The Evolution of Sportswear, and the Negative Affects on Women
According to DynamicTeamSports.com, the Olympic games were first established in 776 BCE, in ancient Greece. The traditional attire was loin clothes tied with a rope, or more often than not, completely nude. The website states, “Nudity in the Olympic games was meant to differentiate the ancient Greeks from neighboring civilizations and societies they considered barbaric because they believed that nakedness was shameful.” Even at the first winter Olympics held in 1924, in Chamonix France, the uniforms could pass off as everyday wear. According to Susan Sokolowski, a professor at the University of Oregon, athletes wore mostly pants and coats made of leather, wool, and cotton for warmth and protection. The Canadian hockey team wore leggings, sweaters, socks, gloves, and pads. Team USA speed skaters had stocking caps on to keep their ears warm. While the colors were unified per team, safety wasn’t considered.
The first examples of protection came from individual athletes themselves, and not through regulations. Author Conor Heffernan in his article, “The History of Sports Uniforms” tells of the first instance of shin guards in soccer. “In 1874, Samuel Widdowson made the first shin guards out of cricket pads. Although the reception was highly critical, the shin guards soon proved their value and are now an integral and inevitable part of the soccer uniform.” The same can be said for goalie helmets in hockey. According to author Eric Pickhartz in his article “Look Good Play Good”, Jacques Plante, goalie for the Montreal Canadians, was the first to play with a face mask in 1959. He states, “Too many shots to the face had Plante rightfully worried about an extended career, and his investments in his sport paved the way for his invention. Using fiberglass molds, Plante constructed a thin protective mask with eyeholes and an opening for the mouth.” These two athletes might have been the first to come up with ways to keep themselves safe in play, but they certainly weren’t the last.
It wasn’t until later in the 20th century, that other sports started to prioritize the safety and functionality of the athlete. Football uniforms incorporated thick wool and leather for more cushion. Helmets were now required in all contact sports, including hockey, football, baseball, and lacrosse. Uniforms became tighter to the body, in order to prioritize precision and movement. Most professional uniforms now are made of this synthetic material that is mapped specifically for the body. You see this type of uniform in basketball, biking, running, and many other movement essential sports. According to a study conducted by Wang F, et al. of Soochow University, when comparing body mapping sportswear to traditional cotton uniforms, body mapping sportswear is better for athlete performance. He states, “Results revealed that the moisture-wicking shirt lowered the core temperature during the exercise and the highly permeable shirt can also help in lowering the core temperature.” Keeping a cooler temperature not only keeps an athlete safer but also allows them to keep performing for longer periods of time.
Today’s uniforms look much different, and they are way safer. When designing modern uniforms, Sokolowski says, “Sports companies will assemble teams of experts in design, pattern engineering, development, materials science, aerodynamics, data science, biomechanics and physiology to bring new ideas to fruition.” They also take the governing rules set in place, brand deals, and landscapes into consideration when designing these uniforms. Sokolowski uses ski jumping as an example. The most important thing to take into consideration for ski jumping is speed. The athlete needs to stay warm, be able to move, and have protection against potential crashes. The modern uniforms are made of synthetic polymers that are fine-tuned to be a lot like wetsuits, spongy and insulating. There are International Ski Federation Rules, that contain requirements on how tight and wind-resistant a uniform can be. “Every four years, the process will start over again, to make sure the next generation of Olympians is outfitted in the best uniforms possible to win gold,” Sokolowski states.
Almost every part of the uniform in sports has reason and purpose behind it. They have been tweaked and changed throughout the years in hopes of bettering the performance of those who wear them. Sports uniforms are intentional, and all the changes made have a cause; to protect the player and enhance their performance. However, there are certain features on women’s uniforms that serve ultimately no purpose and only exist because of tradition. Molly Galdieri, staff reporter for The Forecast states in her article “Skirts or Shorts, the Ultimate Debate” that traditions in uniform are holding women back. She states, “For many generations, women were thought of as “masculine” if they played a sport, so they wore slim-fitting clothes and skirts to obscure this “masculinity”. The difference in male and female uniforms was based on an ideal that does not properly represent today’s growing generations, and should therefore be discontinued.”
