As the gradual emancipation of women took place in the last 2 centuries, the number of women involved in sports, but also the sports clothes they wear, somehow changed. There are incomparably more women who play sports today than there were just a century ago. A slight change in the role of women in society, which came with the progress of civilization and the fight for gender equality, contributed a lot to this. Today, many women are engaged in sports professionally, but also recreationally… because the need for a healthy life, stress reduction, but also to look as beautiful as possible, drives women to choose some sports activity, which they will enjoy in their free time.
As all these changes happened, somehow fashion, inevitable when it comes to women, followed this progress at the same pace.
In the 19th century, women’s sportswear was mostly influenced by the most popular sports of the time, which included shooting, horse riding and hunting. Even for sports like tennis, women wore long, corseted dresses, boots and hats. There was an opinion that only exercise needed for women was simply getting fresh air – therefore, there was no need to have special clothing. As well as this, women had “decency codes” to follow, so as not to dress too suggestively, as well as restrictions that they couldn’t dress like men. It was seen as indecent, also, for women to wear trousers in the 19th Century. Therefore, most women in sports wore hats in order to remain feminine, however, this did impact their sports performance. The only women who could play sports back then were the rich ones.
In the early 20th century women were still not believed to be very competitive in sports, so their sportswear was more fashionable than practical. This meant that much of the clothing restricted movement to varying degrees, and some sports became extremely difficult for women. Clothing items such as skirts and blouses were quite common, and it’s not hard to see why a skirt might impede movement. In the 1920s, tennis player Suzanne Lenglen began to wear shorter skirts and removed the hat whilst playing. Functionality was becoming more important, and following both world wars, synthetic materials became more popular, which meant clothing could be made faster and cheaper. Hollywood and celebrity fashion around this time also evolved to incorporate shorter skirts and bare legs. Clothing became less structured and allowed more movement, and women began to compete in a wider range of active sports. This also meant that much of the aesthetic qualities of older generation clothing fell away as functionality became more important.
In the late 20th century women began to wear what was comfortable and appropriate to the sports they were participating in, and embraced the freedom to wear what was most practical. Due to the now mainstream synthetic materials, sportswear tended to be more fitted, and showed off more of the body. However, sexism was rife within sports and women still faced backlash for the way they dressed, or how much of their bodies they showed off. However, towards the 1980s and 1990s, women’s sports uniforms became “sexier”, and emphasis was on hugging their curves and showing off their bodies. It became less about women’s comfort whilst taking part in their sport and more about aesthetics.
A lot has changed regarding women’s sportswear, so it can be surprising that even at 21st century there are still arguments about what women should wear at sports competitions. There are often criticisms of certain teams, most often national teams or even individuals, who are criticized for their “idea of clothes”, from what is acceptable for that particular sport. It is known that Serena Williams was often able to provoke tennis officials with her unusual outfits on the court, and she even had some of her outfits banned. However, until the end of her professional career, she did not give up her unusualness, as I believe that women will continue to fight to make their mark in that field, because for good sports results, which all professional athletes strive for, it is important for them to be on the field comfortable in what they perform.
But also, women like fashion so let them be both, practical and fashionable on the courts!