A study of how the growing popularity of sports and leisure activities in the latter half of the 19th century affected the fashion of the period, with a focus on how and why the social society etiquette restricted and influenced sport and leisure fashions for women
In accompaniment to dissertation I will be using this blog as an online sketchbook and journal to records the process of the design and creation of a sporting wear costume for a couple circa 1884. All information sources and references can be found at the bottom of each post. Images sources can be found underneath this image itself.
This dissertation explores the growing popularity of sports in the latter half of the 19th century. It looks at how participation in certain sports became acceptable for upper-middle class women due to medical advances. These medical studies showed the benefit sport had on health, which lead to a growth in the popularity of sport among women. The study looks at the opinions of Victorian society on upper-middle class women taking part in sport and which of these sports they deemed suitable for women to participate. The general consensus being ladies should take part in sports in moderation to avoid appearing masculine. It was stressed that ladies of class only participate in less physical sports in which they could regain their femininity, grace and immaculate appearance.
The study focuses on the affect leisure sports had on women’s fashions and looks at how clothing was adapted for sporting. It was found that society required a different outfit for each sporting activity. Victorian sporting clothing predominantly prioritised beauty over practicality. This dissertation also looks at how participation in sport was restricted by wealth and social status. Most sports required membership to a club to participate; these often had costly membership fees and required proof of family social status. The study concludes that many sporting garments that were introduced in the Victorian era, as casual wear, are still worn today for formal sporting events and competitions.
My first step was to familiarize myself with the fashions of the latter half of the 1800’s . When looking at fashions of an era I first look at the silhouette of the period. The Victoria and Albert museum has a great timeline as a base for my research which can be found here.
This sketch below by Alfred Roller is a great example of the changing silhouette.
The middle and upper class woman of the 19th century were not brought up to pursue a career but to marry and produce children. The average age for a woman to marry in the 19th century was 22. Marriage was arranged by the family and most woman had little choice in the matter. Women were married to men of equal or slightly higher social status, marrying to those of a lower social class would have been considered shameful. Once married all the women possessions, money and property now became the ownership of her husband. This included her person, her body was now his. Her purpose now as wife was to bear her husbands children and stay at home.
The children of wealthy middle class and upper class family’s were raised and taught by a nanny or governess and the housework and chores would be carried out by servants. This left the wives of the household to fill her time with genteel pursuits. Wives would spend their time with other female family members, neighbors and female friends while there husband worked or socialized with other reputable men. It was said that the couple often would “eat apart, walk apart, even, most of the time, sleep apart”
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
Throughout my research of 19th century leisure pursuits and there fashions to match I was particularly drawn to the colours and styles of the seaside attire. This often had a nautical theme and was a more casual style of day dress however still the hight of fashion. This style was suitable for a visit to the seaside, it would be worn for strolling the promenades, boating and yachting, a game of croquet on the beach and other coastline traditional activity’s. Below are some examples this style of dress.
Mens fashion in the 19th century was not elaborate and decorative however they were still subjected to almost as many rules and fashion dos and don’ts as women.
Informal wear for men consisted of the morning coat from the mid 19th century. This was often cut away at the front (so it could be worn on horse back) and was worn with trousers of a different colour and fabric. At the end of the 1850’s the lounge jacket emerged. This sometimes matched the waistcoat and was worn with contrasting trousers as had the morning coat. However the jacket, waistcoat and trousers sometimes were made all of the same fabric which was then named the ditto suit. This was the beginnings of the everyday suit that is worn daily by men today. By 1970 the lounge suit had pretty much replaced the morning coat for leisure and informal morning wear for the upper classes. For the middle and labouring classes the lounge suit became a staple for business and work wear.
The Victoria and Albert museum comments…
Conventions in dress applied to informal as well as more formal wear. It was important to be dressed appropriately for the occasion. One gentlemen’s etiquette book, Manners for Men, by Mrs Humphry (‘Madge of Truth’), published in 1897, writes that:
‘There are special suits for all kinds of outdoor amusements, such as shooting, golfing, tennis, boating, driving, riding, bicycling, fishing, hunting, &c., but into the details of these it is unnecessary to enter. It may be remarked, however, that it is easy to stultify the whole effect of these, however perfectly they may be built ‘by the tailor’ by the addition of a single incongruous article of attire; such as a silk hat or patent boots with a shooting-suit.’
