In our age of athleisure, of clothes that contour and compress, of aspiring to a high-performance life—sweatless and chafe-free—it’s a jarring sight: the workout wear of a Radcliffe student from the turn of the twentieth century. This particular “gym dress” resides at the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and stands on display in “75 Stories, 75 Years” through October. It was donated by Libby Wright Plimpton ’29, a gym teacher and field-hockey player, and belonged to her mother, Edith Hall Plimpton, who graduated in 1896.
At the time, athletics were central to female students’ lives, and not just at Radcliffe. Schools such as Smith, Mount Holyoke, and Vassar also encouraged—and even mandated—physical activity. Gymnastics and group calisthenics were popular, as were competitive team sports like field hockey. In his 1873 bestseller, Sex in Education, Harvard Medical School professor Edward H. Clarke had warned that intellectual exertion would damage a young woman’s childbearing capacity, “deranging the tides of her organization” by diverting blood-flow to the brain. In response, women’s colleges insisted on fitness.