The secret history of sportswear

The secret history of sportswear

When I say the word ‘sportswear’, what do you think of? Is it a sweaty grey T-shirt, kept a safe distance away from your other clothes and produced only in the event of an aerobics class? Or is it a sleek image of a celebrity off to their early-morning yoga class in Juicy Couture? What we wear for exercise can be merely functional, but it can also make a statement about us, the same way any clothes can. It shows the world what sport we play, what brands we buy, and what team we support. In Oxford, sporting culture is as much a part of our heritage as May-morning and the Bodleian, from the four minute mile to True Blue.  But the sport of today looks very different to that of yesteryear. I spoke to Dr Martin Polley, a historian of sport and leisure, about what’s changed in terms of what we wear for sport. He said that “like all aspects of sport, from nutrition and psychology to playing surfaces and media coverage, sports clothing has changed immeasurably over the past century. New materials and technologies have made sportswear far more functional than the clothes being worn in the early twentieth century – it’s more aero- or aquadynamic, it weighs less, it’s more breathable, and, in high-risk sports such as equestrianism, climbing, and motorsports, it is safer. A good way to look at this is to compare the all wool swimsuits being worn by Olympic swimmers into the 1920s with the high-tech skins that imitate shark skins now.” So, next time you’re unhappy about waking up early for a swim trial, count yourself lucky that at least you’re not wearing a heavy, absorbent material.


Of course, the main focus of sportswear tends to be its practicality. Though we may attempt to change things up with statement trainers or – in absolutely desperate times – neon legwarmers, comfort and performance mostly outweigh aesthetic concerns. This, it seems, was not the always the case in the past, especially for women. “The scientific imperative towards improved performance is not the only factor in change,” says Dr Polley. “As attitudes towards the body have changed, so more skin can be displayed – compare the Edwardian women tennis players like Dorothea Lambert Chambers, who had to play in corsets and ankle-length dresses, with the attire of today’s Wimbledon champions. Sport has been seen by historians as one of the agents of change in women’s dress – Victorian and Edwardian cyclists in particular were at the forefront of the movement for what was known as rational dress, and they helped the movement away from corsets and towards bloomers and trousers for women.” Playing tennis in a corset is certainly not my idea of fun. However, things are not always plain-sailing for female competitors: “it’s crucial to remember that while practicality has certainly improved, some sports still retain rules about women’s clothing that place cultural and social norms, and indeed sex appeal, above practicality. Wimbledon’s insistence that women must play in dresses or skirts rather than shorts, as in other Grand Slam tournaments, is an example of the former; while beach volleyball’s rule that female players had to wear bikinis, which was changed as recently as 2012 to be more accommodating for Muslim competitors, was a clear example of the latter.”

Fashion’s idea of sportswear often takes the form of the ‘sports luxe’ trend – usually an excuse to use a lot of lamé and create wedge trainers – but it’s obvious that the sporting world has an influence on designers. One need only look at the sleek, minimalist designs of Stella McCartney and others to see it. Sport, according to Dr Polley, has long had an influence on fashion: “French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen, the biggest star of the 1920s, was imitated for her style, particularly her dresses and the ‘Lenglen bandeau’, both on and off the court, while the Duke of Windsor, both before and after the abdication crisis, helped to popularise the golfing sweater. And it’s important to remember that some popular labels, such as Lacoste and Fred Perry, were started by sportsmen.”

suzanne lenglen

So what is it about sport that attracts the attention of the fashion world? Obviously there are similarities between the two: models and athletes both have to stay in peak physical condition, sports clubs and fashion houses both require significant investment, and people involved with both worlds are lauded by the public. For Dr Polley, the relationship is “in part about style, functionality, and comfort in everyday clothing – after all, many people who wear sportswear on the street never come close to regular exercise. But it’s also about aspiration. Clothing based in sportswear (particularly if it has been endorsed by a famous sporting celebrity) carries signifiers of activity, glamour, and vitality. Now, as designers draw inspiration from sport, and as more sportsmen and sportswomen (and people with associations to sportsmen, such as Victoria Beckham) have their own labels, we will see far more of this crossover.”