It was fashionable from 1870’s for the lounge jacket to be worn with trousers of a light fabric for casual and leisure wear, sometimes striped, checked or plaid. Striped jackets were worn originally for sports such as tennis, cricket and boating and were popular for seaside attire often as part of a ditto suit. This extract from ‘Nineteenth-century Fashion in Detail’ tells us of its popularity…
The lounge jacket also called the sack coat worn for morning and leisure in the second half of the Victorian era is of a simpler construction compared to the previously popular morning coat. Usually made from wool flannel and without the numerous layers of interlinings and paddings the lounge jacket, as well as more basic to construct, is probably much more comfortable. It is a looser fit due to the fact that the body is only made from four pieces and without darts.
Walton & Taylor, reproducers of 19th century men’s clothing, comment on the construction of the lounge jacket/sack coat…
‘Despite what you may have read, they are not called “sack coats” because they are oversized, loose, or otherwise fit like a sack. Sack, sac, sacque, etc. all refer to the way the back of the jacket is cut; i.e. “sack cut”. This simply means the back is formed of two pieces only, cut relatively straight down, instead of being made up of four curved pieces with hidden pockets in the tails as on more formal and traditional coats such as tail coats, morning coats, and frocks. Some tailoring manuals of the 1850’s and 1860’s refer to the sack coat by other names, but it’s the same garment. Length of skirt and sleeve, number and style of pockets, collar, lapels, and the cut of the front skirt were the elements of changing style in the sack coat from 1850 to 1900. At all times in the period, sack coats were made in “close cut”, “full cut”, “single breasted”, and “double breasted” versions.’
The lounge suits pictured below have four to six buttons, one or two of which are on the lapels, which is not usually seen on other types of suits. The Victoria and Albert museum comments…
‘After 1875 coats tended to be buttoned much higher. The Gentleman’s Magazine of Fashion (1875) justified this fashion for health reasons: ‘Medical men ascribe many deaths during the past winter to the fashion of low collars and to gentlemen not being sufficiently protected by their clothing at the throat and neck.’
In ‘Nineteeth-century Fashion in Detail’ the writers comment on a ditto lounge suit of cream wool with blue pinstripe flannel, pictured below…
‘The jacket is constructed in the form of a ‘three seamer.’ a slightly waisted coat with a central seam down the back and one on either side. Its three patch pockets have a distinctive lone of stitching known as a swelled edge, a common feature of informal clothing styles. The trousers are cut wide and straight for ease of movement. Suits of this kind were also known as ‘dittos’ as the jacket, waistcoat and trousers are all made of the same material. This enhances the symmetry of the suit and focuses attention on the details such as the elegant bone buttons and pin-striped flannel. Attractive as these light colours were, they did show stains, and flannel had a tendency to shrink on washing. To prevent this The Tailor and Cutter of May 1888 suggested returning them to the tailor for cleaning or asking the laundress to scour them in cold water, adding oxalic acid to remove the dirt.’
Source – Johnston, L., Kite, M., Persson, H., Davis, R. and Davis, L. 2005. Nineteenth-century fashion in detail. London: V&A Publications.
While looking for information on the construction of the lounge suit I found this extract below. This is a page from the original log book ‘The Universal Time Log for London’ from 1891. The log was used as the basis for work payment. This page states the time that should be taken to produce a lounge jacket and each stage of the operation. When making my lounge jacket I will follow this original Victorian tailoring procedure in order and try my best to stick to the allocated time for each step! This will help me to produced a historically accurate reproduction of the lounge jacket.
By the 1820s trousers were acceptable formal and informal day wear for men in replacement of the breeches. By the 1830’s a fly-front closure as opposed to the fall-front became the most popular fashionable fastening. Trousers would have had buttons to attach braces. It was fashion for the cut to be straight and very flat at the front and without pleats and pockets inserted in the side seam. The trousers of a ditto lounge suit are made of the same fabric as the jacket and waistcoat however it was very common for men to wear contrasting trousers in the 19th century. The Victoria and Albert museum remarks on this in the description of these trousers…
‘In the 1870s plain, checked and striped trousers were fashionable wear with morning coats. Stripes were particularly popular as they gave the impression of height, especially if they were cut fairly straight to the ankle like this pair which are strapped under the foot to keep the line. They were difficult to cut correctly as the stripes had to run straight down the leg and match at the seams and the best tailors employed specialist trouser cutters.’
‘In this example the tailor has positioned the fabric on the bias to give sufficient room for the seat while cleverly matching the stripes in an inverted ‘V’ shape. The bias given to the seat seam was known as the ‘seat angle’. Two rising points cut in the top at the centre back accommodate the metal brace buttons which are stamped with the manufacturer’s name, E. Parkin & Sons, Sheffield. Less care has been taken to align the fabric here, probably because it was concealed under the coat.’
Johnston, L., Kite, M., Persson, H., Davis, R. and Davis, L. 2005. Nineteenth-century fashion in detail. London: V&A Publications.
Walker, R. 1988. The Savile Row story. [London]: Prion.