The First Gym Suit: A Revolution in Fitness Fashion

The story of the first gym suit, what it looked like in its first conception, evolving to all the options we have today, has given me a deeper sense of meaning and appreciation as I put on my favorite P’tula activewear (even if I am only sitting at my desk instead of working out- HA!). While the first designs were bulky, their hand-stiched threads hold secrets of a woman’s soul code. Our ancestral bloodlines course through the very fibers we wear today. The thread system represents freedom, individuality, and the breaking of old societal programming.

*External links are being provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement of any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual.

YOU ARE WHAT YOU WEAR

My inspiration for the concept of this article came up from a typical store run one evening. As I was entering, a woman dressed in sportswear came walking out. Just as I was thinking in my mind how badass she looked, there were two women in front of me that I overheard saying: “She should not be wearing that out in public. What is she thinking?”

The woman judged was wearing a sports bra and running shorts. She clearly must have just left the gym from across the street, still cooling down from her workout.

At that moment, I thought what is their comment about? Were the women feeling offended or feeling insecure? Or perhaps they feared for the girl and the possible negative male attention she might gain? If she wore yoga pants and a baggy shirt, would they consider her to be “people from Walmart”? Or would she be a snobby yoga mom?

For fun, I want you to think about the gym pieces in your drawer or the ones you are wearing right now and answer these questions to yourself: Why did you choose them? Is it the fabric? Do they make you feel some kind of way? Is there a message in your choice that reveals something about you?

Obviously, the garments you own today have evolved. As fashion does, trends come and go. Designs are ever-changing. What you may not know is how exactly they came to be.

Through my college studies on female history and body image, I learned the incredible history behind the inception of the first gym suit. It is a story about women’s claimed right to education, the importance of athleticism, and the humble beginnings of females in sports.

SOCIETY AND GENDER BIAS

Long ago, in a society where beauty held weight, bosoms, and a tiny waste over comfort, the first gym suit would be the first and probably only article of comfort in a woman’s wardrobe. She would use it as an instrument to release her frustrations. To be fully immersed within herself. Sweaty. Messy. Beautiful. Natural.

And it all started like your typical underdog storyline. She was told she should not do something. But you know her…she would do it anyways.

THE FEMALE BODY

In the 1800s America, education for women was not fully supported however, this was the same time opportunities started to present themselves. In order to impede a female’s right to education, Edward Hammond Clarke, a Harvard Medical Professor, argued (shot off some mumbo jumbo bullshit) that women should not be allowed higher education as it could be damaging to their health. He went on to say that women using their brains can be distracting to other organs, by diverting energy away from the reproductive system and towards their brains, which might cause fertility and health issues.

Dr. Harvard’s recommendation: It’s best if women would just stick to their finishing schools with classes geared more towards home economics.

I don’t know about you, but I read that as – women can’t be learning cause education is freedom and we need these broads at home making the babies.

EWWW!

PHYSICAL FITNESS

Furthermore, once the Doctor was called out on his bullshit, and women started going to college, a new controversy aroused. Physical education was a new curriculum and Doctors seemed to have frowned upon that as well. They believed at the time that women should not exercise because it would cause them to become too muscular and THAT TOO, would be bad for their health.

I think they meant bad for their boners.

The idea was rooted in the belief that a woman’s body is naturally frail and weak. Therefore she should not do anything to make it stronger or overexert herself.

In order to disprove such nonsense from dodo doctors, data was collected by way of physical examinations on women who were involved in physical activities; noting weight changes, muscle gain, and lung capacity as well as examining their overall well-being. Data collected revealed that physical education played a role in balancing out students, especially after long hours of study.

Census says: physical education is essential for women. Yay Science!

ENTER SMITH COLLEGE

While controversy still existed around this matter of females and physical education, Smith College, a school in Boston, opened its doors in 1875.

Their mission: To promote higher education for women. Physical education would indeed be a part of the curriculum and they became one of the first colleges to have an all-female basketball team.

This is also the birthplace of some of the very first gym suits.

SHE GOT THE LOOK

Josephine Wilkins, who attended Smith College in the 1890s, would be one of the earliest recordings of a female putting in a request to her parents about sending her a gym suit. Only it didn’t exist yet. In a letter to her mother, Josephine basically said:

1890-something
Ma,
I really enjoy the gym activities along with my friends from school, but wearing corsets and steel cages is making it challenging for us to get the movement we need.
So Im going to need you to get into Betsy Ross mode and create me a uniform with the following in mind: 
Something skirt length, more pant-like but with unrestrained leg movement so I can make moves like Simone Biles. 
Something more laxed in the top area so I can dagger serve like Serena, yet a design that keeps my femininity intact looking all sexy and shit like Danica Patrick. 
Ma, It has to be a powerful number that allows me to comfortably and confidently throw out air jerks to the male staff like Mr. Chow. I have waited for this opportunity for a long time and my friends and I are so excited to show them what we can do. 
Thanks Ma!
Love your Baby Girl 
JW
PS. #freedatitties

What Josephine Wilkins asked her mother to make was an original. Obviously not in those exact words. I had to improve based on memory a little bit but you get the picture.

