Going Under: Diving Suits through History

Serious exploration of the underwater world began in the early 17th century, when the first submarine was invented by Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel.  Then, the environment beneath the sea was considered the most dangerous and mysterious on earth – long before the prospect of exploring environments, such as outer space, was even feasible.

The invention of individual diving suits in the early 18th century allowed a more refined exploration of the ocean depths.  The initial drive for the creation of diving suits was to aid salvage missions, at a time when many ships (carrying many treasures) were lost to the ocean on perilous journeys.  The first diving suits were designed in 1710s and in 1715, English inventor John Lethbridge created the first fully-enclosed suit, consisting of watertight sleeves, a pressurised air filled barrel and a viewing hole.

These basic elements formed the foundation for the design of future diving apparatus, the technological advances of which were covered regularly in illustrated scientific periodicals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Expeditions to ships sunken in WWI and WWII, fueled by public intrigue and fascination, were often dramatically illustrated in the likes of newspapers such as the Italian Sunday supplement; “La Domenica Del Corriere” and the French illustrated supplement “Le Petit Parisien”, with bold and vivid interpretations of almost robotic-like diving suits placed in otherworldly environments.

Early diving suits, far away from today’s equivalent, continue to be well-received in popular culture as a representation of the quirky and bizarre, due to their odd appearance and design aesthetics and for their kitsch, retro-futurist elements.  Film and television characters in early diving suits have appeared in cult productions, think the Ghost of Captain Cutler in Scooby Doo – this eerie, glowing and growling deep sea diver is of the show’s most popular villains (Below: Captain Cutler in SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection).

SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
For anyone enchanted by the exploration of the undersea world and have an appreciation for unusual design; the photographs and illustrations of early diving suits held by the Mary Evans Picture Library are a joy to behold.


Above: French inventor Freminet’s ‘Machine Hydrostatique’ which incorporates something like a  modern diving suit combined  with an air tank.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Pesce, ‘Navigation sous- marine’, 1772.


Above: Klingert’s diving suit and apparatus.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la Science’ volume 4 page 637, 1797.


Left: Cabirol’s diving suit combines effective protection with considerable ease of movement, the two basic requirements for working underwater.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Above: Diving dress and equipment of an amber hunter.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Right: A state-of-the-art diving suit of the late 19th century, made of rubber and fitted with an emergency air tank, just in case the unthinkable should happen… Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 655, 1875.


Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922

Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

 Deep-sea diving suit, for salvage work on HMS 'M1' subrine

Above: A German deep-sea diving suit brought from Kiel for examining the lost submarine ‘M1’. On 21 November 1925, while on an exercise in the English Channel. The ‘M1’ submarine sank with the loss of her entire crew, the crew members appear to have tried to escape by flooding the interior and opening the escape hatch, but their bodies were never found. At the time the submarine was lying too deep to use ordinary diving apparatus. So the decision was made to ask for the assistance of Messrs. Neufeldt and Kuhnke, of Kiel, who specialized in deep-sea diving apparatus.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922.

Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924.

Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920.

Diving suit used during Lutine salvage operation

Left: Full figure of man in underwater diving suit, c 1940.

Centre: A man holds up a rubber diving suit used during one of many salvage operations of HMS Lutine, which sank off the Dutch coast during a storm in 1799. Photograph c. 1934.

Right: American inventor H.L. Bowdoin with his deep-sea diving suit. On the shoulders are two 1000 watt automobil lamps. 15th August 1931.


Above: A German underwater photographer struggles to get into his rubber diving suit, with a little help from his friends. Unattributed photograph for Barnaby’s Studios Ltd c. 1930s.


Above: William Walker, diver, who worked under Winchester Cathedral between 1906 and 1912.


