1950s Fifties Then and Now          

Wearing Bloomers in School


Gym Uniforms of the 50s and 60s –



by Felice Prager


Public schools in the United States have changed in many ways since the middle of the last century.

In many districts and states today, the physical education requirement has also changed. Over a half century ago, PE was a daily requirement during every year of school from grade K through 12. Today, with budget cuts and academic competition, physical education, has become a one-year requirement despite current trends toward better physical fitness.

Trends also include the fact that America’s youth, despite a predilection for electronics, have become more inclined to participate in voluntary physical activities in a more social environment. Thus, the one-year requirement for physical education has become more popular. Anything after one year of physical education now often counts as an elective.

One requirement in most schools that existed from before World War II until the 1980s was wearing very specific gym uniforms. For male students, this meant wearing gym shorts, and in most cases, a school tee shirt. For female students, in many cases, it meant wearing a gymsuit, white socks, and white sneakers.

Women’s gymsuits were one-piece garments that gave the illusion of separate shorts and tops. Each school would select one style and color of these “modestly constructed” garments as the required uniform for all of the girls in gym classes. Some were skirted. Some had open legs and some had elasticized legs. Some had attached inner briefs and some had separate inner briefs.

Everything was about modesty from briefs to pleats to fabric. Though no one actually came out and said it, if female students were going to participate in athletics, they could not be attractive, though advertising stated just the opposite.

Some gymsuits had buttons. Some had “rust proof” snaps. They came with and without pockets. Some even had attached “rust proof” belts. Some were collarless and some had “voguish” collars. The advertising emphasized their functionality in physical movement in exercises, drills, “styled actions,” and exhibitions. The advertising included statements like: “It’s so much easier for girls to appear confidently poised” and “your girls (can) skedaddle out of the dressing rooms in nothing flat.”

The copy stated that each garment was perfect for “energetic wear on the mat, apparatus, and all vigorous sport…and yet reserves its low cost good looks.” The gymsuits came in “misses' and diminutives' sizes” to fit all student. They were made of “modern” fabrics (“Sanforized cotton” and “Sanforized, Mercerized, Guaranteed Washable Heavy Duty Gym Cloth”) and “appealing” colors (black white, scarlet, swing blue, seafoam, daffodil, navy, kelly green, laurel green, and tropic green”) from which schools could choose.

Several companies made these garments, most notably Gym-Togs, E.R.Moore, and MerryGarden. According to now-vintage catalogs, the prices were generally in the $3.50 to $5.00 range. The more handy students and parents could buy patterns and sew their uniform required by the schools.

In many towns, the gymsuits were carried at the local stores as this was the era before the popularity of regionalized malls when Main Streets thrived. Every September, the stores had an increase in sales because groups of groaning pre-teen and teen girls would flock into the stores to purchase a required gym uniform.

Once purchased, many schools required that the student sew her name over the pocket. The name was penciled on in block letters; then the student would sew over the lines. This made it easier to be identified when in class.

It was also a requirement that gymsuits be laundered weekly. That included washing them separately as the fabrics tended to bleed at first. Then they had to be ironed, in many cases, the schools required using a fabric stiffener or starch.

Along with the gymsuits, schools required white sneakers and socks. These were also to be kept in pristine condition. In some schools, students were required to polish their sneakers weekly with the same white polish reserved for white baby shoes. This tended to make the canvas stiff, but they looked as clean as the day they were purchased. They just did not move very well without cracking.

It was a different time, for sure. Today, schools require comfortable clothes for athletics in the more modern stretchable, laundry-friendly fabrics that have been developed. These fabrics, for the most part, were not available or not considered in earlier times. The concept of modesty is not as much of a standardized issue. In some schools, female and male students wear gym shorts and school tees.

In earlier times, wearing a gymsuit was almost a requirement of passage. Teenaged girls groaned and complained about gymsuits, but it has become one of those things shared by youth in a time almost forgotten.


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Women’s gymsuits were one-piece garments that gave the illusion of separate shorts and tops. Each school would select one style and color of these “modestly constructed” garments as the required uniform for all of the girls in gym classes.

Some gymsuits had buttons. Some had “rust proof” snaps. They came with and without pockets. Some even had attached “rust proof” belts.

Several companies made these garments, most notably Gym-Togs, E.R.Moore, and MerryGarden. According to now-vintage catalogs, the prices were generally in the $3.50 to $5.00 range.

 


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