Durham Museum acknowledges the history of women in sports in a new exhibit


Elle Love

Women’s early sporting dress circa 1911. Photo courtesy of the Durham Museum

If you look at the photograph of women standing in front of a building with a ball in front of them, you wouldn’t think they were female athletes because of the formal polo shirt and skirt they wore. However, it was more in common than you would think 100 years ago.

The Durham Museum opened a new photo archive exhibit on Feb. 1, called “Sporty Women: The Desire to Compete,” to showcase conflicting standards that allowed women to compete in sports as long as they maintained the appearance of femininity.

Curator Emma Sundberg said that it was not long ago when concepts of proper “lady-like behavior” meant there were women who could not play—and if they did, they’d have to stick with the dress code.

“This exhibit highlights some of these standards which allowed women to compete as long as they wore bows in their hair, but also looks beyond to the impact of three female athletes: Alice Marbie, Louise Suggs and Sonja Henie,” Sundberg said. “These women were trailblazers for their sport and spokeswomen for female participation in competitive sports.”

American tennis player Alice Marble wore tailored flannel shorts and crewneck t-shirts at a Wimbledon tournament in 1937, in contrast to the customary long skirt and restrictive, heavy clothing.

Figure skater Sonja Henie revolutionized the fashion of figure skaters in the 1940s, ditching dark-colored, knee-length skirts in favor of short skirts and dresses in different colors.

Golfer Louise Suggs wore shorter skirts and more breathable shirts rather than long sleeved, high-collar blouses and long, ankle-length skirts.

These three different women encouraged the sports industry to consider practical wear for women in sports today.

This photo display focuses on the changes of dress code over the years and highlights the three women who impacted the perception of female participation in their sport. The display also mentions the importance of Title IX, a landmark ruling for sports that is still referred to today and cited in several legal cases regarding fairness and equality in sports.

“It is a series of nine photographs from the photo archive that were selected to show that women competed not just in athletics but against social dress standards,” Sundberg said. “There are unique mentions of swimming and bowling clubs as being two sporting types that were considered decent for women to engage in as opposed to the more aggressive basketball or soccer.”

Even though dress code standards for women in sports now are more practical and comfortable, it’s important to acknowledge the women in sports who made it happen.

Sundberg said the intern who put the exhibit together was inspired by her own experience as a woman in sports.

“She plays multiple sports including golf and soccer—this was close to the time when the recent Women’s World Cup win by the U.S. occurred, and there was a national conversation on equal pay,” Sundberg said. “She greatly admired the team’s public persona and used that conversation as a jumping off point for this display concept.”

“Sporty Women: Desire to Compete” will be on display until Dec. 31, 2020.