Gone to the Dogs

Greyhounds over hurdles

The message on the home page of Love the Dogs, London Wimbledon Stadium’s website, reads, “sadly Wimbledon will be finally closing its doors on Saturday 25th March after 89 years of greyhound racing here at Plough Lane.” After the closure in 2008 of the doors of Walthamstow Stadium’s iconic art deco façade, the Wimbledon site, making way for AFC Wimbledon’s new football stadium, is London’s last dog racing venue. It seems tragic for a sport which once welcomed a staggering 25 million people through the turnstiles of its 52 licensed tracks, and employed 30,000 people during its heyday in the 1930s.

It was a Canadian cement magnate, Brigadier-General Alfred Cecil Critchley, who first introduced greyhound racing as we know it to Britain from America after forming a partnership with Charles Munn, an American who saw the potential of track-based greyhound racing with the use of an electric hare. Critchley formed the National Greyhound Racing Association to regulate the sport and worked hard to give it an acceptable, almost glamorous veneer. It was soon attracting “society” to the turnstiles, or more often, to the elegant dining rooms and bar lounges attached to the huge, modern stadium complexes. Wembley’s Empire stadium for instance had a dancing and dining room of an area 15,000 square feet where one thousand diners could be accommodated at a time, while out of its ten bars, one, according to the claim of the stadium authorities, was the longest in the world.


To 21st century race-goers who associate a night at the dogs with a rather earthy cocktail of working class bonhomie, flat caps and basket meals, it may seem strange to envisage ladies arriving at White City in their bias cut satin evening gowns. But, in fact, greyhound racing of the 1930s attracted all levels of society from the working classes filling the stands to the well-heeled diners watching in the rarefied environs of the stadiums’ silver service restaurants. And smart, society ladies tended to have more than a superficial interest in the sport; many were breeders, owners and trainers. One lady breeder, Mrs C. Clarke who wrote a history of the sport in 1934, noted that, “women have been the keenest supporters of track racing from its commencement: they form a large proportion of the huge crowds seen at various tracks”. Advertisements for race tracks bear out this claim, with illustrations featuring the smart set in evening dress cheering on the winner.

Greyhound racing and dinner at White City

Dining at White City greyhound derby, 1932

Mick the Miller, the most celebrated greyhound champion was owned by Mrs Arundel Kempton, whose husband had bought her the dog as a gift for an enormous sum – 2,000 guineas in 1929 (the equivalent of £91,500 today). The investment proved a canny one as the dog continued his winning streak before pursuing a lucrative film career. Patrons of the greyhound track included Tallulah Bankhead, Gracie Fields, Jack Buchanan and even King Alfonso XIII of Spain who enjoyed the 1930 Greyhound Derby at White City.

Tatler cover - Mrs Arundel Kempton & Mick the Miller

As the sport gained in popularity, so the greyhound came to be a representative icon of the art deco period, its sleek, streamlined appearance the embodiment of 1930s style. Greyhounds were the subjects of paintings and bronzes, and the wittiest cartoonists of the day drew inspiration from dog racing. And with their graceful, good looks and winning ways, greyhounds proved excellent advertising subjects, particularly for whisky brands such as Johnny Walker and Black & White.


So where did it all go wrong, or, to coin a phrase, go to the dogs? Despite its huge success, greyhound racing did have its detractors in the thirties, notably from the anti-gambling lobby who argued that the phenomenal rise in dog racing had contributed exponentially to an increase in betting and the resulting social problems. Residential groups also opposed new proposed stadiums at Crystal Palace and the Oval but the existing stadiums, numbering over forty by the late 1930s continued to do a roaring trade. Although greyhound racing had begun to fall out of favour with the middle classes by the beginning of the Second World War, it remained the third most popular leisure activity in Britain (behind cinema and football).