Martin Polley is author of Moving the Goalposts, Sports History: A Practical Guide and The British Olympics. He’s on Twitter @HistoryMartin

Islam talk advertised as “explosive”

Islam talk advertised as “explosive”

Somerville History Society has been condemned for sending out provocative emails advertising a talk on Islamic extremism.

The talk was delivered by Dr Faisal Devji, a St Anne’s Reader in South Asian history, and focused on Jihad and militant Islam.

In an email advertising the talk, the Society claimed it would be “explosive” and accompanied this with a picture of a bomb.

Continuing this theme, the Presidents of the History Society referred to themselves as ‘Ayatollah’, ‘Caliph’ and ‘Mullah’.

This apparent joke attracted the ire of many Somerville History Society members. Mathew Tansini, a Somerville historian, took to Facebook lambasting the email as “inappropriate”.  Tansini claimed that the presidents were “just using their to authority” to fill the email with “not-really-ok jokes about the speaker’s subject”.

The historian went on to argue that Somerville History Society emails ought to “take into account the suggestions and requests of its recipients”. It seems other History Society members agreed with 11 ‘liking’ Tansini’s comments and others commenting in agreement.

Tansini refused to comment  further on the matter.

Lucy Gaughan, a Historian fresher, thought that the email’s ‘jokes’ were “just a cheap ploy to get more attendees”.

Another critique of the Somerville History Society came from Vitan Blagotinšek who criticised “the fact that free wine is available is seemingly more important than the occasion itself”.

A senior member of the Society hit back on Facebook saying “I can assure you all…that no offence was intended”.  They claimed that “tonight’s talk will only be explosive in the historical/academic sense” and asserted that there would be no “physical” explosions.  With 12 people liking this comment, the Society’s leadership evidently still has support.

When asked for comment, the co-president of the society assumed full responsibility for the email, explaining that the email’s co-signatories were not involved in its authorship. They also claimed that the email has drawn ‘little attention in college’ and that the History tutors have not reprimanded him for it.

Dr Faisal Devji had not seen the email but when the OxStu showed it to him he responded “I think it’s meant to be funny, but as you know humour doesn’t always translate from intention to the written word”.  Dr Devji stated “there were no such jokes at my talk, which was followed by a serious discussion with students in the audience”.

Somerville JCR President, Rachel Dickenson, did not respond to requests for comment.


No Fear

No Fear

MandelaIt is no exaggeration to say that Nelson Mandela, who lies gravely ill in the hospital bed of the country he once saved from itself, has come to define morality for innumerable people the world over, and brought new hope to the lives of Africans everywhere. Over the past few weeks, eulogies have poured in for the great leader who is close to death with a lung infection picked up during his infamous toil on Robben Island. Whilst the words of the many are undoubtedly stirring tributes to an eminent peacekeeper, it is a passage that Mandela himself isolated that tells us most about this brave and powerful man.

Found in what later came to be known as ‘The Robben Island Bible’, a collection of the works of Shakespeare in which Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders isolated passages with particular resonance to themselves or their messages, a small signature alongside an extract from Julius Caesar which reads:

‘Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, It seems to me most strange that men should fear; Seeing that death, a necessary end, Will come when it will come.’

Mandela’s commitment to this passage is all the more resonant when taken alongside his electrifying speech in a sixties courtroom that he was fully prepared to die for what he believed in, if that’s what it took. As determined as Caesar, the young Mandela took a stance against the apartheid regime that inspired millions and secured his place in the bastion of human history.

Though his relatives have somewhat sullied the Mandela name of late, the hero is aware of his monumental symbolic presence, something that he believes is overstated. Way back in 1996, a lifetime ago by African standards, Mandela said that the country would no doubt manage just fine without him, suggesting that ‘what nature has decreed should not generate undue insecurity’. This should be inspirational to the new generation of South Africans, who can look forward to a future all the more brighter for Mandela’s influence on it, rather than looking back with grief and sadness at the passing of a great man.

