Gym Wear in the Early 20th Century

Interior of a gym in The Netherlands, around 1900. / Photo courtesy of Heritage Leiden and Region, Wikimedia Commons

The Historic Clothing Collection at OSU has several pieces related to workout gear and active wear from early 1900.

Gym wear has come a long way since he early mid 19th and entire 20th century. Today, traditional gym wear such as leggings and crop tops have become the normal, everyday street outfits for women, and loosely fitting clothing for men, like sweatpants, greatly influenced from the punk age. The first gyms were for men only. They were able to undress and exercise without the presence of women around. Also, many people did not go to a gym unless you were a gymnast or boxer. Boxing was a big deal in the early 20th century, mainly in the United States and Great Britain. Boxers like Jim Jefferies and Bob Fitzsimmons were some of the more famous boxers of the time.  

However, women and exercise became more prevalent after Catherine Beecher, an early advocate for women’s calisthenics, wrote a book about the importance of exercise. Eventually both male and female athletes caught onto the idea of calisthenics. This type of physical activity included jumping, swinging, kicking, push-ups, sit-ups, chin-ups, stretching, and resisting. Because of the fitness craze, women’s fashion had to be altered for the range of motion needed during calisthenics. The waist was loosely fitted and bloomers, like that of the 1850s, were added to the “workout” uniform. Their entire gym outfits consisted of full skirts that ended mid-calf with the full bloomers underneath. It took a good amount of time, but women were eventually allowed to wear the gym gear in class. Later on, it became attire for school children, but turned into a jumper.

This picture is a good example of what a typical gym outfit for women would look like in the 1900. It consists of the gray/blue wool blouse, bloomers, and skirt.

Next up is a man’s basketball uniform consisting of a gray wool tank top and padded shorts c. 1928-1929. The 1920s were a turning point for basketball and fashion. In earlier decades, basketball had been a simple game deserving of a simple outfit. Men would wear their street clothes.

Comfortable shoes, pants, and a shirt were socially acceptable. Women would wear their full length dresses, scarves, hats, etc. and everyday shoes. However the art of basketball fashion changed everything. Wool, the most popular clothing material at the time, started a new era. The uniform had its pros and cons, however. The fabric was stretchable and breathable, but it also tended to shrink and be a burden to take care for. However, in the 1930s there was a breakthrough in material. Synthetic textiles were revolutionary for the world of basketball. New uniforms were lighter, unlike sweat-drenched wool uniforms, and were even more breathable. Influenced by a women’s basketball team, uniforms became shinier and tighter than before, up until the 70’s. It took Michael Jordan asking for longer shorts to change the style once again. Soon the baggy shirt and shorts style caught on by many teams across the world and started the newest era of basketball fashion.

Bonnie Cashin, an American known for her practical clothing and sportswear, and Vera Maxwell, a designer for sportswear nd fashion, designed for Aldrich and Aldrich in the 1940s. Cashin may have been the creator of American sportswear, according to some. She was known for being the a designer who never fully got the credit she deserved, especially as a designer for 20th Century Fox. Her work inspired many designers in years to come.


Originally published by The Ohio State University, 11.07.2018, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.



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