Greyhounds arriving at Wembley by carThe Grand National at White City

Even in the late 20th century, greyhound racing enjoyed something of a renaissance: Walthamstow famously welcomed Vinnie Jones and Brad Pitt through its turnstiles for a good, old-fashioned night at the dogs. Some might have argued that there was still hope for the future of greyhound racing but Wimbledon has now gone the way of Catford and the twenty other greyhound stadiums that have closed over the past decade. Unlike the society ladies who once frequented the greyhound stadiums of yesteryear, this particular lady will be all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Neon Frontage at Walthamstow Dog Racing Stadium

© Lucinda Gosling/Mary Evans Picture Library

One Man and his Dogs

Miss A. N. Hartley with her prize-winning Deerhound, Champion Betsinda of Rotherwood - with Cruft's Gold Trophy for the Hound Group. Date: 1982

Out of the myriad archives, books and prints acquired by our founder, Mary Evans, since the library’s inception in 1964, that which brought her the most personal joy was arguably the Thomas Fall Collection which came to the library in 2001. The name Thomas Fall is synonymous with the highest quality photographs of pedigree dogs, and Mary’s interest in the archive, the oldest of its kind in the world, was not only professional but born of a lifelong love of canine companions.

Major P. C. G. Haywood judging Golden Retrievers at Crufts

Thomas Fall was born in 1833 when the art, not to mention the science, of photography was in its infancy. In 1826 the first permanent, surviving photograph had been produced by Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce who later worked with Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype process in 1839 which produced unique but fragile images. Others swiftly followed, refining and developing processes to fix a photographic image. English pioneer Henry Fox Talbot had developed the calotype by 1840, producing a negative from which positive prints could be taken, while John Herschel made the first glass negative in 1839.


Into this atmosphere of feverish invention, Thomas Fall took his first steps, setting up as a portrait photographer in the 1850s in Bedale in Yorkshire. In the late 1860s he moved to London to work for the established studio of Elliott and Fry in Baker Street, and from there founded his own business in 1875, also in Baker Street. He began to specialise in photographing dogs, perhaps because many of his high society patrons wished their pets immortalised quite as much as their other family members. During the 1890s he was commissioned by the Princess of Wales, later Queen Alexandra, to photograph her with her dogs earning the company a Royal Warrant. In 1900 Thomas Fall died, but this was far from the end of the story. In fact the company’s association with the art of photographing dogs was immeasurably strengthened and amplified by those who came after him.

The Judge of the Exhibition of Japanese Spaniels. Date: 1898

In 1910, Edward Hitchings Parker, who had been the young manager of the Finchley Road branch of the expanded Fall enterprise bought both the firm and the name ‘Thomas Fall, Photographer’ from the family, becoming known, somewhat confusingly, to those in the dog world as Mr Fall. In 1927 he was joined, firstly as an assistant and later as a partner, by Barbara Bourn who arrived with an 18-month apprenticeship in photography. Parker was a forceful character who, according to Bourn in an interview with Dog World in October 1970, was not averse to shouting at both assistants and customers in order to get the shots he wanted: “Mr Parker knew exactly where he wanted the dog to look and it didn’t matter what was in that direction, I had to go there to attract the dog. There could be a lake, a wood, a main road, a bed of nettles, it didn’t matter. I would have to go to exactly the right spot so that the dog’s head turned absolutely in profile.”

A little girl surrounded by three Daschunds and six Dandie Dinmonts. Date: 1947

Bourn had an early opportunity to operate the camera herself at Marion Keyte Perry’s Arctic kennel in Haslemere, Surrey, where her ten champion Samoyeds were to be photographed with their owner. “We had this marvellous group arranged with the dogs looking superb [but] we just couldn’t get the dogs looking in the right direction and nothing would persuade them to look at me. Mr Parker got more and more furious until he said you’d better take this photograph, I’ll put it absolutely ready for you…He charged down a long slope and the noise he made was enough to waken the dead. The dogs looked absolutely fabulous…out of all the many takes that was the one.”

Mr Curnow judging at the Dog Centre Birthday Show

Edward Hitchings Parker died in 1958, with Barbara Bourn continuing the firm’s business of photographing pedigree dogs. By the late 1960s, she felt that things were coming to a natural conclusion but was persuaded by fellow photographer William Burrows, who she later married, of the historical worth of the pictures taken since the late 19th century. We are delighted that this flourishing archive is now part of the Mary Evans Picture Library, and has the opportunity of being widely seen by both dog and history lovers.

