Posts Tagged ‘19th Century Physical Culture’

This is important stuff for a costumer – particularly a 19th and early 20th century one – to know.

Did you hate gym class? Did you find it a terrible, tyrannical thing? Well here is some academic logic behind those feelings.

Idealized Pre-Victorian Physical Activity: Naked and whimsical

Idealized Pre-Victorian Physical Activity: admired, naked, whimsical, pleasurable, free from negative judgement

The concept of the gymnasium and physical regime grew out of the 19th century. Prior to that time, the idea of attending a gym or doing exercises just for the sake of doing exercises would have been considered odd, unnecessary, and wasteful. People would stay in shape by hunting, riding, walking, dancing, whatever, but they did not have formalized activities specifically for the purpose of ‘staying fit.’ In general, one was active to gain, achieve or make something more tangible, or done out of pleasure. Either you moved around or you were sick.

To notice a correlation between the corset and the rise of Physical culture would probably not make you unique. I’m sure it is somehow related. But I believe that both are symptoms of a greater movement, not causes.

For early modern women (prior to the 19th century for all of you non-history types) it was generally prized to be active. Though art at the time displayed women lounging, passive, docile, this was not the norm. She would ride, hunt, dance, walk briskly, be animated. Living a life of leisure, though ‘picturesque,’ was considered sinful, or indulgent, like heroine chic in the 1990s.

Physical activity would demonstrate a woman’s capacity to bear children, survive, and run a household. She didn’t go to the gym but would demonstrate her vitality through movement and dancing while staying within the confines of social acceptability. For example, court dancing evolved to function as an opportunity to display physical prowess while staying in the confines of court protocol. The first dances of the evening at any formal or semi-formal event, or pavanes, would be slow for the old, providing an opportunity to show of clothes, and allowing the older members of the party to retire early. Physical capability was political, not just personal. It was expected to be a continuous aspect of life.  To not move and be ill or infirm implied incapability, and possibly an impending death.

But that all changed in the 1800s. The need to segregate physical time from the rest of the day probably had a million causes. But here are some ideas:

1. Rise in the culture of privacy: Medieval buildings were communal. The public and private were considered one and the same, as it was the person who embodied the institution. Almost all activities performed by the upper classes were public, and floor plans and social patterns and rituals reflected this. In the 19th century, an almost neurotic or paranoid privacy culture developed. Floor plans became cut up into small rooms with designated purposes.

2. Rise in population: A denser population often results in more formalized rituals. People could afford less to gallivant around without care of harm caused to others. Also, with the fall of an official ruling caste, aka the nobility, physical harm to another person, where and how the physical harm was done, became less a subject of class and politics and more one of law and technicality.

3. The corset: I’m guessing the corset is more of a symptom of a cultural trend than a cause. But the corset does indeed make it difficult to be physically extroverted. At Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, had one of the beautiful historic drawing rooms converted into a gymnasium. It didn’t look like a gym as we know it today, but more like a drawing room with all sorts of implements that look like they could be used in torture.

4. Darwinism: Mankind felt the belief to seperate himself from the beasts. His physical effort would be approved, and have basis, and his primal urges for physical activity (or whatever) were entirely under his control. It was an attempt to squelch the body, intution, and all matters that were associated with mortality and the beasts, so that superior humans together, working towards progress (Progressive Movement) could distance themselves from the apes and from Medieval hierarchy. Wild romps in the rough were not approved.

5. Departure of the personal from the institutional.

6. Work became more automated. Jobs were less physically demanding with machines doing much of the brute work. This applies also to transportation and work at home. Physical effort was sometimes considered brutish, unnecessary, lower class. Science and innovation sought to make it unnecessary.

1891, Physical Culture

1891, Physical Culture

Physical regimes varied in intensity and philosophy. Some claimed to be connected to ‘science,’ some to religion, some to mysticism, some to magnetic forces of the earth. They had much in common with diet culture here in the U.S. in that exercise became something of a beast to be controlled, segmented from regular lifestyle. Physicality became medicinal, performed in the same way one takes vitamins at the same time every morning, not something done for pleasure, beauty, or expression or out of joy. To not segment it, and to behave otherwise was considered reckless… and uncontrolled.

Philosophically, the physical culture is strongly connected with the principle of elan vitale (Bergson). Though the term would not be coined until later, the principle of the ‘life force’ was one of the ancestors of socialist and nazi thought (they are cousins, but that doesn’t mean they are the same). One can recall Leni Riefenstahl’s images of happy, exercising Germans, all following a leader and doing it together. Or the marxist image of the proliteriat working happily in the field or a factory. There is little individualism, little spirit or will or preference or creativity, very Orwellian. But they are moving, exercising, following the leader, working towards progress and advancement, doing the motions… like everybody else. The image is convincing, particularly to a rattled culture.


Gender = Regime

19th Century physical culture was a bit less severe and political. But it wasn’t any less insane. Remember the movie the Road to Wellville? It’s not exaggerated. With socialism, doing push ups and windmills became political, when endorphines were associated with party affiliation.

The interest in Physical Culture resulted in lots of good things to be sure. It went hand in hand with a gazillion medical advancements. Treatment for injuries became researched as the body and origins of humanity was viewed in a scientific light. But taken to extremes, as it often was, it became comical and tyranical, like Chaplin in The Great Dictator.

So if you ever think your gym class teacher or aerobics instructor is something of a nazi or communist, you are almost right. They share numerous philosophical ancestors.


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