Lycra, Linen, and Liberation

Advertisement for De De Johnson sportswear, 1930s

As a retail worker for a popular sportswear company this past summer, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between American sportswear styles of the 1930s and those today. The often competing factors of fashion and function to fulfill both the needs of the active woman and the demands of performative social femininity are constantly engaged in an evolving dialogue, but both the 1930s and 2010s made strides by prioritizing the former at the price of appeasing the latter. Through the simultaneous exposure to contemporary and 1930s sportswear, I found an undeniable kinship between the activewear movement of the 1930s and the colloquialization of American sportswear on a mass scale in 2017.

American sportswear style has developed significantly since the 1930s — shifting from pleated linen skirts and tanks (not to mention the still taboo women’s trousers!) to lycra based yoga pants and sweat-wicking tops with built-in bras — yet the purpose and function of activewear wear remain constant. The construction of these garments valued functionality over femininity, glorifying the female body for its physical potential rather than its erotic or domestic value, thus rejecting expectations of female domesticity.

The 1930s proved pivotal for women’s sportswear fashion, and set a precedent for prioritizing a woman’s physical comfort and range of movement over restrictive garments based on constructs of femininity. Innovations of the decade introduced shortened hemlines and breathable fabrics. The broader impact of these styles were made apparent in the following decade as similar silhouettes and fabrics seeped into women’s everyday apparel beyond simply exercise clothes. In this respect, activewear can be regarded as a tool of liberation.

This 1930s movement parallels the 21st century popularization of yoga pants and lycra clothing in America. These stretchy fabrics and casual styles were initially only acceptable in the context of exercise and sport. Through sheer popularity among women (by giving them a feeling of physical liberation), these styles began to seep into everyday society and became socially admissible beyond their initial practical purpose. In America today, yoga pants and lycra tops are widely considered to be an acceptable form of every day dress.

Activewear is at the forefront of pressuring fashion to prioritize functionality and women’s comfort over oppressively restrictive apparel. In America, the 1930s opened a door to conventionalizing activewear in every day life— a precedent still utilized and appreciated by contemporary women in 2017.

By Arielle Murphy

Passing: Fashion In American Cities Call for Papers

Pepper LaBeija, Paris Is Burning (1990)

Hello,

Welcome back to the Documenting Fashion blog – hope you’ve all had a good summer.

We will be returning to our usual schedule with new posts on Tuesdays and Fridays – and don’t forget you can subscribe by entering your email address on the right of the page to be sure never to miss anything.

The new term starts in a couple of weeks, when I’ll be welcoming a new intake of students. In the meantime, let’s see what’s coming up … today some information about the Call for Papers for our amazing conference Passing: Fashion in American Cities in May.

And to develop this fascinating theme – some stills from Jennie Livingston’s incredible 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning exploring the world of New York’s 1980s drag ball subculture and the beautiful, intricate performances, in which contestants reimagined themselves through dress and vogueing.

Rebecca.

Paris Is Burning, dir. Jennie Livingston (1990)

Passing: Fashion in American Cities

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London

Saturday 5 May 2018
10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Organised by

  • Rebecca Arnold: The Courtauld Institute of Art
  • David Peters Corbett: The Courtauld Institute of Art

The idea of ‘passing’ and the issues it raises in relation to contemporary and historical notions of self-fashioning and identities is of central importance in a period of political, social and cultural upheaval.  The notion of passing also speaks to current discrimination and civil rights issues, and this conference seeks to examine the ways dress has been used to ‘pass’, to negotiate, resist and refuse contemporary prejudice, discrimination and status and beauty ideals.  We aim to explore dress, the body and the idea of ‘becoming’ – in relation to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class, with the city as a key locus for attempts to outwit social and cultural mores through the artful deployment of dress.

We welcome proposals that discuss actual dress, as well as its visual representation, with focus on the Americas as a diverse geographical zone in which growing urban centres and mass immigration have hot-housed conformity and, in turn, its resistance.

The conference seeks to highlight and interrogate this important aspect of urban self-fashioning to understand its place within dress practices and visual culture, and to develop analysis of its place within American social life.

Submission process: Please submit abstracts of 150-200 words in English, along with a short biography of approximately 100 words to passingconference@gmail.com by 29 September 2017.

 

Dissertation Discussion: Yona

The finale of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, 1939. Romano Archives.

What is your title?

Billy Rose’s Aquacade & The Search for American Identity

The ‘Aquagals’ dressed as the Statue of Liberty, 1939. Romano Archives.

What prompted you to choose this topic?

