Sportswear inventions from the 1890s to the 1940s

POP’s first collection of sport and activewear costumes was made for a collaboration with The Adventure Syndicate and Mór Diversity to test out and try convertible garment inventions in the Scottish hills.

Toiles of all of these inventions had previously been made as part of our speculative sewing practice and insights from this process were written up in this journal article published in the Sociological Review: Convertible, multiple and hidden: The inventive lives of women’s sport and activewear 1890–1940.

The five designs in this sports and activewear collection span 50 years (1890-1940) with each of the garments having been patented in a different decade within this timeframe. The garments that have not only been designed to be appropriate for social settings but also to be adaptable to be suitable for use whilst mountaineering, cycling and flying. In order to achieve this, all the garments have inventive elements that are either convertible, hidden or somehow multiple in nature.

Read on to learn more about the garment and the inventors. We also have some before and after images so you can see how the activewear transforms!

If you want to see these in more action – check out the trailer for our short film “Women On The Move”.


Five side-by-side images of different people wearing sport and activewear garments in their 'unconverted' states. Ankle length skirts and full length sleeves.


The same five people and garments as in the image above, except this time the garments are in their converted states. Legs that are now free to move!

Agnes Henderson's 1896 "Cycling Skirt"

Agnes Henderson was a dressmaker from Fife, Scotland, who moved to Melbourne, Australia in the late nineteenth century. In 1896 Agnes was granted a patent for “an improved cycling skirt”. It was designed for walking and three different types of cycling: city, country and touring.

Her invention transformed a floor length skirt into a safe and comfortable sporting outfit via the clever use of three cords at the back of the skirt. Two cords are on the outside, and the third is hidden inside the centre back seam. The material of the skirt is lifted when the cords are pulled. Pulling on the outer cords converts the skirt to be suitable for riding a bicycle with a step-through frame (considered at the time to be a lady’s bike). The third cord, when pulled, raised the skirt higher still so that the wearer could safely ride a diamond frame bike with a top tube/crossbar (which was considered a man’s bicycle at the time).

Alice Lemkes (The Adventure Syndicate) –  This outfit is a real all-rounder. It was very simple. Alice found that the skirt pulled up by way of hidden cords and tassels and bunched up behind so she could move her legs freely. She said she didn’t even notice it was there when mountain biking, running or climbing. She didn’t have to remove anything, and it took seconds to convert. When we were all up a mountain, she benefitted from two thick layers of wool (skirt and bloomers) compared to the inventions from the 1920s and 1930s, which had less material overall.

Rösslers' 1909 "Combined ladies' sporting costume"

Paul, Hanno and Fritz Rössler were manufacturers in the town of Seifhennersdorf near the present-day border between Germany and the Czech Republic. We’ve not been able to find them in the (English language) archives or confirm their relationship to each other, but we assume they were associated with the Grunewald und Rössler clothing factory.

Their patent was for “a sporting costume for ladies which, through a simple manipulation, can be converted into an overall.” Through their invention, the Rösslers wanted to provide a lightweight, convertible costume that would take up minimal space when packed. “Many ladies, for instance, who, while occupied in mountaineering, tobogganing and cycle sport, dress themselves in sporting knickers, desire, when arriving at the destination, to appear in skirts. This is not always possible, however, owing to the increase in baggage it would involve.” The Rösslers’ design could be manipulated to function as a jacket in cold weather, an overall in rainy weather and also as a well fitting sporting dress.

Lee Craigie (The Adventure Syndicate) – This design had multiple pieces to enable independent travellers to go cycling, tobogganing and mountain climbing on their journey. Lee found all of the pieces a bit cumbersome, and occasionally misplaced parts of the costume, but she did appreciate the removable skirt and the usefulness of the detachable sleeves from the cape.

Beatrice Bankart's 1910 "Sport suit"

Beatrice (more often known as Sybil) Bankart came from a high-achieving family based in Exeter, UK. She was the second youngest of five siblings and there is documentation of her mother participating in some women’s suffrage activities.

Sybil and her oldest sister Ethel travelled to North America in the Autumn of 1909. Passenger manifests indicate she spent time with Rita Sacchetto and Loie Fuller. Loie, pioneering techniques in modern dance and in theatre lighting, already held several patents – we wonder if she was able to mentor Sybil through the process of filing her patent for a garment that could be utilised both as a skirt and as a cloak.

The yoke of the garment is designed to fit the curve both of shoulders and hips, whilst the bodice of the skirt can be folded down to form the collar of the cloak. Alternatively the collar can be kept turned up in order to protect the face and throat in a storm. Sybil describes the garment as being “for use, by women, particularly in tramping, hunting and in outdoor recreation.[…] The costume for which the improved garment is particularly adapted includes knickerbockers, so called, whereby the limbs of the wearer are protected when the improved outer garment is removed.”

Philippa Battye (The Adventure Syndicate) – Philippa comment on the additional and unexpected uses for a skirt which for her ordinarily has no practical use. She generally wore it as a cape which also blocked a lot of the windchill up the mountain. It shielded her during a wild wee and was useful as a towel after a swim.

Corallie Thoma's 1919 & 1920 "Convertible skirt & breeches"

Corallie Thoma was a designer in the fashion industry. Her parents were both Belgian (or was her father German, or Italian – sources disagree!), but Corallie was born and lived in Pennsylvania in the United States of America.

We don’t know much about Corallie, but from the 1910 census we glean that her mother was widowed by the age of 52, at which point she had 13 children but only 7 were still alive. Corallie (then aged 24) is living with her mother along with 1 older sister, 4 younger sisters and a younger brother. 3 of her sisters give their occupation as milliner.

Corallie held three patents that we are aware of: one for a form for drying gloves and then two for the convertible skirt and breeches: one in the USA (1919) and one in Canada (1920).

Aneela McKenna (Mór Diversity) – Aneela’s skirt converted into military style jodhpurs by way of a clever concealed buttoning system. It took the longest to convert from one design to the other, but following the conversion she was able to hop straight onto a horse and join in all the physical activities. And it worked well in both designs, neither was compromised.

Edith Foltz's 1937 aviatrix costume

Edith Foltz got into the American barnstorming scene via her husband, but went on to become a famous aviatrix in her own right, competing in air derbies and other forms of stunt and competitive flying as well as spending periods of her life operating a passenger air service, serving in the British Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II and working as an instructor.

Several of the early women pilots were socialites and movie stars, but the glamour of this side of flying had to be balanced with the practicalities of having to maintain fickle machines and sometimes walking long distances after emergency landings in rural locations.

Edith’s clothing solution for this was a combination undergarment and skirt, where the skirt could be “drawn upwardly and fastened over the shoulders of the wearer to form a blouse of substantial and well-fitting construction […]. The invention is particularly well adapted for women flyers in that it provides a garment which permits free action of the wearer’s limbs in getting into and out of an airplane, and also in the operation of the airplane. The invention also provides a skirt of attractive appearance which entirely covers the undergarment when worn as a skirt to thereby provide a garment suitable for street wear.”

Edith’s signature garment underwent different iterations over several years and also became commercially available as the “Foltz-up”.

Kat Jungnickel (Politics of Patents) – This invention as initially designed for women pilots to look socially acceptable on the ground and converted into an all-in-one flying suit in the air. It was also intended for camping, hunting, and horse-riding. The skirt unzips at the sides and lifts to the shoulders where it creates a blouse. It worked surprisingly well. Kat liked the handy pockets revealed in the conversion and how quickly it converted from one design into another. Though, it was understandably not very warm on the side of an icy mountain in Scotland.

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