Crufts Dog Show at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington, London - February, 1938. Date: 1938
Over nearly a century, Thomas Fall has been connected with the top kennels of the country, and the remarkable photographs taken in this time are a vital historical record of how breeds have changed. In addition, the images have a charm all of their own, the owners proud, the dogs elegant, noble or just plain cute.

Fourteen Standard Poodles - Winners of the Progeny Class - Windsor Dog Show. Date: 1972

The original Thomas Fall, dog photographer, with a borzoi owned by H.M. Queen Alexandra. Date: 1893

The original Thomas Fall, dog photographer, with a borzoi owned by H.M. Queen Alexandra. Date: 1893

Going for Gold – Britain’s sporting ambitions and the 1916 Berlin Olympics that never was

The English 4 x 100 metres relay team who won gold medals at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. From left to right: D. Jacobs, H. M. Macintosh, W. R. Applegarth and V. D'Arcy. Note the high-waisted shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with a Union Jack. Date: 1912

We are living through a gold rush.  At the time of writing, Team GB has scaled the Olympic Games medal table to reach the dizzy heights of second place.  We’ve dominated the rowing and cycling; there have been medals in track & field, equestrian events and sailing.  More have rolled in from gymnastics and diving – sports where we were once, if not the underdog, then barely a contender.  We can boast Goliaths of sport – Farah, Kenny, Trott, Murray, Ennis-Hill – sports men and women who are the ones to beat, not those who might be in with a chance.  For those who remember Atlanta (one lone gold – Redgrave and Pinsent in the men’s coxless pairs), the Rio Olympics is watched from sofas around the country with a mix awe, nail-biting anticipation and a faint nervousness that we might wake up and find it is all a dream.  Whatever our final position, Britain’s athletes have kindled a renewed sense of national pride.  But while nobody can deny their achievements, there is one factor that has enabled and then assured success – money.  After Atlanta, funding for elite sports increased ten-fold, a long-term investment that has paid off.  Talent has been nurtured and enhanced with the best that money can buy.  It has been estimated that each British medal win costs £5.5 million.  Funding is withdrawn from sports that fail to ‘medal’.  Behind the scenes, it’s a brutal business, but when a Brit wins gold, we are all reaping the feel-good rewards. Perhaps it’s easier to feel the Olympic love when Team GB is excelling?

Javelin thrower, 1913

Away from the Olympics, the media are already declaring that 2016 is one of the worst years in recent times; terrorism, political instability, the displacement of millions of people fleeing war, all this and more have made our modern age seem much less safe than it was twenty years ago.  And yet this exhibition of human endeavour, the greatest sports show on earth, presents the world at its very best and, for one fortnight at least, gives us all a glimmer of hope.  Another year considered the worst of times was 1916.  A century ago, nobody gave much thought to the Olympic Games, which would in fact have been held that summer in Berlin.  Looking through our archive, there is some fascinating commentary on the Olympic phenomenon in The Bystander magazine.  Launched in 1903 as a sister paper to The Graphic, The Bystander was a society magazine featuring a mix of cartoons, political satire, society gossip, travel, transport – and sport.  In August 1914, just a fortnight after the outbreak of war, The Bystander was commenting on the irony of an Olympics held in Germany.

Opening of the stadium in Berlin, Germany, intended as the venue for the 1916 Olympic Games. Due to the First World War, the Games were never held. Date: 1913

‘In the light of what is happening now it is almost comical to reflect that not so many weeks ago preparations were on foot for the holding of the Olympic Games in Berlin.  I can picture the cynical smile with which those “in the know” in Germany must have watched these preparations.  It is quite conceivable that they were allowed to go on as part and parcel of a gigantic scheme of bluff.  We may even derive some comfort from the reflection that bad as the war is for everybody it will do sport at least one good turn by putting a stop – perhaps for good and all – to its chief bugbear.