Prior to sports-based physical education, exercise for women consisted more of recreational activities such as hiking, skiing, snowshoeing, and even making 16-mile walks. And all would be done in skirts!

Society in that era held expectations for women to be curvy. Even if it meant restricting their natural body movements. Corsets were a staple in women’s clothing for centuries. They also restricted their movement by pushing their internal organs into their chests and abdomens making it difficult or even impossible to do any physical activity.

Flashback to Kate Winslet in the Titanic getting laced by her mother – woof!

It was requested that all female students send their parents’ official instructions on the new design. Otherwise, the girls could not participate in these adrenaline-pumping activities.

This new staple in the wardrobe of females at Smith College was exciting. It felt rebellious. Even though female athletes became more prevalent, they would be advised for a while by the educational institutions to wear bulky coats while on a stroll through the campus. No one was to see them in their gym clothes as it was not feminine.

BENCHING THE PATRIARCHY

Inside sporting events were very private at Smith College. That privacy removed the fear of judgment; from men in particular. Attaining the male gaze was still a top priority in a woman’s life. However, the gymnasium was always full as other women were allowed to be participants in the stands. A crowd of fascinated women cheered on their classmates. The energy filled the air echoing reverberation.

The sight of women as they were sweating, grunting, pushing, and being competitive was sensational! This would be the highlight of her day. The watcher and the player. For one of the first times, she would feel a new type of freedom.

It would be years before women started to lean into the comfort of athletic wear in public. They were still learning how to be confident in balancing their femininity with their athleticism. A new concept for sure. But this would also be the beginning of self-exploration in the realms of self-esteem. Passion. Finding out that there could be more for her out there than the traditional path to what it is to live in this world as a woman.

From 1891 – 1920s, women’s basketball gear was just baggy trousers and wool undershirts. It was enough and waaaaay better than the latter. By the 1920s women started to experiment with different types of clothing, engaging more with their bodies.

It would take half a century before women’s athletic capabilities were respected in basketball. It wasn’t until the period around World War II through the 1970s that their advancements were most significant. And even though today you can catch WNBA games on regular tv channels, women in basketball still fight for equal recognition and pay. But that’s not slowing these players down. Because women do what women do best. They push on.  

FROM FIRST GYM SUIT TO SKIMS

The female body, shape, and form, were a major focus for decades in the fashion industry. That is to include the sportswear industry. Somehow what started out as comfort, at the beginning with the first gym suit, found its way back to garments that heavily focused on the female form – surprise surprise!

Thankfully, female designers in the fashion industry most recently have stepped forward, taking the world of fashion fitness by the horns! Through new innovations, these women are creating functional, practical, yet comfortable designs that fit our body’s needs, shapes, AND lifestyles. The sportswear industry has grown exponentially in the past few years and it is not slowing down anytime soon. With Athleisure trending, fitness fashion is on a whole new level.

Since I dont look like every other girl, it takes a while to be okay with that. To be different. But different is GOOD.

serena williams

I suppose in today’s society interpretation of one’s clothing choices are stemmed from a lot of factors. And based on the comments from the women at the grocery store, there are still old patterns and programming at play. To each their own.

After going through the A.D.D rabbit hole of questions from that evening in the store I came to this conclusion: I believe when a woman chooses to wear her fitness gear in public – that is her right and her business only. After knowing what I know (and now you know too) instead of a sister passing judgment on another, remember that we were all pushed down together. So if you see your sister up – whether it’s your real sister or a random woman walking out of the store, don’t push her down.

There is nothing more beautiful than seeing a woman into herself. A woman dedicated to comfort. To her fitness. To her merit in the act of defiance against body shaming. It’s infectious.

YOUR LIFE IS REVEALED THROUGH YOUR CLOTHING

I found myself tearing up the other day when I was sitting at my desk. Outside my window, I happen to notice a woman run by while pushing a baby in a stroller. Wearing purple running shorts and a muscle tee, her face all red and sweaty, this chick was giving it her all. I couldn’t help but feel the urge to stand up and aggressively applaud her.

Luckily, for my ability to think before I act (not always), I pictured myself from her perspective, imagining how I would look. A weirdo face suction cupped to the window, mouthing gibberish, and clapping aggressively. Yeeeeaaaaah, that’s not a good look for me.

So instead, as the little hairs on my arm tingled and raised, I watched her run by with a warm smile across my face and quietly mouthed to myself –“you go girl”.

So the next time you put on your favorite pieces, remember what they stand for. You are wearing a suit of armor that has contributed to the end of sexual boundaries. The end of men saying what you can or can not wear in public. The removal of body shaming. Most importantly, you are wearing an expression of who you are and everything you believe in. Stay in that space for a moment and let it empower you.

She is able to live a life that is based on her dreams rather than the agenda of other people.

regina thomashauer aka “mama gena”

If you have a favorite gym line made for women created by women please share it in the comments below!

*External links are being provided as a convenience and for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement of any of the products, services or opinions of the corporation or organization or individual.

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