Wednesday, June 22, 2011


It’s easy to forget that women did not always climb mountains and ski, and become Olympic heroines. When we look at medieval tapestries we see aristocratic women riding to the hunt but in most cases women were relegated to sedentary roles. Gentle sports emerged in the 19th century. Women came out of the parlour and became active participants swinging a golf club, wielding a croquet mallet or playing tennis. There was no specific clothing for these activities. Though the skirt may have been shortened, you’d simply wear your daytime frock and hat encumbered with corset, bustle or crinoline depending on the era. In the late 19th Century a true liberation came in on wheels.
The bicycle afforded women the freedom to travel alone wearing of course bloomers, those liberating garments that had scandalized society when Mrs. Amelia Bloomer introduced them in 1851. Criticism about the bicycling craze erupted with a New York Times article from 1893 describes the phenomenon as ‘every woman must, does or will mount the iron horse.’ In Paris, women risked arrest wearing trouser-style garments while not in the presence of a bicycle.
Thank goodness those Victorian restrictions have given way to good looking garments that allowed women to participate in active sports unencumbered and sleek in new fabrics that afford comfort and speed. The Museum at FIT responds to some of these sport/fashion issues in a new exhibition, SPORTING LIFE, which explores the relationship between active sportswear from the past 150 years and fashion. The exhibit on view through November 5, 2011 features more than 100 garments, accessories and textiles representing 16 sports juxtaposed with sports-inspired, ready-to-wear styles by leading designers.
If you’re waxing nostalgic about the good old days imagine what it must have been like to ride a bike. Sporting Life features a circa 1888 woman’s tailored bicycling ensemble, with a divided skirt that was designed for mobility as well as modesty. Clothing for bicycling changed substantially during the 20th century giving way to stretch materials and streamlined design for maximum performance in competitive racing. The earliest tennis garment on view, circa 1903, is a two-piece summer ensemble with shirtwaist style blouse and long skirt. The exhibit also pairs a 1926 silk Chanel dress, with a loose cut and a pleated skirt, with a familiar white cotton tennis dress, circa 1926, to illustrate the relationship between sport and fashion.
Imagine garments for swimming and active sportswear made in heavy wool and how much it must have impeded one’s pleasure of the sport. The exhibition features a wide variety of women’s swimwear, ranging from a modest, two-piece wool suit from the 1850s to the body-revealing styles created by designer Rudi Gernreich during the 1960s. Other garments illustrate how new textile technology, including lastex and spandex contribute to today’s competitive sportswear’s high performance functionality. By the 1980s, spandex could be found not only in specialized sportswear and in exercise and dance clothing, but also in similarly body-conscious fashions.
The exhibition also has sections devoted to golf, skiing hunting, skating, horseback riding, motoring, surfing, dance, football and baseball. Some synthetic materials most often utilized in active sportswear are being using in fashion garments---neoprene, for instance, a fabric commonly used in clothing for surfing and aquatic sports. To illustrate, the exhibit displays a neoprene wetsuit alongside a sporty 1994 Donna Karan dress, also made of neoprene. Christian Lacroix’s 1990 beachwear ensemble is an eye-catcher with coordinated swimsuits, scarf, hat, sunglasses and shoes as is Gucci (Tom Ford) ski jacket, pink polyester/nylon/spandex, circa 1995.
Today companies are consulting with doctors and engineers in their efforts to make performance apparel that has “comfort, lightness, and style.” Meanwhile, fashion runway collections continue to present adaptations of classic sports attire.
The Museum at FIT is located at Seventh Avenue at 27th Street, New York City. Info: 212.217.4558 FREE admission. Closed Sundays, Monday and legal holidays. Tuesday-Friday, noon– 8pm, Saturday, 10-5 pm.

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