The Vault

The Lovely Lady Athletes of Belle Epoque France

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Unlike Wimbledon, where the fashion commentators have their eyes trained mostly on the stands, in coverage of the French Open, which wraps up this weekend, the players’ outfits are the focus. You can usually count on a Williams sister to keep things interesting—see, for example, Venus’s lacey, corset-like tutu from 2010. So far this year, we haven’t seen anything quite so provocative, but this hasn’t stopped news outlets from keeping the fashion score

This international pastime actually goes back much further than you might think: all the way, in fact, to the advent of photojournalism. In France, this coincided, more or less, with the birth of women’s competitive sports in the early 1900s.

Like other images of modern femininity circulated in Belle Epoque women’s magazines, coverage of la “sportswoman” balanced new equalities with traditional feminine values of beauty, elegance, and grace.  On the heels of the sweeping educational reforms of the 1880s, more women than ever were becoming doctors, lawyers, teachers, and writers; why not athletes as well?

New kinds of physical activities meant new fashion opportunities. One magazine spread showed off the range of swimmers’ bathing caps in all their tantalizing (if not exactly functional) variety. Sportswomen could still be alluring in their new costumes. In this case, it was simply a matter of knowing how to “place a bonnet de bain around a pretty face.” To take another example, a woman fishing on a 1906 magazine cover may as well have been in a corset advertisement, so narrow is her waistline, gathering the gorgeous fabrics of her dress as she reels us in.

From the get-go, though, la joueuse de tennis was the athlete to watch. The joueuse’s twists and turns were articulated in the fabric she wore, accentuating the feminine contours of her body. As she moved, her skirts moved with her, offering just a suggestion of what should not be seen: a peek at a tiny shoe, the upper reaches of an ankle boot.

Today, the boundaries of that forbidden zone have changed significantly, but sports photographers still love to offer us tantalizing images of women in motion.  

Swim Cap

“Variations on the Swim Cap”, Femina, August 15 1904. Photo courtesy of Rachel Mesch.

 “Summer Sport: Parisian Woman Fishing,” Femina, July 15, 1906. Photo courtesy of Rachel Mesch.

“Tennis Player,” Femina, July 15, 1904. Photo courtesy of Rachel Mesch.