The White Girdle


‘I’m all for sport but there’s a limit’: The White Girdle (Mrs Munro, 1963)

So far the objects chosen for our ‘History of the school in 12 objects’ project have been suggested by staff and current pupils. In contrast, this object is dedicated to our alumnae, who so vividly and enthusiastically recalled memories of the ‘white girdle’ when asked to nominate an object which they associated with their time at St Paul’s. It was by far and away the most popular item, and as a piece of sports uniform which was awarded for most of our history, it clearly made an impact on paulinas through the years.

This very object is imbued with the sporting success of old paulinas and reflects the school’s sporting heritage. The first sports were basketball, gymnastics, cricket, hockey, tennis and swimming. As well as being one of the first schools in England to build its own swimming pool, we are also fortunate to count Kitty Godfree, British tennis and Badminton player who won 5 Olympic golds in her career, as well as Janet Shardlow (née Morgan, OP 1939), women’s squash champion, among our sporting alumnae. More recently Zoe de Toledo (OP 2005) and Maxie Sheske (OP 2012) have shown paulinas remain competitive sportswomen, representing Oxford in the 2012 and 2013 Boat Races.

But anecdotes reveal that the white girdle isn’t just loved by the sporting elite. It made a lasting impression on paulinas, even those who were not the ‘sporty kind’, as Ruth Rothenberg (née Portrait) confessed, ‘I never remotely came near it but I did like the idea.’ Lucy Drake (née Carlisle (OP 1976), fondly reminisces, ‘I look back at my time at SPGS with greatest affection for sports and PE’ and Shelagh Norton (née Coulson, OP 1958) remembers, ‘they looked most impressive on a navy gym slip.’

The white girdle was etched into the school history right from the outset. The first Paulina magazine, recounts that at the opening of the school, ‘eight most efficient girls in the gymnasium were chosen to drill’ before her royal highnesses the Princess of Wales. They were said to, ‘always wear white girdles with their tunics’, an honour which could be bestowed on other girls ‘when Miss Arbman thinks they are worthy’ (Paulina, July 1904). It was evident that standards were high and despite best efforts, paulinas sometimes fell short of the exacting standards set by gym mistress Miss Volklovsky who wrote in July 1912, ‘no white girdles have been awarded this term.’

Similarly, the performance reports which were a regular feature of early Paulina magazines illustrate the uncompromising critique to which sportswomen were subjected. One Paulina is described as ‘inclined to give up after a run down the wing’, whilst another is said to show a ‘great lack of dash and determination in the circle’ (Paulina, December 1907, p.7).

Although no longer represented by a white girdle, participation and success in sport is still keenly rewarded. To celebrate the Olympics a year-long sporting festival was hosted and as part of the Olympic legacy paulinas, across the age range, have been competing in a variety of sports from netball, to gymnastics to synchronized swimming throughout year.