"The Edwardian Gym Dress Project"
adventures in historic costuming for Bartitsu

designed by Rachel Klingberg

[Edwardian Gym Dress]
This 1905 gym dress was a primary inspiration
After months of wearing masculine attire to my Bartitsu classes, I decided to attempt to construct a feminine version of turn-of-the-century workout attire. The gents had it a lot easier - comfortable trousers and a plain white cotton tee shirt or tank top were typical training attire. These masculine garments can be easily purchased off-the-rack; the plain white tee shirt has not changed in construction for at least a century, and long pants are easily converted into knickers with a quick alteration. But the feminine equivalent, as so often the case, is considerably more complicated.

Health-minded social figures began to advocate physical fitness for women in the latter half of the 19th century, but these early "gymnastics" exercises were relatively tame. Except for horseback riding (side-saddle, at a gentle pace, accompanied by a groom or chaperone), middle- and upper-class women didn't engage in many sports, and their attire reflected their sedentary lives. But women gradually made inroads in recreational sports, most notably, bicycling, and eventually golf, tennis, fencing, and even martial arts became socially acceptable for ladies.

Such exciting new pastimes required new forms of dress. Long dresses and tight jackets, not to mention hats, gloves, corsets, and high-heeled boots, were ill-suited to physical activity. While women continued to wear long dresses for tennis and croquet, female bicyclists and golfers began to wear knickerbockers for ease and safety. For gymnastics classes, women began to wear specially-constructed gym-dresses, similar to bathing suits of the period. They were loose, baggy, one-piece "romper" style garments with bloomer bottoms and blouse-y tops, often trimmed with sailor collars and decorative waist sashes. Like bathing suits, they were often constructed of wool jersey or cotton twill, and were worn without corsets. It sounds rather hot and uncomfortable, but compared to the skirts and jackets and layers of petticoats worn in even the hottest weather, the gym-dress must have been wonderfully liberating for the sport-minded lady of the turn of the century.

After spending hours looking at dozens of archival photos, illustrations, advertisements, and catalogs, I decided to recreate my own Edwardian gym-dress from old tee-shirts. I chose to use tee-shirts for practical reasons; tee-shirt fabric is cool, comfortable, does not wrinkle, and can be easily washed. It is also inexpensie; the equivalent yardage would have cost much more than the $15 or so I spent on six extra-large Hanes tee-shirts. And the tee-shirt hem is the perfect gusset for the drawstring cinches at the bottom of the bloomer pants - a real time-saver. Even so, since this was a hand-sewing project, it took months to complete. It certainly was worth it; the gym-dress is one of the most comfortable garments I've ever worn for training, and it looks great, too!

[Edwardian Gym Dress Project]
This is my favorite of the set. I look ready for adventure standing on the dry fountain in the courtyard of my apartment building./FONT>

[Edwardian Gym Dress Project]
This photo shows the gym-dress the best, I think. I still can't believe I not only sewed this, but made it look good, having never made such a thing before.
[Edwardian Gym Dress Project]
Attempting to strike a pugilistic pose.

[Edwardian Gym Dress Project]
I am holding my well-thumbed Bartitsu Compendium, Vol. I.

[Edwardian Gym Dress Project]
Sitting on the dry fountain with another favorite volume, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook

[Edwardian Gym Dress Project]
My friend Michael did a fantastic job aging this photo. If not for the paperback book, I could almost pass for an Edwardian lady!