What Will She Do in a Skirt?

In honor of women’s history month I’d like to take a moment to appreciate women who have done difficult athletic activities while in a skirt in the late 19th century and early 1900s, besides the fact that these were also taking place before much physical activity was encouraged for women.

While, in some cases, a very wide skirt may be advantageous, in others layers, length, or decoration would have been more likely to cause her to stumble, especially considering that these garments were not designed specifically for athletic wear and were modified versions of regular day wear. Many women would likely have worn some form of pants or bloomers under her skirts, but these were not usually visible and her garments still appeared to be traditionally feminine with a full length skirt over top.


1. Hiking Alongside Male Counterparts

1900, National Archives of Estonia [No restrictions]
The length of the skirt in 1900 was still deemed necessary to cover the ankles, so while the width of the skirt would likely not have inhibited movement, the length would likely have made inclines a little difficult. To be fair, however, it probably wasn’t much easier in a suit.


2. Playing Tennis

1903, Robert Henry Chandless [Public domain]
Still played in skirts today, however, these long skirts for tennis play are regular day wear ensembles and would not have had the stretch of today’s sports fabric.


3. Baseball

Vassar Baseball.jpg
1876, Archives & Special Collections Library, Vassar College, NPR.org

While certainly not as common for women to play as was tennis, the Vassar College “Resolutes” were one such women’s baseball team. This article from NPR notes that women’s “University” style for baseball, while still resembling typical day wear, was made of material that weighed less than the usual 8-10 pound skirts and included cleats instead of boots.


4. Rock Climbing

Lucy Smith and Pauline Ranken.png
ca. 1908, Salisbury Crags

This photo shows Lucy Smith and Pauline Ranken, members of the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club, ca. 1908 at the Salisbury Crags in Scotland. Still adhering to social rules of dress, these two women not only climb some serious rocks in skirts, they also don their hats and appear to be wearing buttoned boots. According to Edinburgh Live News, the ladies would wear knickerbockers for their descent if they were alone and not in the presence of men. Also notice, beyond the ropes tied at their waists, there is no additional safety harness equipment.


5. Skiing

National Library of Australia from Canberra, Australia [No restrictions]
A little shorter than most skirts of the period, ca. 1900, these three women skiing in New South Wales are fashionably dressed for skiing in a socially acceptable manner. It looks as though they may have some form of bloomers or pants under their skirts which may have been both for modesty purposes as well as for warmth.


What I love about these photos is the inspiration that restrictive clothing of the period did not prevent these women from taking on athletic challenges, even if a degree of conformity is adhered to (at least while there are others watching). They were able to climb mountains, enjoy sports socially, and compete, all while maintaining a semblance of social conformity in their dress. In many cases, society would have balked had they worn trousers or bloomers without a skirt over top, but consider that they also didn’t have the technology yet for the kinds of materials we associate with sportswear today (Lycra, elastane, dri fit, etc.). So much has changed in terms of sportswear for women, but this persistence in athletic activities laid a foundation for the importance of female sports and sportswear at a time when athletic feats for women were not encouraged.


-Danielle Morrin

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