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The restrictive bodices of the 1870s were no easier for tennis players. Not only did women have to drag bustles of horsehair or cotton padding around the court, but the whalebone inserts in their corsets often dug into their upper bodies, leaving them bloody. Reaching shots presented a problem—the long sleeves of the tennis garments were confining, even in the less competitive game of that time.
Women golfers of the late 1880s and early 1890s coped with a different handicap—the rage for tight, stiff collars two to four inches high. There was one advantage to this fashion. The "absolutely unbendable aluminum-plated watchspring steel collar supports," as they were described in a German magazine advertisement, helped to keep the golfer's head motionless as she made her swing. After swinging, it was difficult for her to turn her head to follow the ball's trajectory. She was also left with the 19th-century version of that embarrassing ring-around-the-collar. When she donned a low-cut gown for the evening, no amount of rice powder could mask the bright-red chafing mark on the golfer's neck. The tight collars also impeded circulation.
By 1885 it had become socially acceptable for women to join in hunting expeditions. But as women trekked through forest, field or jungle, their skirts collected mud, dust and grass stains, even when hems were shortened several inches and trimmed with leather hem guards. Also, the heavy materials used for women's clothing and undergarments often weighed more than 20 pounds and were exhausting to walk around in.
"Fast" women such as Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress known as the Divine Sarah, dared to wear breeches when they went riding or shooting. The Divine Sarah couldn't resist making a grand entrance for her "crocodile hunt" at Charles Bell's plantation outside Lake Charles, La., in the 1890s. With her inimitable flair, she appeared in an enormous muff and a sealskin coat, a white suede jacket, a large hat embellished with pheasant feathers, and high-heeled boots. Knowing full well that a crocodile hunt was futile in Louisiana, Bell thoughtfully arranged for a baby alligator to be placed in one of his lakes. When the hunt proved unsuccessful, one of the gardeners presented Bernhardt with the alligator on a leash.
She promptly had it shipped back to France to join the rest of her menagerie, which over the years had included a monkey named Darwin, a cheetah, a chameleon and an alligator named Ali-Gaga (which allegedly died of an overdose of champagne). Unfortunately, upon its arrival, Bernhardt's newest pet gobbled up one of the actress's tiny Manchester terriers. This time there was a real hunt, by Sarah's secretary, who shot and killed the alligator. No costume required.
Special attire was necessary, however, when cycling became the rage in the 1890s. Ready or not, Victorian society finally had to come to terms with women wearing "rational" garments, a euphemism for items such as divided skirts. Prudes who were offended by the very thought of women astride any object were decidedly unready for these innovations. Women even played croquet with the mallet held at an awkward 45-degree angle from the body, since bringing a stick between the legs was considered immoral. (After all, women had no "legs" in polite society. Those two appendages were considered indiscretions of human anatomy.) Whipped up to an irrational frenzy, the anticyclists inveighed against women's newfound freedom on wheels. They argued that cycling was unladylike and harmful to beauty. Those female cyclists who did venture out on the roads were advised to carry menthol cones to stroke across their foreheads to soothe their frazzled nerves.
In the meantime, cyclists—both men and women—were having a wonderful time, and enthusiasm for the sport was infectious. On weekends tens of thousands poured into the fashionable cycling spots: New York's Central Park, London's Battersea Park and Paris's Bois de Boulogne. At first, women cyclists wore skirts that measured three yards around the hem. These tended to snag on the bikes, but that was of less concern than the grave risk of exposing the legs when lifting the knees while pedaling. Some cyclists weighted their skirts with small pieces of lead; others attached loops of elastic to their hems and fastened them around their legs. There was also a vogue for roomy, divided skirts and short capes. Once the rider dismounted, she could remove the cape from her shoulders and button it around her waist to hide her vulgar garb. Bloomers or knickerbockers, which were introduced about this time, became the reasonable solution. Critics, though, continued to resist the idea of women wearing anything other than a skirt.
Bloomers and knickerbockers should have provided women with a practical and comfortable sporting outfit. Unfortunately there was another trial to endure: Dr. Jaeger's Sanitary Woolen System. Gustav Jaeger, a professor of zoology at Stuttgart University, somehow persuaded the public that only wool would keep the body at its natural temperature. It was felt that garments made with cotton or linen could induce colds, flu and worse. Even a manufacturer's small linen label in an all-wool garment might lead to a sore throat, claimed Jaeger, since the linen would sop up perspiration and cause a chill.
So women (and men) donned all-wool outergarments and Jaeger's sanitary woolen undergarments for tennis, walking and cycling. Summer weather found innumerable Jaegerites swooning from heat exhaustion. A victim was, naturally, covered with woolen blankets to prevent chills.
Even Lillian Russell, the darling of American music halls, who was famed for her opulent hourglass figure, became caught up in cycling. She hid her "not very good legs" under the ample skirts of her stunning white cycling suit when she rode her $1,900 gold-plated bicycle, a gift from Diamond Jim Brady. Diamond chips and other jewels sparkled in the bicycle's spokes and hubs, and its handlebars were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The bike came equipped with its own plush-lined leather case. Diamond Jim often accompanied Russell on bicycle rides in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on his own lavish model. He also owned a "triplet," which accommodated Brady on the front seat, a lady in the middle and a groom in the rear to do most of the pedaling.