The inconveniences didn't stop them. Though tortured by whalebone stays in their corsets and collars, they displayed their bodies and ruined their reputations. When the craze for women's athletics began about a century ago, their sportswear was comical, painfully uncomfortable, even dangerous. But women were determined to participate in sports, from swimming to mountain climbing, from hunting to golf.
Social conventions made access to some sports particularly difficult. Queen Victoria, for instance, went to extremes to preserve her modesty when she took her first plunge into the ocean, in 1847. Her husband, Prince Albert, had designed a bathing machine—a curtained wagon with five steps leading down into the sea—for their holidays on the Isle of Wight, but Victoria agreed to try the contraption only after Albert guaranteed she could not be seen while in the water. Once inside, the Queen changed into her bathing gear, a full-length swimming costume that was complete with mitts, booties and cap. When Her Majesty signaled she was ready, the house and its occupant were trundled into the sea while a band played God Save the Queen. Victoria even went so far as to immerse her head in the water. She noted in her diary: "I thought it delightful till I put my head under water, when I thought I should be stifled."
Considering the incredible outfits that women had to wear to swim, it is no wonder that bathing machines were popular in the mid-19th century. "Bathing dresses" were long, loose flannel gowns that fastened around the neck with string and were about as practical for swimming as modern hospital gowns. At best, they wrapped around and entangled the bather's legs, clinging to her silhoutte like a wet T-shirt. At worst, they escaped from the wearer altogether and naughtily floated to the water's surface.
Some Victorian bathing machines were hauled to the water's edge by winches powered by donkeys. Ladders enabled the bathers to step into the sea. Other machines extended from the beach like piers and were equipped with "modesty hoods," large canopies that shielded bathers from curious eyes. Timid swimmers could hire "dippers," middle-aged women who soothingly coaxed their charges into the unfamiliar sea. Men and women were supposed to bathe in different areas; the dippers were also useful in shooing away the inevitable Peeping Toms.
While women hid in their bathing machines, men swam in the nude. The practice extended through the turn of the century at fashionable Newport, R.I., where, at exclusive Bailey's Beach, a $3,000 membership fee bought a cabana and the privilege of taking a plunge with the "swellest of the swells." At nearby Easton's Beach, which was a public beach, women were requested to leave by noon so that the men could swim in the buff. It is rumored that sales of binoculars and telescopes were brisk at seaside resorts. Women even had specially designed fans with hidden spyglasses attached.
In the latter part of the 19th century, women's bathing costumes were made of wool and had built-in corsets, sleeved tunics and full-length drawers covered by a short skirt. Swimmers also wore rubber-soled bathing boots that laced up the leg, similar in design to what professional wrestlers use today. Dips were carefully timed; in so much waterlogged gear, it was easier to sink than swim.
Women mountain climbers of the 1860s had to scale cliffs while wearing skirts measuring 15 feet or more in circumference, which were supported by petticoats made of steel hoops. Hidden tapes and secret buttons enabled the wearer to raise her skirts an inch or two, but if a man was seen in the distance, she instantly had to hide her sexy ankles and shoes. Women's feet were considered so alluring that photographers of the time often deleted them from prints.
Mountain climbing in voluminous skirts was not only demanding, it was also death defying. Strong gusts of wind could lift petticoats and bodies right off the mountainside. Wags suggested that with a bit of luck the hoops would act as parachutes and gently float their wearers to safety.
Equestriennes of the 1870s squeezed into bodices so tight that they appeared to have been poured into their riding habits, a look achieved by tightly laced corsets believed necessary for back support. It wasn't unusual for a woman to button the top portion of her garment after she got on the horse. The fit was so snug that seams occasionally burst as the rider dismounted.
No rider could rival the riding garb of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who was proud of her slender figure. The empress's waistline was only 16 inches, the size of a man's neck. To keep it, she followed a starvation diet of violet sherbet, oranges and meat juice, weighed herself obsessively and worked out in a gym with rings and dumbbells, and on a balance beam. When it was time to go riding, Her Imperial Highness showed off her figure by having her habit sewed onto her—that was after her servants had stretched a chamois undergarment over her body and stitched it on as well. The dressing process took three hours. Despite her tight clothing, the empress astonished onlookers with dangerous feats and circus stunts as she rode, sidesaddle.
The restrictive bodices of the 1870s were no easier for tennis players. Not only did women have to drag bustles of horsehair or cotton padding around the court, but the whalebone inserts in their corsets often dug into their upper bodies, leaving them bloody. Reaching shots presented a problem—the long sleeves of the tennis garments were confining, even in the less competitive game of that time.
Women golfers of the late 1880s and early 1890s coped with a different handicap—the rage for tight, stiff collars two to four inches high. There was one advantage to this fashion. The "absolutely unbendable aluminum-plated watchspring steel collar supports," as they were described in a German magazine advertisement, helped to keep the golfer's head motionless as she made her swing. After swinging, it was difficult for her to turn her head to follow the ball's trajectory. She was also left with the 19th-century version of that embarrassing ring-around-the-collar. When she donned a low-cut gown for the evening, no amount of rice powder could mask the bright-red chafing mark on the golfer's neck. The tight collars also impeded circulation.
