Girls on the Move: Clothing and Freedom

by Patty Edmonson
Posted on November 06, 2023


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Today, girls are empowered to play freely and join in both team and individual athletics, and clothing reflects this. 

Over a hundred years ago, many parents prohibited activities deemed too rough or dangerous: young women did not ride a horse astride and basketball rules prohibited dribbling more than three times before passing, but they forged their own way. Over the decades, young women challenged authority and found new freedom in play and sport. Their clothing changed to allow freedom of movement, confidence, and independence. Several garments in the current exhibition Dressed for the Job: Clevelanders in Uniform help to illustrate this history.

By today’s standards, wealthy girls of 1900 were constrained by society. They attended elite boarding schools, traveled in small social circles, made advantageous marriages, and wore the proper attire. Miriam Norton’s sidesaddle riding habit seems foreign when compared to what young women wear on horseback today. Women wore riding breeches, or jodhpurs, underneath a matching skirt and jacket–all in a heavy wool. The voluminous skirt was carefully crafted to accommodate the appropriate sidesaddle riding style, so that one’s legs were not astride the horse.

Riding habit

Riding Habit, 1903. Gift of Mrs. Fred R. White, Mr. Laurence, & Robert Norton 42.4899

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Sporting Fashions in Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1890. WRHS Library.

Fording the river

Rocky River: Fording the River, 1920s. Possibly students and teacher from Horace Mann Junior High School. WRHS Library.

Detail of “On Bicycles,” Plain Dealer May 26, 1895

Detail of “On Bicycles,” Plain Dealer May 26, 1895

Her riding habit was made during a time of great change. Bifurcated skirts, which allowed for riding astride, were available at the turn of the twentieth century, but weren’t widely worn. By the 1920s, it was acceptable for young women to wear jodhpurs without an overskirt. Changes in horseback riding were also tied to the introduction of the “safety bicycle” during the 1890s. A few women wore bloomers, or blousy pantaloons, but a slightly shorter skirt was widely adopted for most female cyclists. Whatever the attire, bicycles gave girls a new freedom of speed and transportation.

Josephine Cannon wore this gym suit as a student at Laurel School. The school, then located on Euclid Avenue, built a new gymnasium in 1914, which created spaces for sports such as basketball, complete with electricity. After graduation, Josephine attended Smith College, where she joined the swim and basketball teams. Basketball was relatively new during the early twentieth century, and it was one of the few sports considered appropriate for high school girls (with much altered rules): in 1904, the Plain Dealer wrote that it was “active without being too rough.” Most female athletes wore a gym suit like this, with bloomers to the knee, or bloomers paired with a sailor blouse. Bloomers were acceptable in part because girls usually wore them in the privacy of an indoor gymnasium.

By the 1930s, young female athletes finally had the freedom to move, without knee-length bloomers. Here, sisters Jean and Alice Murrell led a basketball team sponsored by Cleveland City Councilman Lawrence Payne (1892-1959). Payne was the girls’ uncle and in addition to his political work, he was a booster of local athletics. He sat on the board of the Cedar and Glenville YMCA branches, and helped to open more swimming pools and gymnasiums for young African Americans. Jean and Alice, his sister’s children, attended Cleveland Public Schools, and Jean, in particular, followed in her uncle’s footsteps: in 1949 she became the first African American woman elected to Cleveland City Council. She, too, had a love of sport, and was the first Black woman to win the Greater Cleveland Tennis Championship in 1938. The Murrell sisters’ basketball team photograph illustrates the drastic change for young women when it came to freedom of movement – just one aspect of their changing lives during the first half of the twentieth century.

Laurel school gym suit

Laurel School Gym Suit, 1915-19. Worn by Josephine Cannon (1903-1994). Gift in Memory of Josephine Cannon Watt from her daughters 94.104.71

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“Basketball is Exciting and Fascinating to Both Sexes,” Plain Dealer March 20, 1904.

Front row: Jean (1913-2017) and Alice (1916-2019) Murrell Councilman Laurence Payne’s Basketball Team, 1935 Allen Cole Photographs, WRHS Library

Front row: Jean (1913-2017) and Alice (1916-2019) Murrell Councilman Laurence Payne’s Basketball Team, 1935 Allen Cole Photographs, WRHS Library

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