Hot! Vintage Running Clothes

Over at xoJane, I talk about running and, um, bladder control. Here at The Sew Weekly, I'd like to talk about something far more controllable: what I wear when I run.

Now, as someone who loves vintage styles and sewing my own clothes, I'm faced with a total dilemma with regard to athletic clothes. Despite my love for the styles of the past, I'm practical when it comes to certain types of contemporary clothing. Sports bras, running shoes and sweat-friendly athletic clothes were invented for a reason. As cute as a 1930s or 1940s gymsuit is, I'm not going to feel comfortable wearing it while running a 5k. And even if said gymsuit was suitable for running, there's no way I'm pairing it with modern running shoes (and I'm not ditching the modern running shoes despite them being the ugliest shoes in existence).

Thinking about my options, I decided to see if there were any photographs of Dita Von Teese (someone who famously maintains a vintage look at all times) doing the exericse thing. It turns out that even when Dita Von Teese is exercising, she keeps her look. But that's at the gym. And, she's barefoot. I want to know what she would wear going for a jog! 

I guess the answer to that is: DITA VON TEESE DOES NOT JOG!

So then I thought, "when did women begin competing in running events at the Olympics?" Surely, there would lie the answer to my  appropriate running apparel question!

Here's a fascinating bit of history about long-distance running in the Olympics by women:

Before the 1980s, there were no women's distance races in the Olympics. In the Moscow Games, the longest race for women was the 1,500 meters, which had been instituted in 1972. Women had been excluded from track and field competition altogether until 1928, when the longest race was the 800 meters. Despite a world record by winner Lina Radke of Germany, many of the competitors had not properly prepared for the race and several collapsed in exhaustion. This led Olympic organizers to consider the race too strenuous for women. The president of the IOC, Count Henri Baillet-Latour, even suggested the elimination of all women's competition from the Games. Such a drastic move was not taken, but until 1960, when the 800 meters reappeared, no race over 200 meters was contested by women in the Olympics.

So what did Lina Radke wear? Here's a photo of her running in the 1928 Olympics:

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It's her competitor, Hitomi Kinue's, outfit that really blows my mind. Her racing clothes look so incredibly modern, down to the pre-Adidas racing stripe!

More research led me to K.V. Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon with an issued number (Roberta Gibb had run the race the year earlier, 1966, without a number. She had hid behind a bush at the start). By using her initials, Switzer had gone unnoticed as a woman until two miles to race. That's when Race director Will Cloney and official Jock Semple physically tried to remove her from the race.

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As you can tell from the photographs, she wear a very practical sweatsuit. In later photos from the race, she wears simple dark shorts.

Here's another shot from a college race where she unofficially ran for Syracuse. Her outfit below looks totally practical and, actually, fashionable. I also like the bow in her hair. And she's wearing running shoes.

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After some minor research, I think I found the solution to my fashion dilemma: These women had to kick some serious butt to be able to compete. Therefore, the last thing they were going to do was wear some society-approved skirted playsuit in order to do the sport they loved. It's okay that I want to be fashionable, but not at the expense of performance or comfort. 

And, I can wear a bow in my hair.


Mena Trott

Mena Trott started The Sew Weekly to document her attempt to sew all of her own clothes in 2010. Since then, she's made over 125 outfits and has way more clothes than she needs.


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  1. I love that you did a post on this. I like to dress in the basics, but I am definitely not a fashionista when I run. Fashionistas do not wear water belts, I’m sure. Or if they do, they wear one in teal or hot pink. I’d love to see the picture of your ugly running shoes – mine are pretty awful as well :)

  2. Your last sentences remind me of the recent (controversial!) decision by the Badminton World Federation to require women players to wear skirts or dresses for matches. Here’s the NYT article link:

  3. In high school I ran varsity cross country and the girls were made to wear skin tight tank tops and what were essentially granny panties made of typical athletic fabric, because it looked more professional (ie that’s what professional female cross country runners wear in races). I can’t remember the name we had for the “shorts” but it was really embarrassing at the start of the race because I never went tanning like the other girls and had horrible tan lines across the middle of my thighs from running shorts, once I got going though I didn’t really care. This was only 5 years ago too.

  4. I loved seeing what women have worn for sports activities in the past! So neat–both from a fashion and women’s history standpoint.
    I do pilates and wear something very similar to the last photo during the wintertime. Which, I admit, was based on pictures I saw of Dita when she was going to the gym. hehe! Although this time of year, it’s just mismatched short knit shorts and tshirts (it’s too hot for me to care about anything else! ;). I’m really a fan of practicality when it comes to specialized activities. As you said, as fun as vintage inspired clothing is, sometimes the modern version is just a better bet. I cannot imagine wearing a playsuit or gym clothes c.1940 while working out everyday. I like things that fit close to the body (so I can’t get tangled in my clothes. Don’t laugh. It happens.) and allow me to make sure my posture is correct.

  5. We called them “trunks” and I was glad my school didn’t make them part of the uniform. I much preferred our wretched double-knit poly shorts to those. I can’t imagine why you’d need trunks for long distances anyway. It’s not like sprinting where the drag might actually affect your time (and it’s questionable if that even matters at the high-school level).
    This was a great post. I had no idea someone tried to forcibly remove a female runner from the Boston Marathon back in the day. Kudos to #390 for assisting Ms. Switzer.

  6. We called them briefs in my school- and they were actual uniform for girl’s P.E.! We had a tiny skirt to go over them for certain sports (field hockey or netball). It was only later we were allowed to wear cycling shorts or sweatpants.

  7. I like my sports top and capris that I bought specifically to exercise in- nothing vintage there, but oh so practical. I too don’t want to get tangled in my clothes ;) They are also really good for gardening in…

  8. I loved this article. I am a runner and tend to run in race issued technical shorts, capris or tights depending on the weather. With a water belt around my waist and my hair slicked back, well let’s say I’m no fashionista. I don’t look much better at yoga I might add! Golf on the other hand has some really cool clothes!!
    So what did I do to up the ante for Me Made June? I announced that when I did one of the above mentioned activities I would be wearing self stitched. Hmm… easier said than done!!!

  9. It’s amazing to think that people didn’t think women could run marathons within my own lifetime. I will try to remember that every time I run!

  10. Yep, when it comes to exercising, jogging, or dance classes, I have to go with practicality. Usually tights in dance class but sweatpants for other activities. I love that you have vintage photos! And photos of Dita, heh. :P At least it’s good to know that running shoes are acceptable vintage attire. I do usually go for the more simple looking running shoes, the ones with all those “dood dads” are waaaay to fugly.