Looking forward to the Olympics and remembering sporting ancestors


02 August 2016
Screen-Shot-2016-08-01-at-15.40.58-81653.png The English football team at the Stockholm Olympics, 1912 Image: Library of Congress
Sportswear from 1896 onwards, from cycling bloomers to elegant archery.

This week Brazil welcomes all nationalities to Rio de Janeiro, for the opening of the 2016 Olympic games on Friday and Charlotte Olver takes a nostalgic look at clothing in sport.

Looking back, it is fair to say that the games have come a long way since Athens hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, in which just 14 countries took part. One of the ways we can track the history of this world renowned event is by looking at the various types of clothing worn, carefully designed for victory.

It is clear that British women’s contribution has evolved from the the initial limited choice of events and the appropriate fashion which flattered their figure. We don’t think Jessica Ennis-Hill could have achieved a gold medal in the Heptathlon dressed in an Edwardian blouse, an ankle-length skirt or dress and an elaborate hat, as women did in the 1908 Olympics. The genteel lady was encouraged to take part in Archery, as the stance was deemed ideal for showing off their refined feminine form. Luckily, in years to come the clothing conventions assigned to women were to be challenged, broadening the opportunities for involvement in different events.

Riding attire has developed a lot over the years, occasionally being altered to keep up with the rapidly changing fashion. Since the early 20th century it has stayed fairly similar, with men wearing riding breeches which ended at the knee extending to long boots alongside a morning coat or lounge jacket and waistcoat, collar, tie, top hat or bowler. For a female equestrian, the dress was either trousers of stout cloth or chamois leather. The additional option of a skirt was introduced in 1875, worn alongside a safety skirt to protect a woman’s modesty while she perched elegantly on top of a horse.

Nowadays, it’s hard to believe that cyclists wore knickerbockers with stockings as opposed to the streamlined leggings worn today. We think competitors at the present would struggle to bear the Brazilian heat in knickerbockers, and for Victorian women, a woollen corset! Most women cyclists embraced knickerbockers or ‘bloomers’ as an easier option and by the 1930s women finally had the luxury of wearing shorts similar to those worn today.

In the first athletics event, men wore white round necked vests, with short sleeves and cotton drawers (with tights worn underneath), similar to other clothing items, over time the acceptable length became shorter for both sexes. Shoes evolved overtime to suit the needs of the athlete, becoming lighter and with better grip. In 1852, spiked shoes were introduced and in the 1890s Joseph William Foster opened the first sports shoe shop (which later became Reebok).

Only small adaptions have been made to the British football kit since the they stepped onto the pitch in Athens. For memorabilia and much more visit Manchester’s The National Football Museum has free admission and will enhance your knowledge on the sport and its history. Hopefully our boys will have better luck in Rio than the Euros!

Content continues after advertisements

Gymnastics was one of the first sports to push boundaries on outfits for both sexes, allowing women to wear blouses and calf-length skirts instead of having to hide away their skin in long skirts.

Swimwear consisted of a vest and shorts for men, and an all in one which, by 1912 only came to their mid-thigh and had capped sleeves.

Lastly, rowing, an unquestionably British sport originating in Oxford and Cambridge. A Largely male-dominated sport, with menswear developing from canvas trousers to knickerbockers and finally replaced with shorts. Interested in the history of rowing? The River and Rowing Museum situated in the picturesque Henley on Thames might be a place for you to visit this summer.

For those wanting to know more about the history of the Olympics, The Museum of London contains more information and artefacts relating to the London 1908, 1948 and 2012 games. After the success of the London 2012 Olympics, which had us all glued to our screens it would be a result to see our nation become equally transfixed by the competitors heading to Brazil this summer.

Please feel free to send in photos of your ancestors in their sportswear from years gone by.

Find Jayne Shrimpton's article on sporting clothing in July 2012 Family Tree. Check out her latest photo dating series starting in the September issue on sale 3rd of August.