Clio in Motion
On the Move: How Sports Clothes Became Fashion?

On the Move: How Sports Clothes Became Fashion?

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox

Even if you are not a gym rat or a sport enthusiast, it is almost impossible today to escape the influence of sports fashion on our lives. From the running track to the runway, both mainstream companies, like Nike and Adidas, and newer brands, like Lululemon, Athleta, and Hoka, have taken over our closets. These brands not only promise to provide us with comfortable clothing that will enhance our performance while doing sports, but even more so, they offer clothes that can also be worn for the lunch meeting we have after our workout.

Like in all other realms of fashion, women are the main target audience of sports clothes marketing. Yet, if today activewear is a multi-billion-dollar industry whose presence and influence goes beyond just clothing for sports, the evolution of athletic wear for women in the U.S. had much more humble beginnings. Although prior to the twentieth century society abided by a much stricter code of appearance in which outfits were designated according to specific activities and occasions, sporting clothes did not exist as a separate category for womenswear. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, when women first began to engage seriously in physical activity, they often had to improvise their own versions of sporting outfits.

This was because, until very recently in the twentieth century, exercise itself was considered a controversial feminine activity. Women—especially if they were white and middle class—did not have designated sports clothes because they were not supposed to engage in sports of any kind. In fact, the most effective way of keeping women from playing was by showing that sports were not compatible with femininity, and certainly not with feminine attire.

While white middle-class women performing physical activity was seen by some as problematic, the late nineteenth century saw a new attention to athletics, mainly in the “Seven Sisters” college campuses of Smith, Mount Holyoke, Vassar, and Wellesley, which included sports as part of the curricula for their all-female students. There, students were actively encouraged not only to take exercise and gym lessons, but also to participate in competitive sports such as basketball, field hockey, and rowing.

As students searched for practical clothes that would allow increased mobility, the gym suit—a short loose dress or skirt (often without a corset) worn over a pair of bloomers—became the unofficial uniform for exercise. By the 1900s, as new styles came into the mainstream, popularized by the image of “The New Woman,” the suit was adapted to forego the dress in favor of a shirtwaist or a blouse and a pair of visible bloomers.

Drawing of a woman wearing bloomers.
Amelia Bloomer wears her own design. (Lily, September 1851, public domain)

The gym suit was designed with comfort as its first priority and was meant to allow free movement to the woman who wore it. While no doubt bloomers, or trousers, allowed for a wide range of motion, especially during basketball games, they also conveyed feminist ideas regarding the liberation of women’s bodies. Bloomers had a long reputation as a radical outfit, ever since woman’s rights advocates adopted it in the 1850s as a symbol of their plight for equality. The inclusion of pants made the bloomer outfit associated with masculinity, which challenged not only the limitations placed on the female body in movement, but also ideas regarding gender hierarchies in society. However, the single-sex college environment, and the privacy of the gym, provided students with the freedoms to experiment with their sporting clothes without receiving too much censure.

The problem of women wearing supposedly “masculine” sport attire became more acute when women began to exercise in public. Cycling, tennis, golf, and baseball offered more challenges to women who sought comfortable sartorial solutions to bodies in movement. Just like today, with athleisure wear blurring the lines between sporting clothes and fashionable outfits, the social pressure to maintain a feminine appearance in these settings often exceeded considerations of comfort and mobility. Women needed their clothes to adhere to gender norms of beauty and respectability, especially if these clothes were worn in public. Allowing freedom of movement was a central consideration for sport clothing, but looking pretty in them was no less important.

Costumes for cycling, which became a public craze among women in the 1890s, threaded a particularly fine line between fashion and mobility by popularizing the bifurcated or short skirt as a more feminine alternative to bloomers. As Constance Astor Choate, the fashion reporter for American Woman magazine observed, “New York women, the women who set the fashion for American women riders, wear skirts that are reasonably short; some reach to the ankle, some stop just below the knee, but the majority stop just below the tops of high laced cycling boots, which is just below the swell of the calf of the leg. . . The bloomer style of dress skirts is practically unknown.”[1]

Drawing of a tall, thin woman carrying a golf club over one shoulder.
A “Gibson girl.” (Charles Dana Gibson, “School Days,” Scribner’s Magazine, November 1899, public domain)

Social etiquette also dictated the wearing of corsets, even for strenuous sports like tennis and golf. The popularization of a more athletic ideal in the early twentieth century, embodied in the figure of the Gibson Girl, contributed to the loosening of corsets and adapting them to more vigorous activities. But as long as they remained a staple of women’s fashion, corsets were never abandoned completely. Skirts hemlines also began to lift in the early twentieth century—again to facilitate movement—but they too continued to adhere to a strict notion of feminine beauty; pants and other masculine elements were strictly discouraged.