For my dissertation, I am looking at American identity in the costumes of ‘Billy Rose’s Aquacade’, which performed during the 1939 and 1940 New York World’s Fair. Not being aware of the Aquacade’s existence until recently, I came across this topic by chance. During the past year, I have spent considerable time researching American fashion and identity and knew I wanted to continue exploring the subject. When looking for an American film clip archive, I came across the Prelinger Archive, which was founded by Rick Prelinger in 1982 in New York City and consists of around 60,000 ephemeral films. The archive contained amazing amateur films of the New York World’s Fair, which also showed the Aquacade. The Aquacade was the most extraordinary show that I had come across for a long time. Its vast array of different acts included synchronised swimming, diving, dance, skating, fashion, clowns, and performances by important athletes of the time, including Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller. Due to its extravagant declarations of Americanness, the Aquacade provides invaluable insight into American identity around the start of World War II.

A birds-eye view of the Aquacade, 1 September 1939. Vogue Archive.

Most interesting research find so far?

One of the most exciting parts of my research has been analysing the use of the American flag and American symbols as an expression of American identity in the Aquacade. During the first New York World’s Fair season, World War II broke out in Europe. Even though the United States did not enter the war until 1941, the American government realised that the US needed a defined identity to be able to unite its people in patriotism. As the US did not have strongly embedded traditions and copied European ideas and design styles until well into the 20th century, identity had to be based on something other than traditions that could be considered unequivocally American. Therefore, American identity focussed on history and symbols, including the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. The Aquacade incorporated the colours, stripes and stars of the American flag in its costumes and props, and even showed 48 dancers dressed as the Statue of Liberty – one for each state (Alaska and Hawaii only became states in 1959).

Four of Billy Rose’s ‘Aquabelles’ stage a fashion show of the past, present and future bathing suit styles at the New York World’s Fair, July 4, 1939. Getty Images.

Favorite place to work?

Even though I am writing on an active performance with important athletes, I have barely moved myself since starting my dissertation work. I have always preferred writing at home as I like the comfort and endless supply of tea and prefer not to have any distractions. As such, I have been living like a hermit, only leaving my room for food and tea.

Women Photographers: Spring Term Starts for MA Documenting Fashion

It’s the first class of my MA Documenting Fashion: Modernity, Films and Image in Europe & America, 1920-60 for the spring term on Friday – and we will discuss one of my favourite subjects – midcentury women photographers. Focusing on Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Toni Frissell we will look at the ways their work shaped ideals of femininity, and, importantly, how it connected to shifts within American design – of clothes and magazines.

Both photographers worked in a number of genres, which included documentary, portrait and fashion and it’s interesting to think about their approach to each. For Frissell, her love of natural gesture, and connections between bodies can be seen both in her photographs of college girls leaping with joy in their chic readymade fashions, and her intimate images of soldiers being briefed during the Second World War. For Dahl-Wolfe, a more painterly conception of the textures and space of a composition is always apparent, as well as a love of light and colour that permeates her oeuvre.

Another aspect of their work that I want to discuss with my students is the ways their photographs were used in high fashion magazines – thinking about firstly, the practicalities of fashion photography and secondly, thinking about the readers’ experience of their images. To do this, we will consider their collaborators, including Dahl-Wolfe’s work with Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow, the costs and difficulties of location shots, and their rivalry – the latter evidenced in letters from Toni Frissell’s archive at the Library of Congress.

By looking at magazine design, we can then situate the images within their original context – how they relate to the text and pictures around them, the size and feel of the magazine and how they ‘spoke’ to readers.

As I said, this is a favourite area of mine, I love learning about the ways women worked, created and collaborated in this period, and I hope my students will also enjoy our seminar, rethinking fashion photography from a number of perspectives.

Finding Elizabeth Hawes: Dress, Art & Politics – An Interview with Gavrik Losey

Processed with MOLDIV

2-elizabeth-hawes-advert-1938

Elizabeth Hawes advertisement, 1938

3-elizabeth-hwes-advert-1938

Elizabeth Hawes advertisement, 1938

A few months ago, April Calahan and Karen Trivette of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Special Collections in New York contacted me to ask if I would interview Gavrik Losey for their Oral History Project. I was thrilled – I am a great admirer of all things FIT, and its Special Collections department was crucial to my research for The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear & the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York (IB Tauris 2009). Indeed, I used many of the fascinating interviews with people connected with American fashion held there to help me to understand the period and its significance.

Of course the fact that it was Gavrik Losey they had asked me to interview was the real draw. Gavrik’s mother is Elizabeth Hawes – celebrated designer, journalist and political activist, and the opportunity to ask him about his memories of growing up under her influence was not to be missed. His father is of great significance too – theatre and film director Joseph Losey was as politically engaged as Hawes, and so Gavrik’s experiences with his parents would open up a key period in American history.

