Senior Costume Interpreter, Alison Phillips, adjusts the collar of the football kit's blouse.

To celebrate the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023, the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust have collaborated with Wolverhampton Wanderers Foundation to produce a replica 19th-century women’s football kit.  

Pioneers of Women's Football

The late 19th century saw the first attempt to professionalise football played by women. Women have likely played football for as long as the game has existed with their friends and family, but there has been a long-term resistance to women playing the sport in organised teams in Britain. Historically, football was a rough and unregulated game until formal rules were introduced after the formation of the Football Association in 1863. This also led to men’s football becoming incredibly popular both to play and watch.

At the same time as football was becoming increasingly regulated and popular, women were beginning to fight to improve their rights and opportunities. For many middle class women this included taking part in sports, with some of the most popular being hockey, croquet, and tennis. All of these were non-contact sports that could be played whilst wearing a long skirt. Football, on the other hand, was seen as a rough working man’s game and yet some pioneering women tried to make it an acceptable game for women too.

A first brief attempt was made to form a women’s football team in Scotland in 1881, which was abandoned following a series of violent pitch invasions. In 1894 a slightly more successful attempt was made by the British Ladies Football Club (BLFC).

The team’s captain and figurehead was Nettie Honeyball (a pseudonym). When asked about her motivations for setting up the team she replied:​​

Why not? Aren’t women as good as men? We ladies have too long borne the degradation of presumed inferiority to the other sex. The subject has been in my mind for years. If men can play football so can women.
Cornish Telegraph, 24 January 1895, p. 3.

The club trained for several hours at least twice week with professional football player John Williams ‘Bill’ Julian, and their first match in March 1895 was very popular with more than 10,000 people showing up to watch and thousands more turned away at the gate. Yet the press coverage of the match was brutal. Newspaper reports and journalists made it clear to readers that football was not suitable for women. The Wellington Journal, a newspaper read by the people of the East Shropshire Coalfield, reported that,

Candidly speaking, the game was more fit for a house lawn than a public football ground. The girls did their best and seemed in earnest but their ideas of play were most comical and their ignorance of the rules most amusing. The players looked charming in their costumes, used a very small ball, did not unduly exert themselves, charge roughly, or indulge in foul play, but as an exhibition of football it was a farce.
Wellington Journal, 30 March 1895, p.6.

"The first match of the British Ladies' Football Club" from The Graphic, March 1895.

Despite this coverage, the British Ladies Football Club continued to play matches through 1895 and 1896, often at the official grounds of men’s clubs. The BLFC supplied both teams, Blues and Reds, who played exhibition matches. A handful of other women’s team were also established during these years. However, by 1897 women’s football was in significant decline as the teams didn’t have their own grounds and the Football Association began informing men’s clubs that “lady footballers” should not be playing on their grounds. By the turn of the 20th century, football had disappeared as a sport for women and it would be another 20 years until women’s football saw another resurgence during the First World War.

Making a Replica Football Kit

The replica of the kit worn by the players of the BLFC, which was made in collaboration Wolverhampton Wanderers Foundation, aims to honour these pioneers of women’s football. It was researched, designed, and constructed in Wolves’ striking gold and black colours by Alison Phillips, the Trust’s Senior Costumer Interpreter. For the kit, Alison took inspiration from a photograph of the BLFC’s Lady Footballers South Team in The Sketch newspaper in 1895. In it, the women are wearing loose blouses, knickerbockers, shin pads, hats and boots.

Alison started with the voluminous blouse. The players of the Lady Footballers South Team appeared to be wearing homemade blouses as they were all different styles and patterns rather than a regulated uniform. Alison based the replica blouse on one worn by a player seated in the centre of the photograph. Using this in combination with typical fashionable styles of the 1890's, she designed and drafted a pattern for the blouse, which was then constructed using 100% cotton material in the black and bright gold Wolves colours.

The Trust's Senior Costume Interpreter, Alison Phillips, working on the replica costume in the Costume Project's workroom.

Whilst we expect women to wear shorts or trousers to play football today, the loose knee length breeches worn by female football players in the late 19th century were a very unusual sight for the time as women were never seen in public wearing anything but skirts. Even cycle bloomers were derided! The replica breeches were made from sturdy cotton drill, although in hindsight we think the originals were actually made of wool serge.

Alison holding the footballer's cap alongside the blouse and breeches.

Whilst the blouse and breeches don’t look very similar to those worn by women playing football today, they aren’t unexpected. However, one particularly unusual feature of the ‘Lady Footballers’ kit was their hats. This was a jersey cotton cap that was not dissimilar in style to a man's night cap or a fisherman's hat of the time, and featured a large tassle hanging from the end. We have speculated that the women wore these caps because no respectable person would be outside without headwear in the Victorian era.  It was therefore important for these women to wear some kind of head covering that would stay in place whilst playing football, although interestingly in the men's game the same rules did not seem to apply as they rarely wore caps whilst playing.

The rest of the kit comprises dark stockings, leather shin pads and sturdy boots. 

One question you may have is: did the players wear corsets? Having looked closely at the original photograph, we can definitely say that the majority of the team were corseted. Although the photograph is a team portrait that was taken off the field, we believe that the women would have worn corsetry during the game too.

If you would like to see the replica kit in person, it will be on display in the window of the Draper’s shop at Blists Hill Victorian Town for the duration of the Women’s World Cup and throughout the summer in 2023. It will then feature in the ‘Fashion Through The Ages’ fashion show in Coalbrookdale on 22 and 23 September. Wolverhampton Wanderers also have a second version of the kit which is displayed in the ‘Wolves Women’ exhibit at the Wolves Museum.