Lycra, Linen, and Liberation

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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