We met this week at The Courtauld on a hot September day, to film the interview. It was fascinating to hear Gavrik’s memories – ultimately I will write about these in more detail, but I wanted to give you a taste of the touching, funny and evocative stories he had to tell. So here are a few of the many things I learnt about in a discussion that lasted well over an hour and which gave amazing insight into Elizabeth Hawes’ significance and so much more.

Gavrik’s earliest memory of his mother relating to dress is picking up pins off the floor of the workroom at her 59th Street establishment. He also learnt how to press clothes at an early age – his mother’s advice? Only iron the parts of each garment that will be seen … He went on to describe her mix of artistry and pragmatism as a designer and her drive to make clothes that fitted contemporary women’s lives. Her interest in colour theory – the idea that each personality type has an appropriate colour palette – extended into the salon’s interior and even their home. Hawes loved to have walls of different shades to set off the ensembles being shown …

He remembered how his mother loved to drape fabric to create new garments – and travelled everywhere with a little, to-scale mannequin, so she could devise new creations. Oh, and that she made samples to her own size, so that she could wear each new collection once it had been shown …

He also told of her wicked sense of humour – which made itself known in the names she gave her garments, including a dramatic multi-coloured striped gown called ‘Alimony’ – which came with a bag in the shape of male genitalia – Gavrik still has this memento of Hawes’ satirical approach to fashion …

He spoke at length about her relationships with contemporary artists and the influence of art on her work. I was especially interested to hear about the impact of Kandinsky on her use of geometric forms and flashes of colour and varied textures in her designs. Look at examples from the 1930s, for example in the Met’s collection, and this insight will open up your eyes to their meanings, I am sure …

Another aspect of his parents and his own life was the importance of political engagement. Gavrik spoke movingly of the harsh impact of FBI investigations into his parents’ activities and the terrible toll this took on their lives and work. It was heartbreaking to hear how agents turned clients and friends against Hawes, warning them of her left-wing sympathies. These files only became available after her death, so she never knew why New York became such an unwelcoming place for her when she returned in the late 1940s to reopen her business after undertaking union and war work.

I am still processing all the incredible things that Gavrik spoke about – he was incredibly generous with his time and his memories and thoughts about his mother’s life and work. It is wonderful that – once catalogued – his interview will be housed at FIT and available to researchers wanting to understand women, dress and politics, issues as fundamentally entwined within Hawes’ work as they are within our wider culture.

Find out more about FIT’s Special Collections here
And see some of Elizabeth Hawes’ designs here:

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/search?keyword=elizabeth+hawes#archives

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search#!/search?q=elizabeth%20hawes&sortBy=Relevance&sortOrder=asc&offset=0&perPage=100&pageSize=0

Fashioning American National Identity: Team USA’s Ralph Lauren Uniforms at the Olympic Opening Ceremony

On 7 February, the athletes of the 88 nations competing in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia paraded into Fisht Olympic Stadium. As an American, I felt unexpectedly proud as I watched Team USA, led by flag bearer Todd Lodwick, march into the stadium in their red, white, and blue patchwork uniforms, designed and made in America by heritage brand Ralph Lauren. In this singular event, prior to the start of the actual competitions, the patriotically clad bodies of the American Olympic athletes united ideas of sport and fashion and became a symbol of national identity.

Dress historian Christopher Breward has argued that many connections exist between the spectacle of sporting and sartorial performance, and they became especially apparent on the bodies of America’s Olympians during the Parade of Nations. Through these bodies, physically fit and dressed to match the familiar colours of the American flag, Team USA presented itself as a national symbol that embodied athletic strength and foreshadowed the country’s victory in the Games. This display of fashion and athletic prowess was partially directed towards their international peers and competitors. However, Olympians also aimed to inspire feelings of pride and admiration from eager American fans across the globe. These shared emotions of, what Breward described as ‘anticipation and excitement’ are characteristic of both fashion and sport, and, when presented together in this event, evoked nationalist sentiment among American viewers.

The athletes’ patchwork roll-neck cardigans, emblazoned with the stars and stripes, the Olympic rings, and the iconic Polo Ralph Lauren logo, seemed both luxurious and comfortable, classic and modern. This sportswear aesthetic, according to Rebecca Arnold, is an ‘identifiably American form of dressing.’ Known for his fashionable yet active designs, Ralph Lauren has become an icon of America’s sportswear heritage, his clothing and logo were thus fitting choices for the Olympic Opening Ceremony uniforms. Celebrating modernity, glamour, and the ‘heroic, rationalized body,’ Team USA successfully combined sport and fashion to become a symbol of American national identity.

Sources:

Arnold, R. (2009) The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear, and the Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd.

Breward, C. (2008) ‘Pure Gesture: Reflections on the Histories of Sport and Fashion’, in Breward, C. (ed.) Fashion v Sport, London: V&A Publishing.