The Bystander has always been a consistent scoffer at the Olympic Games, and in sticking to this attitude it has in reality voiced the opinion of the majority of British sportsmen.   The Olympic Games were going to do all sorts of things; in particular they were going, through the medium of sport, to bind the nations of the world together in indissoluble ties of friendship.  It looks like it doesn’t it?  When the British Olympic council in its preliminary report on the Games at Stockholm lamented pathetically at thefailure of the general public of the United Kingdom to take the Olympic Games seriously, it was unconsciously paying a well-deserved tribute to the sagacity of the said general public.’

The general public, not being so blindly optimistic as the British Olympic Council saw that these games, so far from leading up to good fellowship, seemed peculiarly adapted for the production of bad blood and bickering even between countries possessing a common language and origin, and whose athletes are normally upon the best of terms with each other.’

The Bystander’s unusually virulent opinion about the Olympics can be traced back to beyond the hostilities of 1914.  The Games of 1912, held in Stockholm, were a disaster for Britain.  After topping the medals table at the 1908 London Olympics, bagging three times as many medals as the runner-up, the USA, 1912 saw Britain drop to third.  It may sound like a good effort to us today, but USA and Sweden dwarfed Britain’s medal tally.  The USA gained 25 golds to Britain’s 10. While Britain’s total medal haul was 41, Sweden won 65 and the USA won 64.  What followed was a sporting post-mortem in The Bystander more akin to the football punditry we see decipher England’s failures after each international tournament today.

1912 Stockholm Olympics

In its 12 February 1913 issue, F. A. M. Webster, Founder and Honorary Secretary of the Amateur Fields Event Association, picked apart the reasons in an article entitled, ‘Why We Failed At Stockholm’.  The programme of events was a major issue with emphasis on field events and the deletion of cycling (an omission that would certainly affect our medal tally today).

“The real reasons why we do not excel in these particular sports,” admitted Mr Webster, “are, firstly, because they are in most cases very difficult to learn, requiring a deal of practice and unlimited patience, and the young Englishman of to-day prefers sprinting, which is easy to learn; secondly, and, I think principally, because for years the sports-promoting bodies in this country have rigidly set their face against field events on the ground that they take up too much time and the public do not care to watch them.”


Olympic Blog 4

Frederick Annesley Michael Webster was in fact, one of the great pioneers of 20th century athletics, writing numerous books on sport, coaching, becoming director of studies at Loughborough School of Physical Training and tirelessly campaigning to have field sports given equal recognition.  His son, Dick Webster, would become a successful pole-vaulter who competed at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Webster senior had a fight on his hands to encourage interest in field sports.  The response to Britain’s poor performance at Stockholm had led many to suggest they withdraw from the Games completely – that competing but then losing was ‘beneath our dignity.’  Britain’s Olympian representatives had exposed a chink in their country’s armour and that wouldn’t do.  In 1912, Britain still had its Empire.  Its greatness was nurtured on the sports fields of its public schools.  For British sporting prowess to be exposed as so seriously lacking was, in the minds of many, an embarrassing reflection on the country’s diminishing national virility.  It was probably too much to bear for some.  However, the reactions generated seem closer to those of a spoilt child.  The Bystander, following the conclusion of the Games wrote in August 1912:

“Thousands of English sportsmen will thank Mr R. C. Lehmann* heartily for his spirited suggestion that we should withdraw from future participation in the preposterous Olympic Games.  The attempt on the part of Sir A. Conan Doyle and others to make the Olympic Games the test of our sporting efficiency, and to impose the Olympic standard upon our athletes, will be resented as tyrannical. We want only one standard, and that is the British one, in which the thing to be done is not merely to win the game, but to play it like a gentleman.  If we cannot impose our standard on the rest of the world, then let the rest of the world make its own.”

