19th Century, Rate the dress

Rate the Dress: 1890s gym suit

Last week I presented a very yellow, very young, very sweet 1830sish dress.  As always, there were a range of opinions, but I think Daniel’s summation of the dress as “Charming and very pretty, but not really holding more than passing interest/attention” best encompasses the overall view, and the resulting rating of 6.7 out of 10.

This week, in honour of the Olympics, and in honour of the only part of the Olympics I am interested in (what the athletes are wearing), I present an athletics themed garment: a ladies gym suit from the 1890s.

Gym Suit, 1893—98, American, wool, cotton, leather, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gym Suit, 1893—98, American, wool, cotton, leather, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Women’s athletics were just becoming popular in the 1890s (having spent the previous 30 years simply gaining acceptance), but women’s bodies were still considered much weaker and more fragile than men’s, so the athletics they participated in were comparatively sedate.  No women were allowed to compete in the first modern Olympics in 1896 (though one did insist on running the marathon on her own the day after the men ran).  Instead, women walked, rode, and did a range of gymnastics exercises.

This gym suit, with its pleated bloomers and full middy blouse would allow a range of motion, and the full sash with balls at the end could be used for stretching and calisthenics.   In darkest blue wool with red highlights, the aesthetic gives a nod to nautical fashions: quite appropriate as bathing and walking by the sea were one of the first accepted physical activities for women.

So what do you think?  Is the suit an attractive example of late-Victorian modesty meeting new ideas of health?  How does it compare to modern athletic gear in an aesthetic sense?

Rate the Dress on a Scale of 1 to 10


  1. It’s rather funny. The full pantaloons with the skinny legs of the manequin, the gathers in the back, the pom-poms… oh, the pom-poms!
    But it’s a lovable sort of funny. 8/10

  2. The Mad Purple Chicken says

    It’s cute. Much nicer looking than modern gym clothes. The pom poms are so funny! They remind me of those Rupert books.

    I imagine that the wearer must have had quite a big personality, it’s bordering on cartoonish, but I like it.


  3. While just thinking about exercising in this gives me heat exhaustion, and while I think the pompom sash would probably get more in the way than act as an on-dress yoga strap, well, it’s CUTE. 9/10

  4. I really like it. I have to say, if it were not for the collar (I don’t really do nautical, though I do think it is nice on the model) and maybe if it were slightly less matchy-matchy I would wear it (for modern clothes – not for historical dress-up!).


  5. Elise says

    I adore it! 9/10. Why not a perfect score? Well, the pom-poms. I’ve been practicing karate since 1994, and I can tell you–as someone who wore her dad’s old karate belts–that the pom-poms would slap you in the face if you did anything that would raise your knees! So -1 for practicality, and 9 for wonderfulness.

    • Kim says

      I don’t think women were allowed to have knees back then.

      • Elise says

        Ah, so THAT’S how goose-stepping was invented.

  6. I love the colors and the nautical collar. I’m not so enamoured of the sash with the pom-poms on the ends. Even with pom-poms, this definitely trumps most modern athletic wear for looks. I’d like to see an olympic team or two try these out (where would Nike put the “swoosh”?). 8/10.

  7. Zach says

    I love it. 🙂 It’s very cute and wonderfully modest at the same time. It seems like most of the modern outfits are so boring…

    Ten out of ten!

  8. I love it. I like the colours and nautical them and the pompoms. 9/10

  9. I am in love with this outfit. Those pom-poms are ridiculous in the best way possible and the combination of red and navy, with that brilliant striped collar = 10/10 for me.

  10. I also love it! Just can’t see me back-flipping around the floor in it, though…

  11. This is so Edward Gorey! Also, for the 1890s, it must have been as screamingly modern as the latest day-glow moisture-wicking specialized sports gear today. It bespeaks a modern, liberated woman, not afraid of catching a strongman’s eye with those vivid touches of red. I’m giving it 10/10 – which I have never done before.

  12. If this were a coat instead of bloomers, I would wear it. 10/10. By the way I am trying to find out more about the Polish womens’ Olympic uniform without much success. Love their slim white with poppies sweeping up one thigh…

  13. Lisa F. says

    I can imagine a lady wearing this on the beach but the pom poms crack me up. I give it a 9 out of 10.

  14. LindaMB says

    Wearing wool to exercise? You’d likely perspire without to much effort. Sorry ladies don’t perspire, we glow. I’d give it a 8/10 because I really like the pom-poms and the colors. And it isn’t half as hideously designed as the cotton golden rod coloured romper suite or the navy coloured polyester one the sadistic gym teachers made us wear in the mid-70’s.

    • The Mad Purple Chicken says

      It would be sweaty in wool gym clothes. Maybe it’s for colder weather, I can easily picture a lady ice skating in this.

