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Womens fashion 1908 Olympics

February 2, 2016

Sportswear in Edwardian times wasn’t the easy to move in clothes we expect today. Womens fashion 1908 for those competing in the Olympics was normal daywear.


The modern Olympic Games first began in 1896. 24 nations competed, and 241 athletes took part. The next Olympic Games was in 1900 in Paris, and though some consider it to be not a “real” Olympics, as there was no dedicated stadium for it, it was the first where women took part. In 1908 there was another “Olympic Games” at the St. Louis World Fair in the USA – but again, since 580 of the roughly 650 athletes were American, it didn’t really have the Olympic spirit.

Womens fashion 1908 – The Olympics

The 1908 Olympics was the next Olympics which really counted in the eyes of the world. It was held in London, having originally been scheduled for Rome, but since Vesuvius erupted in 1906, the Italians thought that maybe they’d be better off spending the money on disaster relief. So London graciously took over the baton, and there was a lot of press about how, with only two years to prepare, they had done a most wonderful job.


The Great Stadium they built was quickly renamed “White City” for its acres of white concrete, and it lead to the name for that part of London which is still called White City today.The stadium stood until 1985.


The 1908 Olympics hosted 2,035 athletes from 22 countries in 22 different categories, including tug-o-war, football, water motor sports and wrestling. Only 37 of these competitors were women, and they competed in five sports – archery, figure skating (singles and pairs), rackets (doubles), tennis (singles), and indoor tennis. They also got to participate in various sporting displays – fencing, swimming, diving and gymnastics.


But despite, or perhaps because of, this rarity, the women who took part absolutely wowed the crowds and some were head and shoulders above the men, who they competed against directly.

Womens fashion 1908 – archery and ice skating


Several medals were won by the archery team. The ice skating event was won in spectacular fashion by by Mrs Madge Syers, who competed both in partnership with her husband and on her own, against the men. This prompted the suggestion that perhaps more women could be allowed, or even encouraged to enter next time?


“The successful appearance of ladies in these competitions suggests the consideration that since one of the chief objects of the revived Olympic Games is the physical development and amelioration of the race, it appears illogical to adhere so far to classical tradition as to provide so few opportunities for the participation of a predominant partner in the process of race-production,” the report on the figure skating event pondered. “More events, in fact, might be open to women, whether they are permitted to compete with men or not.”


Personally, as a woman, I love to be known as the “predominant partner in the process of race-production”. It’s this along with the comment about “the physical development and amelioration of the race” which more than hints at the Edwardian enthusiasm for eugenics, a distasteful theory that we associate more with Nazi Germany than the lovely genteel English.


Eugenics was developed after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species in 1859. People began to wonder, if our characteristics are inherited, perhaps the English race could be improved through selective breeding to produce the ultimate human, strong and free from physical defects. Writers of books and pamphlets declared that inherited weakness or disability of the body or mind lead to crime, alcoholism and a tendency to unemployment.


But back to these women who took part in sport. As the lovely illustration above (and slightly less lovely photograph) shows, Edwardian women participating in sports often did so in their normal day clothes, including corsets, heeled boots and unwieldy hats in Womens fashion 1908

Sports clothes In Womens fashion 1908

For some sports, including cycling, golfing and motoring, special outfits were worn in Womens fashion 1908, including bloomers for cycling in. But of course, it was only the well off who could afford such a special separate outfit anyway.


Since 1908, the Olympic committee voted on whether they would include women’s sports and events. In 1951 women’s sports finally became a permanent part of the Olympic Games.




Mr and Mrs Syers give a magnificent display.I love how in this etching the couple look incredibly dainty and elegant compared with the original photo.

Madge and Edgar Syers at the 1908 Olympics

Edwardian tennis players.