By 1885 it had become socially acceptable for women to join in hunting expeditions. But as women trekked through forest, field or jungle, their skirts collected mud, dust and grass stains, even when hems were shortened several inches and trimmed with leather hem guards. Also, the heavy materials used for women's clothing and undergarments often weighed more than 20 pounds and were exhausting to walk around in.
"Fast" women such as Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress known as the Divine Sarah, dared to wear breeches when they went riding or shooting. The Divine Sarah couldn't resist making a grand entrance for her "crocodile hunt" at Charles Bell's plantation outside Lake Charles, La., in the 1890s. With her inimitable flair, she appeared in an enormous muff and a sealskin coat, a white suede jacket, a large hat embellished with pheasant feathers, and high-heeled boots. Knowing full well that a crocodile hunt was futile in Louisiana, Bell thoughtfully arranged for a baby alligator to be placed in one of his lakes. When the hunt proved unsuccessful, one of the gardeners presented Bernhardt with the alligator on a leash.
She promptly had it shipped back to France to join the rest of her menagerie, which over the years had included a monkey named Darwin, a cheetah, a chameleon and an alligator named Ali-Gaga (which allegedly died of an overdose of champagne). Unfortunately, upon its arrival, Bernhardt's newest pet gobbled up one of the actress's tiny Manchester terriers. This time there was a real hunt, by Sarah's secretary, who shot and killed the alligator. No costume required.
Special attire was necessary, however, when cycling became the rage in the 1890s. Ready or not, Victorian society finally had to come to terms with women wearing "rational" garments, a euphemism for items such as divided skirts. Prudes who were offended by the very thought of women astride any object were decidedly unready for these innovations. Women even played croquet with the mallet held at an awkward 45-degree angle from the body, since bringing a stick between the legs was considered immoral. (After all, women had no "legs" in polite society. Those two appendages were considered indiscretions of human anatomy.) Whipped up to an irrational frenzy, the anticyclists inveighed against women's newfound freedom on wheels. They argued that cycling was unladylike and harmful to beauty. Those female cyclists who did venture out on the roads were advised to carry menthol cones to stroke across their foreheads to soothe their frazzled nerves.
In the meantime, cyclists—both men and women—were having a wonderful time, and enthusiasm for the sport was infectious. On weekends tens of thousands poured into the fashionable cycling spots: New York's Central Park, London's Battersea Park and Paris's Bois de Boulogne. At first, women cyclists wore skirts that measured three yards around the hem. These tended to snag on the bikes, but that was of less concern than the grave risk of exposing the legs when lifting the knees while pedaling. Some cyclists weighted their skirts with small pieces of lead; others attached loops of elastic to their hems and fastened them around their legs. There was also a vogue for roomy, divided skirts and short capes. Once the rider dismounted, she could remove the cape from her shoulders and button it around her waist to hide her vulgar garb. Bloomers or knickerbockers, which were introduced about this time, became the reasonable solution. Critics, though, continued to resist the idea of women wearing anything other than a skirt.
Bloomers and knickerbockers should have provided women with a practical and comfortable sporting outfit. Unfortunately there was another trial to endure: Dr. Jaeger's Sanitary Woolen System. Gustav Jaeger, a professor of zoology at Stuttgart University, somehow persuaded the public that only wool would keep the body at its natural temperature. It was felt that garments made with cotton or linen could induce colds, flu and worse. Even a manufacturer's small linen label in an all-wool garment might lead to a sore throat, claimed Jaeger, since the linen would sop up perspiration and cause a chill.
So women (and men) donned all-wool outergarments and Jaeger's sanitary woolen undergarments for tennis, walking and cycling. Summer weather found innumerable Jaegerites swooning from heat exhaustion. A victim was, naturally, covered with woolen blankets to prevent chills.
Even Lillian Russell, the darling of American music halls, who was famed for her opulent hourglass figure, became caught up in cycling. She hid her "not very good legs" under the ample skirts of her stunning white cycling suit when she rode her $1,900 gold-plated bicycle, a gift from Diamond Jim Brady. Diamond chips and other jewels sparkled in the bicycle's spokes and hubs, and its handlebars were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The bike came equipped with its own plush-lined leather case. Diamond Jim often accompanied Russell on bicycle rides in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on his own lavish model. He also owned a "triplet," which accommodated Brady on the front seat, a lady in the middle and a groom in the rear to do most of the pedaling.
As a result of the persistence and dedication of sportswomen during the 19th century, women today can slip into nylon running shorts or Lycra bathing suits without creating a scandal. The garments of the past may evoke laughter, even derision, but not for the women who wore them. They participated and competed in sports despite physical discomfort and social opposition. To them, the lure of athletic activity was irresistible. As the ranks of women athletes grew, so did an idea that is taken for granted today: What is worn at play is now as compatible with the sport as it is with the prevailing sense of style. Form and function are in balance at last.
Wendy Lebing teaches the history of fashion at Temple University's Ambler, Pa., campus.