* Liberal M. P & secretary of the Amateur Rowing Association, who had written an article in the same magazine calling for withdrawal from the Games

Olympic Blog 1

Such spoilt, elitist thinking makes uncomfortable reading.  The Bystander, which rarely reined in its strident opinions, supported the unflinching assumption that Britain SHOULD win; that everyone else should play by British rules, and play sports that the British traditionally were good at.   Rather than playing ‘like gentlemen’ these forthright views serve only to expose some British enthusiasts as bad sports.   Thankfully, its views on the subject were often more light-hearted.  F. A. M. Webster himself was given towards a more balanced diplomacy:

“How can we possibly withdraw from these great international gatherings, following upon our disgraceful performances at Stockholm?  Moreover, is there not also a certain political significance attaching to the next Games at Berlin?  Surely the German people would look upon it as a direct affront if we held aloof from the Games for which they are making such strenuous preparations.  Also, it will not do for us to be beaten again as we were beaten last time, especially in Germany.”

Olympic Blog 2

His concerns over the Games in Berlin were tied in tightly with the belief that Germany, along with the USA, was beginning to compete with and in some instances, overtake Britain on the world stage in manufacturing and trade.  The naval arms race that had been building between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the First World War only made the restoration of national prestige via a display of renewed sporting vigour all the more essential.  Britain’s closest sporting rivals were the USA, Sweden and Finland.  Germany, at the time didn’t come close.  Here was an opportunity to trounce the opposition and prove national potency.  A special committee, including among others, staunch patriot Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was formed to raise funds and steer a co-ordinated training programme for the next Olympic Games in Berlin.  Several aristocrats were roped in to add their voices in support including the hugely wealthy Duke of Westminster who was nominated as chief fundraiser. The notion of a team incorporating all countries in the British Empire was mooted but eventually dropped and an appeal for subscription to raise £100,000 to train a British team worthy of the Berlin Olympics was greeted with derision in some sections of the press.  The Bystander for instance, a champion of sports in which the ‘gentleman amateur’ took part, would have sneered at the idea of trying to buy victory.  Others viewed specialisation as the antithesis of British sportsmanship.  Being a good ‘all-rounder’ was a quality most admired.  But for many, the restoration of British sporting pride was more important.  The Telegraph wrote, ‘it is an affair of honour for this country,’ adding of the ‘deplorable effect’ failure would have.  Nevertheless, the British public failed to support the appeal.  By September 11th 1913, only £7000 of the £100,000 target had been raised.  Today it is difficult to understand such apathy, especially when we know how essential Lottery funding and government grants have been in enabling British athletes to devote their time to training.  But it is worth remembering that Britain’s own sporting calendar in the years leading up to the First World War included fixtures such as Wimbledon, rowing at Henley and cricket at Lord’s which were far more deeply entrenched in the British psyche than the Olympic Games.  The latter was regarded by many as a new-fangled gimmick dreamt up by a Frenchman (albeit based on the games of ancient Greece).

Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, 1912. Sukaniomi, Saaristo, Peltonen, the winner of throwing the javelin .. Date: 1912

Of the fund’s failure, The Bystander wrote in its best ‘told you so’ tone in September 1913:

‘Heartiest congratulations to the British public on their latest use of the gift of Apathy.  Never has it been shown in a better cause than in the contemptuous refusal to subscribe the hundred thousand demanded – rather inconsiderately, if I may say so – by the Duke of Westminster and others for the Olympic Games.  The habit of rushing into the Press for public money had previously aroused protest in a number of quarters, even when, as in the case of Capt. Scott, there was public interest in the background.  In the case of the Olympic Games, there is not only no interest, but there is general sentiment against.  If the national athletes are not fitted, of their own accord, to make a proper show in Berlin or anywhere else, then let us lose the pots and be done with it, or withdraw like gentlemen.  There may be a case for the subscription of public money to the general cause of promoting an athletic renaissance, but such a proceeding will take a very much longer time than lies between us and the next Games.  Any success “bought” at Berlin by mere money will morally not be worth the paper on which the cheques have been written.’

