POP launched a collaborative film and journal article about historical women’s sport and active wear on International Women’s Day. Both bring to life inventive treasures in the archive that point to how persistently creative, brave and resilient girls and women have been in doing the things they loved (in this case lead active and sporting lives) despite the many barriers to their freedom of movement.
The film was made by Lee Craigie, Alice Lemkes and Philippa Battye of The Adventure Syndicate with Aneela McKenna of Mór Diversity Consultancy. It is based on POP’s research collection of reconstructed sporting costumes from 1890-1940 and more in-depth discussion in this journal article – Convertible, multiple and hidden: The inventive lives of women’s sport and activewear 1890–1940
Patent archives reveal how inventive girls and women have been in attempting to do what they loved despite many barriers to their freedom of movement.
Why does all this matter, now?
So, why is this a relevant topic to explore today…
Let’s jump back to the turn of last century.
In 1912 the founder of the International Olympics Committee, Pierre de Coubértan strongly argued that women’s athleticism ‘should be excluded from the Olympic program’ as he believed it would be ‘impractical, uninteresting, ungainly’ and ‘improper’.
He was aware that women really liked playing sports, but he did not think people would want to watch it. He believed the Games were created for ‘the exaltation of male athleticism’ with ‘the applause of women as reward’.
Sporting historian Jennifer Hargreaves has written that: ‘From the start, the modern Olympics was a context for institutionalized sexism, severely hindering women’s participation’ and much work has been needed to challenge this ‘powerful conservatizing force’.
More recently – last month in fact – during an international golf tournament, Tiger Woods allegedly passed a sanitary product to his competitor. Although, widely discussed as been being in jest, the inference was that he was not only playing, ‘like a woman’ but like a one who was menstruating.
The notion of women as the ‘weaker sex’, disadvantaged by their bodies, is an enduring and problematic trope that has limited their potential for centuries. And they’re not alone, of course, many other groups such as transgender and para-athletes have faced similar ongoing discrimination in sporting settings.
This is an ongoing problem with long ranging effects on people’s health, safety, personal and social lives.
While examples like these are often amplified in worldwide spectacles, sporting inequalities are enacted and performed in everyday life. As many of us here tonight know, living sporting and active lives is about getting outside, being with friends, expanding what you’re capable of and just having fun.
Yet, research show how many people remain disproportionally restricted, scrutinised, and harassed while being active in public.
A 2022 study by Sport England found far more girls than boys in Britain stop feeling ‘sporty’ as they grow into adulthood. And this has limited or entirely stopped some of them from doing any kind of physical activity.
Barriers included ‘not belonging’, and ‘feeling judged’, as well as inappropriate equipment and clothing. A key finding of these kinds of reports is to ‘expand the image of what ‘sporty’ looks like’ to make it more inclusive, open, representative and welcoming to all.
This is an ongoing problem with long ranging effects on people’s health, safety, personal, social, and political lives.
So, what did we find?
Well….. women and girls have always been sporty and active.
But, they’ve had to creatively and persistently work around significant barriers to their freedom of movement.
In addition to being hampered by negative social attitudes, even when women painstakingly carved out ways to participate in sports, they rarely had appropriate things to wear.
Because they’ve seldom been the focus for sportswear manufacturers, they’ve had to borrow or hack at menswear, go without or, as we will show…. invent it themselves.
…..And clothing patent archives turn out to be veritable treasure troves.
We unearthed hundreds of clothing inventions for and by women for ALL kinds of sports and activities.
They reveal some of the extra-ordinarily ingenious ways women have challenged the status quo to do what they loved and in forge paths for future generations.
We look for stories hidden from history, hidden in the archive and also as it turns out hidden in the garment itself.
Because of the specific challenges facing women – clothing often had to do more than one thing to enable wearers to be socially acceptable WHILE also secretly switching in many cases into entirely new garments to do all the sports they wanted.
So, many of these inventions are convertible, reversible, multiple, and hidden.
We wanted to see these inventions out of the archive, in action and on moving bodies!
So, we wanted to see these out of the archive, in action and on moving bodies!
So we followed the inventors’ step-by-step instructions in their patents – and we re-made a collection of these remarkable costumes spanning 50 years, from 1890 to 1940.
And we invited some amazing people to try them on and test them out.
We teamed up with Lee Craigie, Alice Lemkes and Philippa Batye of the The Adventure Syndicate and Aneela McKenna from Mor Diversity which was a dream of a collaborative team. I’ve long been huge fans of all their work, inspiring events, and inclusive approach to living sporting, active and adventurous lives.
Together we went running, jumping, hiking, flying, cycling, swimming, hunting, horse-riding, and otherwise put these amazing costumes through their paces. In 3 very long days. Across a LOT of gorgeous landscapes. In ALL the Scottish weathers! Fortunately we were all wearing Findra merino base layers.
Watch the film trailer
Read the journal article: Convertible, multiple and hidden: The inventive lives of women’s sport and activewear 1890–1940