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From portable tents to tight-fitting swimsuits: the evolution of women’s sportswear

Written by Meredith Mendelsohn, CNN

Before the advent of designer sportswear, women’s sportswear was low on the fashion priority list. But a new exhibit shows that sportswear has long been a valuable tool for self-expression and an important path to greater liberation.

“Sports fashion: outdoor girls from 1800 to 1960” includes around 65 sets from continental Europe, the UK and the US, ranging from Victorian hunting dresses and high fashion leisure wear to bespoke team uniforms. Organized by the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and the American Federation of Arts, the show opens at the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh on July 3, before a nationwide tour through 2024.

An 1890s inline skate outfit. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

Over the past 160 years, we have seen fashion adapt to the changing sartorial needs of women as sociocultural changes have made it increasingly acceptable for them to venture outdoors and participate in physical activity. “Sportswear does not fall from the sky,” said Kevin Jones, curator of the FIDM museum, which organized the exhibition with the museum’s associate curator, Christina M. Johnson. “While we might not think of some of these sets as specific athletic wear, that’s where it all started. Women wore fashionable clothes to do outdoor activities, and as these activities went on. were developing, they had to determine in their day what would be appropriate to wear. ”

An 1820s archery set.

An 1820s archery set. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

The impetus for the show was a 1940s scarf that caught Jones’ eye at a vintage fashion show in Los Angeles in 2009, displaying 13 vignettes of stylish young women participating in different sporting activities, with the “Outdoorgirl” slogan meandering around every scene. He decides on the spot to do a show on the theme, and spends the next 12 years looking for the right sets.

They started the show in 1800, Jones explained, because perfect examples from earlier times were just too hard to come by: “Unlike a ball gown, these clothes were never meant to survive.”

Design innovation

Clothing from the early 1800s is suitable for walking in parks, gardening, and ice skating – easy and acceptable activities for women propelled outdoors by an interest in horticulture, health, and ice-skating. fresh air.

The idea of ​​a woman exercising was still taboo: In 1806, an article in the popular British magazine La Belle Assembly, taken from the show’s full catalog, warned that “the constitution of women is only suitable for women. moderate exercise; their weak arms cannot accomplish too laborious and too long continued work, and the graces cannot be reconciled with fatigue and sunburn. “

Mountaineering from the 1890s, with a subtly split skirt.

Mountaineering from the 1890s, with a subtly split skirt. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

Codes of decency have long prevented women from showing skin and body contours (too suggestive), as well as from dressing like men (too threatening). But we see some particularly creative workarounds: Progressive fashion reformers in the late 1800s invented a subtly split skirt – like looser panties – for mountaineering; while a 1912 houndstooth riding jacket could be paired with a matching apron skirt, if the wearer opted to ride a saddleback or loose breeches, which offered some modesty on horseback.

The solutions for bathing were just as innovative, although extremely cumbersome. A rare personal changing tent, patented around 1900, for example, was reportedly quickly put up by a woman as she emerged from the water to prevent onlookers from seeing the outlines of the shape under her wet clothes.

A personal changing tent from 1900.

A personal changing tent from 1900. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

Throughout much of the West, it was considered indecent, if not illegal, for women to wear pants until the early 1900s, and they were not worn very frequently until the 1920s, when designers like Coco Chanel and Jean Patou (who both have “Sporting Fashion” pieces) have made them all the rage. Around the same time, cultural changes resulted in an increase in the length of hems, as well as bare legs and backs. Hollywood was partly to blame, Jones said, but so was World War I: “After World War I and the Spanish influenza pandemic, a whole generation of men were killed, so you were left with very young people. “, he explains. “It is reflected in the fashion.”

Textile technology

The prosperity that followed World War II would open up a world of bowling, cheerleader and motorcycle teams on President Eisenhower’s new highways.

“By the time you get to the 1960s,” Jones explained, “the types of clothing that women wore as spectators or for athletic use had already been designed. What changed after that was the technology. textile.”

A sporty motorcycle outfit from the 1930s.

A sporty motorcycle outfit from the 1930s. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

But that is to say that technological advances have not been decisive along the way. Knitted wool corsets, Jones points out, were much more flexible than their bone or metal reinforced predecessors. Likewise, as women began to have more skin, lightweight machine knits became essential for swimwear, as seen in a black 1920s one-piece made by the American swimwear brand. bain Jantzen, who started making sweaters. Meanwhile, a 1930s swimsuit designed by Cole of California was made from a blend of latex woven with cotton, which allowed for a more flexible fit.

A 1930s baseball uniform with Spalding studs.

A 1930s baseball uniform with Spalding studs. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

“[Knitwear has] have been around for hundreds of years, but the types of clothing we see when women needed more ability was really about experimentation and entrepreneurial innovation, ”Jones explained.

Perhaps most surprisingly about the exhibit is that some of these athletic outfits already existed, like an 1890s cricket set or a 1910s basketball team uniform. a man was doing something and there was a woman who was interested in doing it, I guarantee she was looking for a way (to do it), and also what to wear while doing it, “Jones said. She also had to find a way to get the garment: “The basketball uniform was probably made to order by a traveling seamstress,” Jones said.

An après-ski set with ski pants from luxury Italian brand Pucci and Baruffaldi ski goggles, all from the 50s.

An après-ski set with ski pants from luxury Italian brand Pucci and Baruffaldi ski goggles, all from the 50s. Credit: Courtesy of Brian Davis / FIDM Museum / American Federation of Arts

Hard not to notice that most of these clothes belonged to well-heeled white women who had the leisure to wear them and the means to purchase them. But as tennis superstar and style icon Serena Williams observes in an introductory essay for the catalog, clothing, which once restricted women in their athletic pursuits, can be seen as a “tool to empower female athletes. , to give them a form of self-expression and individuality in a world that historically belonged to men. ”

If it is a driving force of fashion, sportswear, it turns out, is also a great democratizer.

“Sports fashion: outdoor girls from 1800 to 1960” is at the Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh from July 3, 2021 to September 26, 2021.
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Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds

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