The idea of paying to win seemed to particularly irritate.  What would they have made of today’s shameless injection of cash into British sport?  But the irony that most sportsmen in Britain a century ago were those who had the financial means and leisure to spend time participating was lost on The Bystander which went on to claim ardently:  ‘The whole idea is not only wrong-headed, but sweepingly pernicious, and one to be fought tooth and nail by those who have any desire or hope of keeping English sport clean and undefiled.’

By January 1914, the Special Committee, having singularly failed in their fundraising, was disbanded.  And by July that year, with the heightening crisis in Europe, it was becoming increasingly uncertain that there would be an Olympic Games in Berlin at all.  Instead of proving their abilities on the sports field in Berlin in 1916, thousands of British (and German) sportsmen found themselves playing the so-called ‘Greater Game’on the battlefield.  The fierce debates and efforts towards Olympic reform were rendered pointless and proving national superiority through sporting prowess had quickly become an inconsequential notion.  There were bigger battles to win.

From corsets to culottes – A brief history of tennis fashion

For many, it’s been a tough week to be British, but with the arrival of Wimbledon fortnight, some semblance of peace and order can be found in the tennis enclave of SW19 with its carefully manicured grass courts, tinkle of ice in Pimm’s and, of course, the pristine white attire the All England club still insists is worn by all players. The rule, which upholds Wimbledon’s strong sense of tradition and is one of the things to set it apart from the other grand slam competitions, had its origins in the early days of the game in the nineteenth century when the visibility of sweat, especially on women players, was considered unseemly. White not only disguised this, but gave the impression of freshness, and a century and a half on, the unshakeable rule remains.

Other than the stipulation of white, tennis clothing today combines style with high performance, ensuring complete freedom of movement with breathable, ‘sweat-wicking’ fabrics. It is a world away from the late 19th and early 20th century when lawn tennis gained many converts even though Victorian women would dress in a costume more suited to a garden party underneath which corsets continued to mould the female figure into the desired fashionable shape. A picture we hold of Charlotte “Lottie” Dod, (top left), five times Wimbledon champion from 1893 shows her looking for all the world as if she is about to sit under a parasol to take afternoon tea; her tennis racquet the only indication that she was the period’s leading sportswoman. Any type of exertion and energetic movement in a corset regularly caused the bone and steel to dig into players and draw blood. Nevertheless, many doctors believed the corset was advantageous during sport to ensure all internal organs were kept in place and the support warded against back pain and other such ills. Dorothea Lambert Chambers (above, second from right), seven-time singles champion at Wimbledon in the decade leading up the First World War won her matches wearing a business-like but nevertheless constricting combination of white blouse with tie and shin-length skirt. In 1905, when the young American tennis player May Sutton (later Bundy) (above, second from left), played at Wimbledon, she rolled back her cuffs to reveal her forearms because her sleeves ‘were too long and too hot’. It may seem tame to us, but her action was shocking to many spectators. In her 1910 book, ‘Lawn Tennis for Ladies,’ Mrs Lambert Chambers wrote a chapter on tennis clothing prescriptively advising the wearing of, ‘…a plain gored skirt – not pleated; I think these most unsuitable on court – about four or five inches from the ground. It should just clear your ankles and have plenty of fullness round the hem. Always be careful that the hem is quite level all round; nothing is more untidy than a skirt that dips down at the back or sides – dropping at the back is a little trick a cotton skirt cultivates when it comes home from the laundry. A plain shirt without “frills or furbelows” – if any trimming at all, tucks are the neatest – a collar, a tie, and waistband, go to make an outfit as comfortable and suitable as you could possibly desire.’