Yet, as more women began to adopt a more mobile and active lifestyle—whether through work or education—the fashions they adopted for their sporting activities also entered the mainstream and everyday wear. The short bicycle skirt, for example, offered a practical solution with appeal even off wheel and popularized shorter hemlines for women’s skirts. And by the 1920s, knee-length tennis skirts worn by players like Suzanne Lenglen at Wimbledon, popularized the style for the fashionable flapper. Designed by the haute couturier Jean Patou, Lenglen’s outfit was, according to Vogue, the “correct and chic [sport costume] on the court and after the game.”[2]

A photograph of a woman jumping to hit a tennis ball.
Suzanne Langlen at Wimbledon, Le Miroir des sports, July 8, 1920. (Public domain)

This symbiosis between sporting clothes and leisure wear came to fruition by the 1930s, when “sportswear”–a new category for women’s clothing– entered the lexicon. Despite its name, however, sportswear fashions were not clothes that were meant for sports, but a codename for casual design grounded in comfort, versatility, and accessibility. Often comprised of knits, dresses, suits, and separates, the style heralded the independent, on-the-go woman and was connected to ideas of patriotism and Americanism. Indeed, sportswear became a staple of what Lord & Taylor President Dorothy Shaver coined as the “American Look,” seeing it as the epitome of the modern American woman.

Whereas the sportswear style of the 1930s and 1940s derived its inspiration from athletics, mostly through the popularizations of leggings, leotards, and ballet flats as everyday wear, the style didn’t really offer solutions for sporting clothes. As social taboos still discouraged women from engaging in sports, sportswear’s emphasis remained not on freeing the body but on adhering to gender norms. The industry might have pushed for more casual wear, but it stopped short of offering women practical clothes for their sporting activities. Like in the nineteenth century, women who engaged in competitive athletics needed to be creative when finding their own solutions. Well into the 1970s, and despite the growing influence of the feminist movement, sports clothes for women were still an untapped market.

A case in point is the sports bra, the brainchild of three women from New Jersey who designed the prototype after not finding a suitable bra to wear while running. Patented as the “Jogbra” in 1977, it was made out of jock straps sewn together to provide support for the breasts. Although at first retailers were skeptical about the idea, women lined up to buy the invention, embracing practicality – and enhanced freedom of movement – into their wardrobe.

Yet, even as the market realized the economic potential of sporting clothes for women, the category never abandoned its more fashionable considerations. Reluctant to fully embrace the idea of the athletic woman, the fashion industry continued to favor feminine appearance over comfort. Just like sportswear style in the 1930s, casual everyday wear today might espouse practicality, but it is not meant to facilitate women’s participation in strenuous activities. Indeed, terming it “athleisure wear,” rather than sports- or athleticwear, alludes to the industry’s real intentions. Athleisure wear provides women more excuse to buy clothes to look fabulous in, not solutions for their athletic needs.

As women continue to set new records in sports and break into new fields, we might also see more attention from fashion brands to the actual needs of their bodies in motion. Maybe, like in menswear, sporting clothes for women would finally abandon considerations of beauty and put comfort and athleticism at the center. But if history can serve us any lesson, we might never be able to disconnect comfort from beauty, or practicality from fashion. And maybe, as women continue to look for sartorial solutions to their sporting needs, we shouldn’t.


[1] Constance Astor Choate, “Paris and New York Fashions,” American Woman, August 1897, 11

[2] “Suzanne Lenglen Shows how to Dress for Tennis,” Vogue (December 1, 1926), 64-5

Featured image caption: Smith College class of 1902 basketball team dressed in gym suits. (Public domain image)

Einav Rabinovitch-Fox teaches U.S and women’s and gender history at Case Western Reserve University. She writes about the intersections between culture, politics, and modernity. Her book, Her recent book, Dressed for Freedom: The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism (University of Illinois Press, 2021) explores women’s political uses of clothing and appearance to promote feminist agendas during the long 20th century.

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