Swimsuit” by Sarah Kennedy

A great little booklet from Chelsea’s store called “The Story of Women’s Tennis Fashion”, by Ted Tinling, is an intimate 27-page look at women’s tennis attire from the 1870s to the 1970s. Women players wore corsets, painful and restricting (blood stains were regularly seen on women players’ “stays” in the dressing rooms), until 1925 when Suzanne Leglan wore a  simple (and daring) one-piece cotton frock, without a petticoat or coset in sight:

Suzanne Lenglen Wimbledon 1925
Suzanne Lenglen Wimbledon 1925, from “The story of Women’s Tennis Fashion”, by Ted Tinling

Stockings were discarded in 1929, and by 1939 tennis fashion became recognisably sportier and maybe a little more masculine:

Alice Marble and Kay Stammers, 1939
Alice Marble and Kay Stammers, 1939, from “The story of Women’s Tennis Fashion” by Ted Tinling

In 1949, it was decreed that tennis-wear must be all-white, but an edge of coloured lace around Gussie Moran’s panties was a nifty way around this rule:

Gussie Moran, 1949
Gussie Moran, 1949, from “The story of Women’s Tennis Fashion” by Ted Tinling

As was Lea Pericoli’s little petticoat and frilly panties…

Lea Pericoli, 1955
Lea Pericoli, 1955, from “The story of Women’s Tennis Fashion” by Ted Tinling

Of course, sportswear now is created with all the advantages of new fabrics and technologies, with celebrity designers lining up to dress our athletes from swimmers to basketball players to triple jumpers.  After this weekend’s triumphs, we can’t say it’s done them any harm!

The books from which these pictures and facts were drawn are all available in Chelsea’s costume collection:

  • Cunnington, Phillis, and Alan Mansfield, English Costune for Sports and Outdoor Recreation, London, (A. and C. Black Limited) 1969
  • Kennedy, Sarah, The Swimsuit, London, (Carlton Books Limited) 2007
  • Laver, James, Costume and Fashion, London, (Thames and Hudson Ltd) 1969
  • Tinling, Ted, The Story of Women’s Tennis Fashion, The Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, (Wimbledon) 1977
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