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Celebrate 50 Years of Women in Athletics : Evolution of Women’s Jerseys

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In the mid to late 1800s, it was not considered important for women to participate let alone excel at competitive sports so their clothing was not designed to give them the movement in order to do so. At first, women tended to play more “leisurely” sports such as golf, badminton, and archery. For golf, women wore tailored blouses and skirts similar to clothing worn for business. Tweed started to become popular for athletic clothing. Since modesty was the times main concern, women’s activewear limited their ability to participate in many activities. The immobilizing corsets and endless layers of heavy wool skirts that characterized women’s fashion of the era made mobility extremely difficult. It’s impressive these women could even walk, much less play sports! Women’s “athletic” gear was itchy, heavy, restrictive, and sometimes just plain silly-looking — a far cry from the small, lightweight, breathable fashions of today’s female athletes.

By the early 1900s, a lightweight wool jersey typically worn by men who played rugby, was adopted into women’s dress for sport as well. Students in the new women’s colleges left behind their corsets, petticoats, and bustles for simpler skirts and jersey tops taken directly from men’s styles in order to participate in sports like crew and baseball. At the same time, men’s schools added a heavier outer layer of wool knit to keep the body warm, and since athletic activity caused healthy sweating, “sweater” clearly described its role. Soon after the introduction of these pieces of specific clothing for sports in collegiate settings, women borrowed them, wearing them for their own sports and leisurewear from the end of the nineteenth century and on. The college environment was important because it allowed a looser, more casual kind of clothing on campuses separate from the formality of urban attire at the time.

By the turn of the twentieth century, young women wore jerseys, turtleneck sweaters, and cardigans borrowed directly from their male counterparts. Throughout the turn of the century’s first three decades, wool and cotton were the fabric of American life. “Jersey” comes from the style of knit made from the wool used at the time. Wool was used because it stretched and breathed, but imagine how hot and drenched with sweat shirts must have been? Numbers were added on the sleeve for further player identification in the 1940s. Soon after, the All-American Girls Softball League was created, and women wore uniforms featuring belted short-sleeved tunic dresses with caps. Player names were added in the 1960s to the back of the jerseys along with numbers. From about the 1980s until current, the fashion has stayed relatively the same. Players today wear clothing built for each sport. The clothing is closely fitted to the body and enables movement. The focus of the clothing has moved away from mirroring the daily fashion worn on the street to becoming a fashion unto itself. Performance fabrics, including polyester, nylon and spandex, allow athletes to stay cool on and off the court.

We have come a long way from the restrictive corsets and petticoats of the past. Today, women play all the sports that men do. Basketball, football, tennis, track, soccer, hockey and many more all have their specific attire but one thing they have in common is their lightweight and breathable quality that we so easily take for granted!

Women basketball

The UMD Women’s Basketball team qualified for the NAIA National Tournament from 1988 to 1994.

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