She also prescribed thin-soled white ‘gymnasium shoes’, choosing white cotton over heavier, coloured flannel or ‘stuff’ due to its infinitely washable properties and avoiding the wearing of hats. A decade later, the girl who beat Mrs Lambert Chambers in a gruelling 3-set match to take the Wimbledon title in 1919, would revolutionise tennis fashion. Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen presciently brought the youth and vivacity of the 1920s to the tennis court, sporting a succession of lightweight garments; chemise style dresses with pleated skirts, loose, straight cardigans and short-sleeved blouses or V-necked vests (still considered a risqué neckline). Lenglen’s outfits were designed by Jean Patou, the French couturier who pioneered sportswear as fashion and championed the ‘garconne’ look, opening a dedicated sportswear department in his couture store in 1925 and subsequently opening further branches in fashionable resorts such as Deauville and Biarritz. Lenglen’s clothes were embroidered with Patou’s signature, a visible declaration of the creative and commercial bond between designer and sports person and one that remains an essential relationship in the sportswear industry today. Patou was to continue as the go-to designer for a leisured lifestyle; in 1927, dialling in to the new trend for tanning with the launch of the first suntan oil, Huile de Chaldee in 1927 and a fragrance called, quite simply, ‘Sport’ the following year. Lenglen meanwhile, who topped off her on-court attire with a white fur coat (below, second from left), was hailed as a fashion revolutionary. London department store, Selfridges drafted her in to design a range of tennis clothes for them in 1933 (below left). Elizabeth Ryan, a contemporary of Lenglen and holder of 19 doubles titles at Wimbledon, said of her, “All women players should go on their knees in thankfulness to Suzanne for delivering them from the tyranny of corsets.” Ryan had witnessed the drying rack in the dressing rooms at Wimbledon where blood stained corsets were hung.

Tennis, perhaps because of the high profile of women players, continued to be a showcase for the development of sporting style. When the Spanish player Lili D’Alvarez wore a divided skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli at Wimbledon in 1931, (above, second from right) the garment caused a sensation, causing many magazines to note how it also ‘divided opinion’. The actress Gladys Cooper appeared in The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News in June the same year (above right), ‘trouser-skirted’ in an outfit she was planning to wear to Lady Cranfield’s tennis party at West Hall. Around the same time, some daring ladies began to wear shorts to play in, including one Mrs G. E. Tomblin, spotted in a 1932 issue of The Sketch wearing them while at a club in Chiswick (below, second from left), though the same magazine asked in one fashion column in March that year, ‘Can shorts rival these graceful frocks for the courts?’ (below, second from right). It’s an unsurprising viewpoint considering Aristoc were still advertising silk stockings suitable for the tennis court in 1933 (below right). It would be the pioneering American Alice Marble who was the first to wear them at Wimbledon in 1937 (below left).

By the 1950s another big personality was beginning to dominate the tennis fashion scene with his wildly feminine styles. 6 ‘ 7” Cuthbert Collingwood “Ted” Tinling (1910-1990) was an English tennis player and referee, already firmly doing the social round by the early 1930s. Suffering from respiratory problems, he had been sent to the French Riviera as a teenager and began to play tennis on the courts of the Cannes, eventually becoming Lenglen’s referee. We discovered a photograph of him from this time with Lord Charles Hope on the courts there in a 1931 volume of The Tatler (below left). Tinling’s playful, fashionable, flirty designs were worn by the majority of major tennis stars in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova, but he is probably best known for the notorious frilly knickers worn by Gussie Moran in 1949, the scandal of which led to him being dismissed from his position as player liaison at Wimbledon (he would be welcomed back in 1982). Within our archive, there are some fabulous sixties designs by him featured in the swinging, ‘London Life’ magazine (three pictures below).

Despite the forays of tennis stars such as Serena Williams into the 21st century world of sportswear design, female tennis fashion today feels more serious and functional than the glory days of Tinling, though thankfully, the styles of over a century ago are consigned to the club’s excellent museum. How interesting it would be to see modern-day tennis players try to play in the corsets and long skirts of May Sutton, Lottie Dod and Dorothea Lambert Chambers. One wonders, when the mercury rises on Centre court, could they endure a three-setter in the searing heat?

Adapted from an excerpt taken from ‘Retro Fashion’ by Lucinda Gosling, published by New Holland.

Click here to see a wider range of tennis fashion images.