Have you ever thought about the expression "sportswear?" These days, it's a kind of stuffy-sounding department-store-sounding word, used to describe "normal" clothes. It refers to the kinds of clothes that people wear on a daily basis, when they're not at the office or at a formal event.
But why SPORTS wear? Today, sportswear is different than activewear, which is kind of weird when you actually think about it. (To say nothing of athleisure clothing.)
The history of sportswear is (to nerds like me) utterly fascinating. There were so many factors that came together in the late 19th century and very early 20th century to create garments we still wear today.
In 1839, a process was discovered to create a durable rubber product that could be used for everything from tires to the soles of shoes. This lead to the explosion in popularity of the bicycle, which necessitated changes in women's clothing. Bicycles gave women more freedom of movement than they'd ever had, both in terms of moving their legs, and in terms of moving unchaperoned around their worlds. (But that's a conversation for another time.) Likewise, the new rubber-soled shoes launched a craze for the sport of tennis.
In 1913, the first intramural sports departments were founded on American college campuses. College students adopted the less restrictive clothing worn on the playing field, and never looked back.
The photo above is likely from the late 'teens or early 'twenties, when women still wore long skirts and sleeves on the court, and men had apparently forsaken ties, but were still wearing button-down woven shirts.
The second image is from the mid 1920s, after tennis superstar Suzane Lenglen (named The Goddess or la Divine by the French press) introduced the game-changing sleeveless dress, hemmed above the calf. Male tennis players at this time would have been wearing the newest fashions as well -- a knit jersey shirt with short sleeves and just a few buttons at the neck. This shirt was adapted from the polo fields, and popularized by tennis champion Rene Lacoste (known as the Crocodile).
A hundred years later, we're still wearing these very garments.
Before the pandemic, a group of my friends had come up with a plan to wear 1920s and 1930s tennis outfits to the 2020 Tahoe Gatsby Festival. Obviously, this didn't happen. But we didn't let go of the idea. It sort of floated in our dreams, as something we'd do when we could all get together.
In the middle of the summer, a team of vintage pattern sellers I know came into an amazing trove of patterns. They found themselves in possession of every pattern released by the Ladies Home Journal in 1923. They put the word out to the vintage sewing community, and told us that they'd look for any items we were specifically seeking. This was an unprecedented opportunity. Messages flew back and fort. I sent photos of vintage tennis players, and they found me some utterly perfect patterns.
This was exactly what I had envisioned, when I planned my 1920s tennis ensemble. I had wanted something that fell right at the cusp of the change in clothing when hemlines were rising and sleeves were getting shorter. Also, I'm a sucker for a little sailor-style collar in early 20th century women's blouses. The adoption of the "masculine" style of collar happened right at the beginning of modern feminism, so it's very dear to my history-nerd's heart.
These fragile tissue patterns had literally never been used. I was in awe of my good fortune.
Most of the pattern companies of this era did not print any instructions on their tissue pieces. Instead they relied on a series of perforations. The size and shape of these holes were a brilliant code, telling the dressmaker how to layout and assemble the fabric that would become the finished garment.
(McCall's held the patent on printed pattern pieces and apparently sued anyone who used their idea. I sewed a 1920s McCalls dress back in 2019, and wrote about it here.)
These are the pattern pieces for the front and back of my blouse. The back is the longer piece. The long shirt-tail was apparently another innovation of 1920s tennis stars. It kept their shirts from coming un-tucked while they were playing.
I didn't make any adjustments to the pattern and remarkably it fit as I'd envisioned. I can see in it, the last remnants of the Edwardian silhouette, with the blousing in the front, and the sash waistband. (That sash ties into an enormous bow in the back, which strikes me as another Edwardian hold-over.)
The blouse has purely decorative buttons at the neck. I used vintage buttons from my collection. I did the same on the shirt's cuffs and on the skirt. Weird how all these buttons weren't actually functional.
The skirt was also from the transition from Edwardian sportswear to the more modern garments of the later 1920s.
It was a remarkably simple garment, for the most part. And that's a good thing, because the instructions were maddeningly sparse. Vintage patterns assume a level of dressmaking mastery that I can't begin to aspire to.
Take, for instance, the front of the waistband. This structure, which echoes the fall-front trousers that became popular in menswear in the mid 18th century. This kind of closure pre-dates the invention of the zipper, and can still be seen in traditional sailor's trousers. Again, there's an intersection between sailor's fashion and early women's sportswear. (I should look into this further sometime.)
The odd thing about this skirt is that this structure is entirely vestigial. It serves no purpose at all. The buttons don't unbutton, and the waistband is sewn closed at the front. The skirt actually opens in the back. Strange.
There were absolutely no instruction on how to assemble this part of the skirt, other than a baffling line drawing. I had several of my professional costume-building friends opining on this construction on a spirited text conversation. It's quite challenging to get this sort of advice in a time of mandatory social distancing. I miss my friends so much, and text messages are a poor substitute for time spent together. Still, I'm grateful for the technology that keeps us connected.
Okay, so what does one do with a replica of a 1920s tennis ensemble, particularly when one does not play tennis? Well, there's always badminton.
I remember clearly the day that Robb and I found this vintage container of shuttlecocks at an estate sale. We just about laughed ourselves silly, imagining playing badminton indoors. I realize that these were probably made for the aforementioned intramural sports, but we both envisioned irresponsibly playing badminton inside our tiny home, which is filled with fragile antique knickknackery.
Really, what could possibly go wrong?
Robb and I had planned to wear our tennis outfits to the virtual Gatsby Summer Afternoon, which was the re-envisioning of the Art Deco Society of California's annual lawn party. Unfortunately, the weekend that folks were supposed to get together all over the Bay Area for socially distanced mini-picnics, the air was filled with smoke from raging wildfires, and it simply wasn't safe to go outside.
Not safe, you say? You know what else isn't safe? INDOOR BADMINTON.
I set up my phone with a camera timer, moved most of the furniture out of the dining room, and Robb and I played a hilarious and chaotic game of indoor badminton. Nothing was broken, and the resulting photos were far too unflattering ever to share.
We've got our dignity to maintain, after all.
When the air cleared, Robb and I spent a lovely afternoon with friends. We set up our picnics in a local park, and kept what we hoped was a safe distance apart. In so many ways, it exemplified this year. It wasn't what we expected, but we made the best of bad circumstances with creativity and good humor.
And, in summing up the theme of sportswear, you might even say that we were good sports about the whole situation.
Most astonishingly of all, I won a prize for this absurd little ensemble. I was so shocked and overwhelmed that I couldn't write about it until now.