Women’s uniforms started out as a way to conceal the athlete, instead of assisting them. Women donned big hats and long skirts in order to cover up, and still remain feminine. As time went on, these skirts became shorter and shorter. Short skirts are still present in a multitude of sports today; lacrosse, tennis, golf, and field hockey. These types of uniforms have no apparent purpose, except for being feminine. In her article, “Does Femininity Matter in Sports”, Hailey Robinson touches on the idea that being an athlete is different than being a female athlete. “In a world where athleticism is seen as inherently male, femininity does set female athletes apart from the view of the neutral athlete. A male athlete can just be an athlete, with no qualifier, but a female athlete is always a female athlete. To exist in sports, their femininity is always emphasized.” Sports as a whole are perceived as male-defined, so throughout history women have appeared feminine to set themselves apart. Skirts are inherently female, so women have continued to wear them even in the sports world, where they serve no functional purpose.
Because of this sexist idea that female athletes are outside of the “norm”, attention is placed on the women’s bodies and that harms the athlete. Fitness accounts on social media, sports magazines, and even famous athletes all focus their attention on remaining “fashionable” in athletics. Influencers show off their bodies and swear by certain brands. Sports Illustrated, the United State’s biggest sports magazine rarely doesn’t cover a half-naked model on the front. This type of coverage negatively affects young female athletes. “Nearly half of female athletes – 45% – particularly in sports where a lean body is considered important, have disordered eating or an eating disorder.” says author Christine Yu, in her article “We need to Talk about Body Image in Female Athletes”. “You may compare yourself to other athletes you see on social media or to professional athletes. As a result, it’s easy to believe that you need a certain body type to succeed.”
Galdieri, Molly. “Skirts or Shorts – The Ultimate Debate.” The Forecast, https://hhsnews.net/3088/sports/skirts-or-shorts-the-ultimate-debate/#:~:text=Aside%20from%20sexualization%2C%20another%20answer,to%20obscure%20this%20%E2%80%9Cmasculinity%E2%80%9D.
Pickhartz, Eric Michael. “Look Good, Play Good The World of American Sports Uniforms.” Texas Scholar Works, 2011, https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/bitstream/handle/2152/ETD-UT-2011-08-4173/PICKHARTZ-MASTERS-REPORT.pdf?sequence=1.
Robinson, Hailey. “Does Femininity Matter in Women’s Sports?” The Daily of the University of Washington, 8 Apr. 2018, https://www.dailyuw.com/sports/does-femininity-matter-in-women-s-sports/article_c84b050c-ce64-11e7-bcbc-37b559be62da.html.
Yu, Christine. “We Need to Talk about Body Image in Female Athletes.” WebMD, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/features/female-athletes-body-image#:~:text=For%20example%2C%20in%20a%20survey,conscious%20of%20their%20body%20image.
Sokolowski, Susan L. “How Olympic Uniforms Are Engineered to Win.” Industrial Equipment News, 18 July 2019, https://www.ien.com/product-development/news/20992751/how-olympic-uniforms-are-engineered-to-win.
“The Evolution of Sports Uniforms.” Dynamic Team Sports, https://www.dynamicteamsports.com/the-evolution-of-sports-uniforms/#:~:text=Until%20WWII%2C%20the%20majority%20of,more%20conducive%20to%20athletic%20activity.
Wang F, Cai X, Zhang C, Shi W, Lu Y, Song G. Assessing the performance of a conceptual tight-fitting body mapping sportswear (BMS) kit in a warm dry environment. Fibers and polymers. 2016;17(1):151-159. doi:10.1007/s12221-016-5375-5