Woman power, 1903

I did it again. Started writing and got caught up in a wonderful line of research. My heroine of the WIP in real life loved to play basketball. This started me looking for what she might have been wearing while she was playing, and I found treasures, treasures, treasures!

It’s easy when we imagine the past, especially women in the past, to think of only the preserved, public personae, the photographs and portraits in evening dress, or in the first decade of the twentieth century in the obligatory shirtwaist and skirt. But just as there is today, lives had so much more depth and variety. Women’s physical fitness was starting to gain momentum as the fashion for tightly corseted bodies started to wane.

The rise of a middle class didn’t hurt either; life was no longer so physically active for most women that the idea of exercise would have been superfluous. Physical education was introduced to schools as early as the 1820s, although it’s hard to find information about whether it applied to girls as well as boys. In fact, the very house I live in was previously part of the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts, which in 1823 was the first school in the U.S. to have a physical education program. It was a boys’ school.

Still, back to my original research topic: What did women wear for this exercise? Skimpy tennis outfits and silky basketball shorts were a long way off. Predictably, women’s exercise had to be as genteel as the women themselves. Exercise was fine, as long as they were covered. Of course, all this covering inhibited movement, but those women persisted. I, for one, am immensely impressed that they squared their shoulders and went for it, despite everything.

This begs the question of exactly which sports were deemed appropriate for women. Nothing that required women to go upside down and expose their legs, or that involved bodily contact—at least, not intentionally. That pretty much left tennis, golf, field hockey, ice skating, horseback riding, fencing, basketball—quite a lot, actually.

I’ve gathered a few photos here, but there are lots more on this site, which is linked to a book, Daughters of The Lost Century. I do not dare purchase this book only because I would probably spend weeks reading and enjoying it, and although women’s sports is an aspect of my current project, it’s not the central theme. I encourage you to take a look!

That site is where I discovered this extremely fun video that edits together images of women in sports and exercise with a rather contemporary sound track. Enjoy!

 

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