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Gym set

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    1930s (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Satin; leather; enamelled brass

  • Museum number:

    T.240 to F-1984

  • Gallery location:

    On display at The Frick, Pittsburgh, USA []

This satin leotard and shorts set was the official uniform of the Women's League of Health and Beauty (founded 1930, now known as the Fitness League) throughout the 1930s. The uniform was rationally designed to be practical for exercise. Its briefness allowed for freedom of movement and encouraged what founder Mary Bagot Stack referred to as ‘skin-airing’, a cleansing process she believed was best executed in the nude, the skin totally unadorned, and alone. The apparent modernness of the uniform was intended to allow ‘skin-airing’ while taking part in an exercise class. Exercises were standardised so that members from across the world could perform together with a minimal amount of rehearsal

The League attracted comparisons with the Bund Deutscher Madel (League of German Maidens) from 1936, despite not being overtly political. Rather, they promoted a vague, somewhat naïve, goal of attaining peace through physical and mental health (‘diseased minds are not found in healthy bodies, and no healthy mind could ever desire war’). Loyalty was encouraged to the ‘movement’, its leaders and its aim to create a healthier society. This was largely attempted through its official magazine. For many, the political agenda was not important: what the League really offered was an opportunity for women to enjoy themselves, autonomously, together, and away from their families. Their large-scale public performances of carefully choreographed, standardised movements contained something of the glamour of Hollywood in the age of the musical. The beauty that the League aspired to was not of the narcissistic, sexualised kind, but more idealistic. Their ideal was a world where the ‘women are so beautiful that they are an inspiration rather than a temptation’.

Physical description

Leotard and shorts of satin, with strip for attaching badges.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

1930s (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Satin; leather; enamelled brass

Object history note

Purchased by the V&A at Christie's, South Kensington, along with T.239-1984 and T.241-1984.

Historical context note

The Women’s League of Health and Beauty was founded in 1930 by Mary Bagot Stack (1883 – 1935), a widow of the First World War and long-term proponent of improved physical health for women. Initially, the League’s primary aim was to improve the ‘Racial Health’ of British women, although this was later amended in 1936 to ‘Racial Health Leading to Peace’. 'Racial' here should be understood as of the human race, rather than in eugenic terms.Their basic mantra could be defined as 'healthy body = healthy mind', although their traditional, Christian-influenced notions of preparation and physical suitability for motherhood were the driving force behind Stack's philosophy. The beauty that the League aspired to was not of the narcissistic, sexualised kind, but more idealistic. Their ideal was a world where the ‘women are so beautiful that they are an inspiration rather than a temptation’. By 1938 the League had more than 170,000 members worldwide.

The League developed an anachronistic association with the Bund Deutscher Madel (League of German Maidens) due to superficial similarities in dress and message, and also as a result of trips taken to Nazi Germany by the League's leader (encouraged by the British government), 'Britain's Perfect Girl' Prunella Stack in 1938. Prunella Stack had succeeded to the leadership of the 'movement' in 1935 at the age of 20, following her mother's premature death. The agenda of the League was not overtly political, although they did broadly support the League of Nations, denounce fascism and violence, and tolerate the Soviet Union. They promoted a vague, somewhat naïve, goal of attaining peace through physical and mental health (‘diseased minds are not found in healthy bodies, and no healthy mind could ever desire war’). Loyalty was encouraged to the ‘movement’, its leaders and its aim to create a healthier society. This was largely attempted through its official magazine.

The uniform was rationally designed to be practical for exercise. Its briefness allowed for freedom of movement and encouraged what Stack referred to as ‘skin-airing’, a cleansing process she believed was best executed in the nude, the skin totally unadorned, and alone. The apparent modernness of the uniform was intended to allow this while taking part in a class. The fact that men were not permitted meant that vanity and modesty should not have been an issue, and desexualisation of the activity was encouraged by Stack’s strong Christian beliefs. So successful and iconic was the uniform that it was copied in the mid-1930s by other groups such as the Everywoman’s League of Health, the Legion of Health and Happiness, and the League of Health and Grace.

Descriptive line

Leotard and shorts of satin, England, 1930s

Production Note

Women's League of Health and Beauty

Materials

Satin; Brass; Leather

Techniques

Machine sewing; Enamelling

Categories

Sport; Women's clothes; Fashion; Feminism

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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