There were no gymnastic competitions for women in the 1912 Olympics, and it would be hard to imagine Simone Biles (or anyone else) spinning through the air in one of these “Gymnastic Costumes” from 1912. [If you click on that link you’ll have to watch a short commercial first, but I can’t stop marvelling at the things this young woman can do. Uneven bars isn’t even her best event!]
For some reason, Butterick offered three different women’s gym “costumes” in 1912.
January 1912: Butterick 5169
For girls, misses, and women, in seven sizes for bust measure from 26 to 38 inches. The bloomers and middy could be made in matching fabric for winter, or a cooler summer middy could be made of linen, etc., and worn with a skirt.
March 1912: Butterick 5256
Here’s a close-up of the stitching:
This gymnastic costume was available in nine sizes, from 26 to 42 inch bust measure. It does not have a fitted waist, so there is not even “the slightest pressure on the organs.”
September 1912: Butterick 5625
Note her black stockings — and imagine the underpinnings needed to keep them from falling down during active sports.This time, the option to gather or pleat the bloomers is clearly illustrated:
Girls who were going away to school or to college would be relieved to know that their home-made gym suit “will be entirely presentable and like the best that other girls wear.” [Unless the school required pleats, or a specific pattern or color or fabric, as schools often do.] Available in seven sizes, for girls, misses, ladies with bust measure from 28 to 44 inches.
None of these gym suits looks suitable for the kind of gymnastics women do now, but, in 1912, “We’ve got you covered.” These were also the clothes worn by American girls who took over farm work to free men for military service in 1917-18.
In 1915, there was a debate over whether girls wearing gym clothes like these should be allowed to play baseball in public parks. As I wrote in a long-ago post,
“The San Francisco Chronicle runs an article every Sunday called The Wayback Machine, by Johnny Miller, who goes through ‘the archives of 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago to bring us glimpses of the past.’ On January 4, 2015, he found this article from January 8, 1915, heralding the end of the bloomer ban:
“As far as the Park Commissioner is concerned, ‘the bloomer girls will be allowed to play ball in Golden Gate Park, notwithstanding Mrs. Grundy to the contrary. For some time these young misses have been an attraction on the park diamonds where they could be depended upon to put on a stirring game. And then Mrs. Grundy appeared on the scene and the games ceased. But now they will resume for the park Commission sees no harm in young girls, attired in their gymnasium suits, disporting on the park greens.”
When I first shared this article from the Chronicle, I wrote, “A less sexually provocative outfit would be hard to imagine. Perhaps the fact that the female baseball players’ stocking-clad legs were visible was the reason “Mrs. Grundy” objected to games in Golden Gate Park in 1915.”
Imagine Mrs. Grundy’s reaction to 21st century gymnastic costumes!
7 responses to “Three Gymnastic Costumes, 1912”
Imagine doing gymnastics (or even “Swedish jerks”, ie calisthenics) dressed in flannel! Even cotton flannel was heavier in those days than now. You wouldn’t need to go to a sauna to work up a real head of steam!
My thought exactly! Although the climate might have been a bit cooler then… 😉
Yes, the scandalous thing in 1915 was seeing a young woman’s leg above the ankle. I remember elderly men in the 1960s reminiscing about hanging around trolleycar stops so they could see a flash of ankle and maybe even lower calf as girls and women climbed aboard. The less you’re used to seeing, the greater impact it has, even if said ankles were swathed in thick stockings and shoes that covered the ankle.
Style 5256 is a version of the Stanford University gym suit which was adapted by the women’s gymnastics director at the school, based on the English gym slip. It was a big improvement over the two-piece suit, which was still the standard in 1912. Nice to see these all together!
I thought of the “gym slip” when I saw it. How like you to know where it was used! I’m embarrassed that I grew up just a few miles from Stanford and never even considered that there were women attending in 1912. This reminded me that, in the Hippie era (1960s,) someone asked my very conservative aunt what she thought of men with beards. To my surprise, she said, “When I was a girl, if you saw a man with a beard riding a bicycle in town, you knew he was a professor from Stanford.”
I have (somewhere !) a young ladies gym costume from the 1930’s. It’s a heavily pleated culotte, below the knee made of red cotton with lots of white piping around the edges. The top is a fairly standard short sleeve of the same material, with piping. Can’t imagine trying to exercise your legs with yards of fabric billowing around them !
You should have seen the gym suit I had to wear in 1959! It was a short dress with puffy bloomers under it! Whenever The Vintage Traveler writes about school uniform gym suits, there are lots of comments/shared memories of teen embarrassment!