      • I’m going to disagree with you here: as a natural fibre, wool is wonderfully breathable. It also has natural antigerm qualities, making it great for sweating in. Athletes doing treks across Australia and in the Sahara have worn merino wool outfits, as it is the most comfortable fabric in the extremes of temperature. And in a large, mainly unheated Victorian gymnasium in winter that outfit would be fantastic (comfort wise – sartorially speaking is up to you)! I’d go for a run in it right now. Or just do a bunch of jumping around in my living room.

  15. As athletic wear it’s as silly as most Victorian athletic wear (for both sexes) was, but as a costume I think it’s rather charming. The only off touch–the silly pompons on the ends of the red sash. An 8 of 10.

  16. I love the presentation – putting it on a mannequin posed in a dynamic way brings out the personality of the garment.
    I think it is cool. The pompoms are cool. For exercise? Well, I’m not really in a position to comment. But I think it is charming anyway. 9/10

  17. I think it’s lovely! It would be impossible in the Tennessee heat, but for a cooler clime it actually looks quite practical. And it’s just charming! The pom-poms might get in the way a bit, though, so minus .5 for that. 9.5 for me!

  18. 3 of ten.

    it’s ugly as hell, but i would probably just be greatfull for something comfy to exercise in if i was a victorian miss

  19. Hayley says

    OOOOO! 10/10! This is adorable, fun and practical.

    Can you imaging twirling on the spot, and having the pompoms fly around you?
    This is something you could roll down a grassy hill wearing, or skip around the courtyard a la The Secret Garden.

  20. Want it! But I’d do away with the silly balls on the end of the sash; they look ridiculous! 8/10

  21. I like it all apart from the pompoms….are you sure its meant to be a belt? lol!
    I’d have liked a school PE kit like this for going outside (I was going to say in winter, but really basically anytime of year in the UK bar the usual 2 weeks of summer).

  22. As a dress it is revolting. As a gym suit it is kinda silly looking. But, in the day, I’m sure it was the envy of all the other girls. 5/10. Mostly because I don’t like exercise now so I’d likely not like it if I lived in Victorian times. I’d never need one…..

  23. It would be so easy to laugh at this as a gym suit but the colors are nice and overall it doesn’t look bad. The pom-poms bother me some. 6

  24. I’m still dubious about the pom-poms not being an instrument of “the man” trying to convince women that they shouldn’t exercise (by way of the poms attacking any time the wearer tried to do something remotely active).

    But, considering I think “ooooohhh,” every time I see this suit, I have to give it 9.5.

    I think that without the sash and poms, the suit would only be so-so from a fashion standpoint. It needs them to be balanced properly.

    Perhaps if one were to recreate it, the waist band would be two pieces? One red belt that stays on and defines the waist, then the poms and their belt that is removable for use in stretching and what not–so, it doubles as a fashionable part of the outfit when not exercising and as a separate aid when being active. (Or maybe that is how it is actually constructed?)

  25. Black Tulip says

    The pompoms make it for me, for their sheer impractical exuberance.


  26. I love the whole top half, but there is just sooo much fabric in the bloomer portion. It seems like it would be far more practical to have a skirt over narrower pants, like in the bathing suits of the time. 6.5/10

  27. Claire Payne says

    One wouldn’t dare exert oneself for fear of heat exhaustion. I do love it though. Sport wear without the dreaded lycra. Bring back pom-poms too. There just aren’t enough pom-poms in modern sport. LOL. 7 out of 10.

    • Claire Payne says

      I forgot to mention that it reminds me of Poiret’s style in the early 1900’s. Perhaps it was his inspiration?

  28. Daniel says

    Aw, it’s cute. I honestly can’t fault it at all – even the pompoms may be impractical but it’s not like the wearer wouldn’t tuck them in her belt if she was going to frolic with any earnestness. 10/10.

  29. I love it! Setting aside its historical aspect, I think it could become the perfect Steampunk outfit. I’m certain those pom poms are actually cleverly concealed weapons. Think of the variety of gadgets you could hide in the voluminous sleeves, not to mention the pantaloons. It appears to not need a corset underneath, so allows complete freedom of movement when climbing through your dirigible to make repairs. If an accident occurred on the dirigible, the whole outfit could be used as a parachute, to drop you safely on a tropical island, where a sleeve could then become a tent. Once you fashioned a boat from native materials, the other sleeve could become a sail, ensuring your safe return home. Yes, a very satisfactory outfit!

    9/10 because it is made of wool. True Steampunk would have invented a fabric that would have kept the good properties of wool, but made it more lightweight. With all that fabric, I bet it weighs a ton!

    • Try feeling some Super 100s wool, it feels smooth and light as silk. Wool doesn’t always have to be heavy.

  30. I think this is charming! The nautical colours and details look so smart. I also just love that ridiculously fabulous sash – even the pompoms!


  31. D Brynelsen says

    How easy or difficult would it be to swim in one of these? I’m currently working on a historical novel and in one scene a father is leading his son and daughters in their daily exercise regimen and afterwards the family plunges into a swimming pool to cool down.

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