The Way Back: Life Before Lycra

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When the UT women’s athletics program was formalized in the 1920s, Lycra hadn’t been invented. And considering the attitudes of the day, that’s probably just as well. Modesty and propriety were strictly dictated while competition was deemed suspicious and unfeminine. Clad in bloomers, long skirts, thick tights, and wool sweaters, UT’s first lady Longhorns weren’t expected to overexert themselves. Spectating was discouraged, facilities were slapdash, and teams weren’t allowed to play off campus.

Nevertheless, change was afoot. Anna Hiss, who served as director of physical training for women from 1921-56, transformed women’s athletics into a well-organized program. And while the focus remained on health and decorum, competition had begun to creep in. In Hiss’ program, freshmen received a health grade of A, B, or C at the end of their first semester. During the spring, A-graders could take their pick of activities. In addition to well-known sports, they could enjoy folk dancing, clogging, tumbling, and Tennikoit (think Frisbee tennis). B-graders got what was left over, and poor C-graders had to endure “corrective and individual gymnastic classes.”

In the 1930s, the evolution of sporting honor societies and the establishment of a women’s gymnasium elevated Hiss’ program. Clubs such as “Bit and Spur” (riding) and the Deep Eddy-based “Turtle Club” (aquatics) developed stringent entry requirements, which helped boost their prestige on campus.

For those who didn’t make the grade, intramural sports accommodated those who sought activities “not on a skilled basis but on a basis of appeal.” And for those who preferred the great outdoors, the “Tee-Waa-Hiss” club offered camping, hiking, and an annual Christmas pageant atop Mount Bonnell—where those bloomers and sweaters might have come in handy after all.

Image courtesy UT-Austin/Briscoe Center.

 

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