Like Madiba, today’s South Africans should adopt a ‘no fear’ policy and work towards the life that he always dreamed of: that of peace. As a unifying force in a country wracked with poverty, civil warfare and other problems, the death of Mandela strikes the general populace as troubling. For many, it’s terrifying. As a symbol for the ‘rainbow nation’, this small and frail old man represents the very best of humanity, and it is only natural that the people of South Africa struggle to envisage a world without him in it. Nevertheless, whilst Mandela may be the best of men, he is but a man, and time will inevitably take us all. Mandela understands this better than most, as the Shakespeare quote shows. In explaining the depth of meaning of the aforementioned ‘Robben Island Bible’, fellow anti-apartheid activist and prisoner Eddie Daniels said:

‘Shakespeare brought home to me the frailty of the human being — ‘Out, out, brief candle’. No matter how great we are, like Mr. Mandela, or how unknown we are, like me, fate & time will eventually remove us from the stage of life — ‘That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more’. Our bodies will become dust — or ash. Our names and deeds, mine far sooner than Mr. Mandela’s, will eventually be erased by the sands of time.’

Herein lies the beauty of Mandela’s message. Knocking on death’s door, he feels no fear or wariness. He knows only that life, for the rest of the world, goes on without him. A powerful symbol, staunch activist and model to many he may have been, but he will soon pass into the upper echelon of human history, and take his rightful place alongside (amongst many, many others) his literary inspiration. In his death the South Africans of today may find new life for his words and messages, and move unencumbered by fear towards a better tomorrow.


History: more than just a pastime

History: more than just a pastime

For one of Oxford’s largest societies, the History Society sometimes seems surprisingly overlooked. A fact that is especially surprising given that one our primary objectives is the liberal distribution of free wine and cheese at every event. Not to mention the termly champagne and chocolates night. Or the cocktail party. I’m sure you can see a theme developing here.

History Soc is also appealingly good natured. Elections to committee positions are utterly unspoiled by the vicious backstabbing that some societies are notorious for. I have risen to the heady heights of secretary and have never once had to fight a contested election. This probably has its roots in the friendly characters of committee members and the fact that all meetings are fuelled with a generous allowance of biscuits.


This is not to say that the society can’t pull its weight. We attract several speakers every term who are very often the leading experts in their fields. A few talks every term are mainly of interest to those studying history. Many, though, are of interest to everyone. Martin Davidson, who commissions history programmes for the BBC, was fascinating (and a valuable contact for anyone planning a career in television). Only the coldest of hearts could have failed to have been touched by Orlando Figes’ gripping account of a love story conducted across the walls of a Russian gulag.

It is at the annual dinner that the society really pulls out its big guns. Last year David Starkey proved a fascinating (if periodically controversial) dinner companion. This year, Dan Snow regaled us with tales of his time at Oxford. This talk proved depressing to the less active among us as it turns out Snow rowed for the University, achieved a double starred first with bells on with barely any revision and then left straight for a career in television. Exciting for the career minded among us, he also told us that he is currently developing a First World War app with a student he met at a History Society dinner.

As if you could need any more encouragement, our TGM is Saturday of 7th week. Come along and get involved!

My bloody Valentine history

My bloody Valentine history


[caption id="attachment_36049" align="alignnone" width="255"]Photo/ Clara Don Photo/ Clara Don[/caption]

You may be sickeningly loved up this February 14th, or you may be still riding solo and heading to Bridge in search of true love/a mediocre one-night stand. Perhaps you just don’t care, and are more excited about your hot date with the library. But what is Valentine’s Day actually all about?

Although today’s commercialised candy and cupid fest may seem a touch on the saccharine side, the festival originates from a much darker, bloodier and more naked affair. In the Ancient Roman tradition of Lupercalia, which took place from 13th-15th February, young men would sacrifice animals, particularly goats, whose hide they would then use to whip unmarried women – according to superstition, this would make them fertile.

St Valentine’s Day itself started out without any romantic connotations – it began as a Christian celebration to honour the martyrdom of two saints of that name. But it became merged with Lupercalia following efforts by the Church to get rid of the pagan festival.

It wasn’t until centuries after that things took a turn for the  lovey-dovey. During the Middle Ages, it was a commonly held belief in France and England that February 14th was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which kicked off the whole idea of a day dedicated to romance.

