Imagine if the sport of pickleball had gained popularity during the Victorian era instead of today. In that bygone era, there would have been a meticulously prescribed attire for the game. However, in our modern times, we ladies simply throw on whatever is clean and comfortable before heading to the park to play. The concept of women engaging in sporting and outdoor leisure activities was quite new in the 1800s, and etiquette experts grappled with determining acceptable attire. Opinions on this matter would evolve rapidly, allowing women to embrace outdoor sports in unprecedented ways. It must have been an exciting time for women!
My particular fascination lies in exploring the evolution of women’s presence in public spaces during the 19th century. Now that I’m enjoying more outdoor sports myself, thanks to the cooperative weather in Denver, I decided to delve into the socially acceptable attire for other activities of that era, such as tennis, croquet, and boating.
We’ve previously discussed women, sports, and clothing on the blog. If you’re interested in learning more, check out these related posts:
- Edwardian Motoring Fashions
- How the Bicycle Craze Swept the Nation
- Victorian Riding Habits: More Than Meets the Eye
- The Victorian Home Workout
Tennis, credited to Major Walter Wingfield in 1873, was initially a sport from which women were discouraged, for obvious reasons. It seemed to make them too independent in public, required physical exertion in front of others, and the attire of the time was hardly suited for chasing a ball.
However, attitudes towards women and tennis quickly changed. In 1882, The Lawn Tennis Guide strongly encouraged women to embrace the sport, saying:
“Seriously, we must think this matter over. What is to be the future of tennis if a champion or quiet player cannot last more than three seasons at anything more difficult than baby-play? Is the game then so severe and its expectations so stern that few sturdy women can stand its test? One sees weak, small, ill-muscled men strive to grow stout of limb and broad of chest at tennis; what is the reason women must be denied its benefits?”
As with other sports, women soon flocked to tennis courts. In the early years, they played in their everyday attire. However, this would change, and a specialized uniform with loose shoulders and waist would be adopted. These changes might not be immediately noticeable to the untrained eye.
By the turn of the century, the tennis uniform underwent a complete transformation. “Athletics & Out-Door Sports For Women,” published in 1903, described tennis ensembles as follows:
“When it comes to costume, looseness is the first and most important detail. The waist should not fit too tightly, particularly around the elbows and shoulders. The skirt should be short and stiff enough not to hinder movement or bend excessively around the knees during strokes or running. Shoes should fit snugly, and many players prefer low canvas slippers with rubber soles for comfort. Even in summer, wearing thick stockings is advisable to protect the toes from shoes.”
Croquet predates both boating and tennis as a Victorian outdoor pastime, arriving in England in the 1850s with mysterious origins. At first, society was more concerned with women’s conduct while playing croquet, but this focus gradually diminished. In fact, by the 1870s, “The Art of Dressing Well” addressed croquet attire extensively. Some notable advice included:
- Dresses should be tight-fitting, without sacque or shawl, to allow free arm movement, essential for skill and grace in the game.
- Skirts should be short, reaching to the boot, as they are highly visible during the game.
- Bright colors and lightweight materials are preferred, as croquet is typically a warm-weather activity.
- The croquet dress should complement the vibrant surroundings.
The idea of dressing to harmonize with one’s surroundings was particularly appealing.
Boating attire during the Victorian era was designed for various on-water activities, including canoeing, yachting, and cruising. An 1878 edition of “What to Wear and How to Make It” recommended:
- “Coaching” costumes allowed for bright colors, contrasting vest and coat, and flamboyant hats with plumes, flowers, and colorful cravats.
- The neckline of the dress should be high, and sleeves should be long, with gauntlet gloves.
- Linen was recommended for lingerie instead of lace for practicality.
The most crucial aspect of a boating outfit was that it should be shorter than everyday wear, as evidenced in accompanying images.
Women’s participation in sports and outdoor activities gradually gained acceptance during the 19th century. Although restrictive foundation garments like corsets and bustles were retained, the requirements for sporting attire relaxed. By the early 20th century, sportswear for women had evolved significantly, reflecting the changing roles and expectations of women in society.
If you’d like me to explore any other sports or activities from the past, please let me know in the comments. And if you enjoyed this post, please share it with others.
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