Anyone who’s ever seen a James Bond movie knows that a lady in an evening gown is always sexier when wielding a gun—the same, it seems, was also true more than a century ago if we are to believe Walter Winans’ 1911 title Shooting for Ladies.
Created with the intention of tutoring ladies in the finer points of shooting a gun, his preoccupation was less about practicality and more about prose—how best a woman may craft her appearance while shooting “for amusement, or for self-defence in uncivilized countries.” Bedecked and begowned, Winan’s women are even offered the following advice as to how best to select their jewelry for shooting, “Besides ordinary jewellery in gold, silver or precious stones representing game birds or animals, or shooting appliances, to be worn as brooches, bangles, pins, &c., on the Continent there is special jewellery made out of feathers, glass, teeth, &c.”
While dressed at the height of fashion for 1911, these gun-toting gals are almost certainly the fruits born of male desire, as in reality, the toilette chosen most often by women for shooting (and other sports) was the staid and stately tailor-made—a two piece suit consisting of skirt and jacket.
Prior to the twentieth century, riding and the hunt were two of the few sports deemed proper for ladies’ constitutions. Physical exertions being primarily the domain of men, sport marked a liminal space between the sexes, and the vanguard sportswoman was viewed as vaguely transgressive and sexually ambiguous; her attire was largely based on menswear with smart gender-neutral tailoring that held connotations of power and latent sexuality.
Sportswear for women was a blossoming market during the early twentieth century, as more and more women participated in an active lifestyle. Some of today’s best-known fashion houses got their start as specialty purveyors of sports and active goods; Burberry was founded in 1856 in Basingstoke, England and supplied tents and parkas to the some of the era’s great expeditions including Sir Ernest Shakleton’s ground-breaking voyage to Antarctica in 1915. Hermès is even older yet, founded in Paris in 1837 by master leather worker Thierry Hermès who supplied fine, custom tack and saddlery to Europe’s elite.