Patricia Warner's book seeks to "explain the origins of American sportswear, the most important clothing of the twentieth century and beyond" (5). This broad, relatively casual clothing category became a dominant mode of dress for American women following World War II, but in this book it stands for much more than a conventional means of attire. Warner argues that the roots of this style stretch back to the 1860s and that an examination of its development can illuminate many aspects of change in women's roles during the intervening time period.
The type of everyday dress today designated as sportswear grew from a more literal type of sports clothing—clothing that reflected women's increasing participation in athletic activity during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The book describes women's successive involvement in croquet, skating, tennis, swimming, and bicycling during the late 1800s. Warner shows that despite the boundary-bursting implications of women's public participation in such activities, the threat to middle-class Victorian gender ideology was contained by requiring these women to appear in clothing that adhered to the highly gendered, constraining clothing styles of the era. She then describes a separate tradition of female athletics that developed in physical education classes among the growing cohort of women attending college during this period. In private, single-sex settings, more latitude in the development of clothing alternatives was socially permissible. As the humble gym suit evolved it became more practical, physically liberating, and revealing. Eventually, graduates of these institutions transported this practical approach to dress into the world, influencing both the way women dressed and their role in the wider culture.
Warner makes good use of accounts and images from contemporary women's magazines to provide support and some vivid details. The second half of the book makes even more effective use of numerous photographic archives to trace the development of college [End Page 153] women's athletic clothing styles—some previously undocumented in any systematic way.
On the other hand, the book engages virtually none of the scholarship on gender and the history of sport that has emerged in recent decades. Likewise, it does not examine the cultural work of fashion in any depth, preferring to regard its development as a straightforward progression from "clothes for courting" to clothes that were "sensible, practical, and comfortable" (7). Some historians have argued that the influence of collegiate physical education has been overstated because available sources have tended to point researchers in that direction and obscured its limited role in a much broader and more complex re-evaluation of gender roles that occurred at that time. It is not necessarily that Warner's argument could not hold its own against such challenges, but in this book the wider debate goes unacknowledged and the counterarguments unanswered.
Nonetheless, When The Girls Came Out To Play provides much new information and many new insights into its subject. It also convincingly supports the contention that clothing can and should be examined as an important vehicle for the expression and transformation of historical gender identities.