With the household and children being taken care of by the staff and the world of work off-limits, middle and upper class women were left to fill their time with hobbies and activities. These usually consisted of household pastimes for example reading, needlework, music, flower arranging and other handicrafts such as potpourri making.
Physical activities were considered dangerous and unsuitable for women at the beginning of the 1800’s. The general opinion was women were not fit for physical activities such as sports and there delicate bodies should be reserved for the bearing of healthy children, another undermining of women in the masculine authoritative world of the 1800’s. However towards the end of the nineteenth century medical advances resulted in an understanding of the advantages of physical activity and exercise. Publishers promoted this new way of thinking and the benefit exercise had on a healthy lifestyle. It now became socially acceptable for both sexes to take part in leisure sports. This still had its limitations however, appropriate dress was required for each activity all of which needed to conform to social acceptance. This resulted in a whole new array of styles and outfits for the well off woman. Dress was less formal however still adhered to the fashion ideals of the period. The cost of proper dress and sporting equipment were high meaning participation in sporting activities was restrained to the middle and upper classes.
Golf and tennis were sports particularly exclusive to the wealthy as they were played in exclusive clubs which required acceptance into the elite social circles to join and each in turn required there own outfit.
Riding was also a luxury for the wealthy alone due to the high costs of a horses upkeep and equestrian equipment. A habit was worn while on horseback, this would have included breeches worn underneath a full skirts. Fashion ideals of the period demanded these standards of dress be met to protect a woman’s modesty and reputation. Women were also expected to sit side saddle, a much more elegant and lady like approach to riding at the time, however much more dangerous and strenuous for the rider and required a very well trained, docile horse. Riding habits went through as many taste and styles changes as the day and evening wear of the 1800’s. Nannie Power O’Donoghue, a horsewoman of the 1880’s wrote…
“For dusty roads a black gauze veil will be found useful, but avoid as you would poison, every temptation to wear even the faintest scrap of colour on horseback. All such atrocities as blue and green veils have happily long since vanished, but, even still, a red bow, a gaudy flower stuck in the buttonhole, and oh, horror of horrors! a pocket handkerchief appearing like a miniature fomentation – these still occasionally shock the eyes of sensitive persons and cause us to marvel at the wearer’s bad taste.”
Croquet, badminton and ping pong were popular with women, a factor being that didn’t have to modify there dress to play these physically undemanding sports, everyday outdoor or walking gowns could be worn.
Cycling boomed in the late 1800’s however the very restricting fashions of the day allowed little movement especially not enough to ride a bicycle! Controversial fashions were introduced these included the bifurcated (split) skirt with breeches worn underneath as with the riding habit or the more daring bloomers. This was met with a mixed opinion of delight and disgust from the masses but in the end women won the fight and the bicycle became a staple sport and past time for men and women alike.
Trips to the seaside became a fashionable activity for the middle and upper classes. Made possible by recent expansive of railways. This came with an outfit to match. Women’s bathing costumes were introduced and dresses, often with a nautical theme, suitably styled for boating yachting and seaside promenading became the expected seaside attire.
Roller and ice skating in winter were among other common sports for men and women alike. Outdoor winter gowns could be worn for ice skating. These would shortened to the ankle to avoid tripping over the hems.
In the 1870 archery became a popular and socially accepted sport for upper class women. It was one of the first sports to introduce organised competition for women and club members could compete in regular tournaments.
Ebook – Sports and Games of the 18th and 19th Centuries By Robert Crego
Ebook – The Sociology of Sports:An Introduction by Tim Delaney, Tim Madigan
Book – Levitt, S. 1986. Victorians unbuttoned. London: Allen & Unwin
Book – Costa, D. M. and Guthrie, S. R. 1994. Women and sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.V