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From bloomers to see-through skin suits: How women's sports kits have evolved since 1875

Fiona Tomas
Moment in Time

From Britain’s first known female football team sporting pantaloons tucked into shin pads, to figure skaters defying every last health and safety hazard on the ice in full length frocks, women faced an uphill battle to express themselves through sport, which threatened the conservative notions of femininity. 

Victorian cricketers defied their ballooning skirts by bowling underarm, Lucy Smith and Pauline Ranken scaled the Salisbury Crags in full-length Victorian dresses and Marion Barone wore the first sleeveless leotard. As perceptions changed, skirts became shorter - even sleeker - before graduating to the triumphant trouser. 

“The growth of women’s sport during the late 19th century and early 20th century was often considered problematic, and the clothes that women wore to participate in these activities were perceived as part of the problem,” said Fiona Skillen, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. “By the end of the 20th century, many more women were playing sports and access to facilities had increased, in many ways the challenge of what to wear, and the debates over what was thought to be appropriate, are very much part of the story of modern women's sport.”

Fiona Tomas explores how clothes have played a vital and intriguing role in the evolution of women’s sportswear.

1875

Hooped skirts made it impossible for women cricketers to bowl underarm, which meant they delivered the ball from waist-high known as ‘round-arm bowling’. Legend has it the technique was pioneered by Kent player Christina Willes which led to the overarm bowling that exists today.

Hooped skirts made it impossible for women cricketers to bowl underarm

1894

American Hattie Stewart was one of the most prominent female fighters of the late 19th century, when early accounts of female boxing can be found. Women fought bare knuckled and wore traditional ladies attire including corsets as customary for the Victorian era, but hugely inconvenient to practice sports. 

American Hattie Stewart

1895

Sporting long-sleeved shirts and burly bloomers tucked into oversized shin pads, Victorian footballer Nettie Honeyball was one of the founders of British Ladies’ Football Club in 1895. Honeyball played under the pseudonym, Mary Hutson. 

Credit:  Mary Evans 

1902

Madge Syers competed at World Figure Skating Championships in 1902 against men. Showing ankles at that time was seen as risque. 

Credit: Getty Images

1907

Australian swimmer Annette Kellermann was arrested for indecency for wearing a one-piece costume at a time when women wore dress and pantaloons. 

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

1908 

Lucy Smith and Pauline Ranken of the Ladies' Scottish Climbing Club scaling the Salisbury Crags. Women had to retain their femininity when undertaking masculine sports - and climbing was no exception. 

Credit: James Stewart

1908

Danish gymnasts wore baggy dresses at the London Olympics. Only in 1948 did women such as American Marion Barone wear leotards.

Danish-womens-gymnasts-

1912

Australian swimmers Fanny Durack and Mina Wylie exhibit modest swimsuits, Wylie's featuring a swim skirt. Durack sparked a scandal at the Olympics that year by rejecting a thick, modest woollen swimsuit with “as much drag as a sea-anchor” in favour of a close-fitting suit. 

Credit:  HULTON ARCHIVE

1919

Multiple champion French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen sparked Wimbledon’s first fashion scandal when she shunned corsets and wore a low-neck dress with short sleeves and a calf-length pleated skirt and stockings down to her knees. The press labelled her as “indecent”.

Credit:  HULTON ARCHIVE

1932

Australian teenager Claire Dennis set an Olympic record in the 200m breaststroke at the Los Angeles Games in one of Speedo’s new racerback suits, but narrowly escaped qualification when a protest was lodged against her “inappropriate” costume on the grounds it exposed too much of her shoulder blade.  

Australian teenager Clare Dennis

1933

On October 3, Gloria Minoprio shocked onlookers when she arrived on the first tee at WestwardHo course with a white face, scarlet lips, a dark navy cap, matching sweater and to tournament organisers’ horror - trousers. The same trousers are now kept at The British Golf Museum in St Andrews.

Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE

1934

By the time the first women’s Test match between England and Australia took place in December, the Women’s Cricket Association decided England should have an official outfit which featured white divided skirts, along with knee-length socks. Women such as Myrtle Maclagan were instructed to wear their skirts no shorter than four inches from the ground when kneeling. 

Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE

1972

The revealing shape and transparency of Speedo’s elastane ‘skinsuits’ caused outrage at Munich Olympics. They were initially made of cotton and became virtually transparent when wet, but their tightly nature meant they considerably improved water drag. 

Credit: Rainer Mittelstädt

1985

Anne White's shiny catsuit at Wimbledon distracted her opponent Pam Shriver so much that she lost, later complaining to officials that Shriver should never wear the outfit again. The catsuit would precede the black one Serena Williams wore to help with blood clots after becoming a mother. 

Credit: Getty Images

1991

Cotton shirts hung off players such as former England captain Gill Burns in the Women’s Rugby World Cup hosted by Wales. Polyester jerseys only became mainstream in the men’s game in 2003. Now worn by the majority of women’s national sides, they added water resistance and reduced weight.

Credit: EMPICS Sport

1996

Charlotte Edwards was clad in a skirt and knee-high white socks when she made her England debut as a 16-year-old. She even paid for her full matchday attire. Trousers for women cricketers were not introduced until 1997 in an ODI against South Africa in Bristol. 

Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE

1996    

The flamboyant US runner Florence Griffith Joyner took her outfit to a new level with the ‘one-legger’.  

Credit: Getty Images

2000  

Australian runner Cathy Freeman caused a costume drama at the Sydney Olympics by winning 400m gold in a hooded green and gold aerodynamic suit. Freeman also wore a famous white bodysuit when she lit the Olympic flame, which was allegedly stolen from her dressing room. 

Credit: Getty Images

2001

Female footballers had to contend with oversized men’s kit throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. Former Arsenal captain Faye White likened them to playing in “tents” – as evident in this photo of Rachel Yankey playing for Fulham in the 2001 FA Cup final. 

Credit: Empics 

2009

Britta Steffen wore one of the performance-enhancing, non-textile swimsuits when she slashed the 100m freestyle world record at the World Championships. The polyurethane suits were responsible for a spate of world records and were later banned by Swimming’s governing body, FINA. 

Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

2016

Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first American woman in any sport to compete in a hijab at the Rio Olympics, where she won a bronze medal. Egypt's Doaa Elghobashy also competed at the Games in a hijab with long sleeves and leggings in a first for beach volleyball. 

Credit: Instagram

2019

England wore bespoke kits from Nike for the first time at the FIFA World Cup, marking a step forward in women-specific kit research. Made from 12 recycled water bottles and adorned with eye-catching roses, the Lionesses were one of 14 nations to benefit from the female-specific kit.

Credit: Getty Images