The holiday was later romanticised in the poetry of Chaucer and Shakespeare, who alluded to the tradition if two single people meet on Valentine’s morning, they will marry. After this, the holiday grew in popularity throughout Britain and Europe to become the festival we now know today.

And what better place than the city of dreaming spires to celebrate this Thursday? Oxford being Oxford, it is naturally full of its own bizarre Valentine’s traditions. According to local folklore, if an unmarried man crossed the threshold of a house on February 14th, he would marry the youngest daughter who lived there within the year.

Back in the 17th century, when the tradition of Valentine’s cards started to spread, in Oxfordshire it was customary instead to recite rhymes to their loved ones, with verses varying across the local villages. Children would go round the city singing these rhymes in the hope of receiving coins or small cakes.

Oxford has retained many romantic connotations, with films such as An Education and of course the Brideshead effect perpetuating the image – after all, if it’s good enough for Charles and Sebastian, it’s good enough for you and your sweetheart. So, whether you choose to celebrate this holiday in the manner of Brideshead, Shakespeare, or even the Ancient Romans (on second thoughts, let’s not go there) Oxford is probably one of the best places to spend it.

The ultimate town vs gown

The ultimate town vs gown


[caption id="attachment_35409" align="alignnone" width="300"]Photo/ Christopher Cheung Photo/ Christopher Cheung[/caption]

When you think of the many times when you walk in the streets of Oxford in a state of boisterous intoxication at night, you can imagine that there must be a local resident or two being woken up by the noise of discordant singing and wondering to themselves why they haven’t already moved out of this city infested with so-called students more preoccupied with drinking than studying. You’d think that this would be a relatively recent phenomenon, caused by the inexorable nationwide decline in the quality of students. In the past, university students should be the scholarly elite buried in books all the time. In the age of popular education and grade inflation, it is only natural that more students become the subject of disdain for local residents.

Surprisingly, student nowadays are much gentler than those of yesteryears. A look back at history will reveal the extent of the open hostility between town and gown. This Sunday marks 658th anniversary of the riots of St. Scholastica’s Day, where many students and locals died. The trigger of the riots was a dispute between two students and a taverner on 10th February, 1355. The two students, named Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chestefield, were having a drink at Swyndolnestok Tavern, near the corner of St.Aldate’s and Queen Street. The quality of the wine was not up to their standards, and when the students decided that verbal insults were not enough, they literally poured their dissatisfaction onto the taverner John Croidon by throwing the liquid in his face. The conflict escalated when Croidon got assualted by the students.

Croidon was not going to put up with this. He got the townspeople on his side, and eventually the mayor John de Bereford had to step in. The mayor had no power over students, so he asked the Chancellor of the university Humphrey de Cherlton to arrest the two students, who rang the bells of St. Mary’s to resist facing their due. In a great act of solidarity, about two hundred students responded to the two student’s plea of help. Some accounts claim that the students attacked the mayor. The day ended without any deaths as the townspeople backed down.

The following is a reminder of the fact that every historical source is biased. Accounts differ on the development of the events, so we will never know for certain which side provoked which side first. Let’s just say that the townspeople started it all for the sake of continuing the story. Some of them hid in St. Giles Church and attacked the students with bow and arrow. Others coming from the countryside marched into the city with black banners. Students did not have enough weapons to resist the rage of countrymen, who stormed into premises of the university and wrecked “havoc, havoc”, part of the slogan they cried out in their protests. Eventually, 63 students and a number of locals died. Surviving students left Oxford in terror. The townsmen were victorious.

Not so quick. If they were victorious, why does the university still exist?

King Edward thought preserving the university would be valuable for the country, so he made concessions, such as granting impunity to those students who committed crimes in the riots. He also ordered that an annual commemoratory mass, which the mayor and other important townspeople had to attend, to be held from that year onwards. They were to each offer a penny for every student who died in the riots. The penance, intended to be used partly as scholarship for the poor, was not corrected for inflation and if it still continued today, it would have been laughably meagre. In 1852, the mayor had the foresight to flatly refuse to pay, and so somehow this whole thing was forgotten and now students and locals live in peace.

There is animosity between town and gown in other university cities as well, but none other than Oxford can claim to have as violent a chapter in history as St. Scholastica’s Day.