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

En Mode Sport

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

Tennis display, including garments worn by Lenglen and Lacoste

En Mode Sport, an exhibition currently at the Musée National du Sport, in Nice takes an expansive look at sportswear’s development since the late 19th century. When I visited, I was excited to see the range and diversity of material on display – from rare examples of early cycling ensembles, to recent couture collections inspired by sport.

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

Chanel Sportswear and Surfboard

I first became aware of the planned exhibition when I was asked to contribute a short essay on mid-century New York sportswear to its catalogue, and it was wonderful to be able to view En Mode Sport having got a sense of the depth of research that went into its making.

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

Bloomers, Spencer Jacket, 1895-1900, Palais Galliera

What struck me was the dynamic display techniques deployed to give a sense of movement and endeavour to the items on view. White walls, shiny glass and glossed surfaces added to this effect and enabled glimpses of things to come, as you wove your way through the chronological displays. It was fascinating to see so many early examples – and to see how dressmakers struggled to provide appropriate garments for the range of new activities emerging at the turn of the century. The cycling outfit I mentioned was one such case – the top half of the body would be clad in a beautiful, striped Spencer jacket – its mutton-leg sleeves and fitted bodice a marker of contemporary femininity. But for the bottom half of the body? Well, innovation and improvisation was needed to envision and create a garment that would free women’s legs to cycle successfully. The knitted culottes shown were an interesting admixture of bloomers and trousers – part underwear as outwear, part menswear as womenswear.

Elsewhere, knitted swimsuits showed another not-quite-there form of dress – the body-conscious shape that emerged by the 1920s was perfect for a dip in the sea, but the wool yarn used to create the costumes became heavy and drooped from the figure once wet.

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Display on Sportswear in interwar Nice

Another interesting context that emerged was that of class – not only were more women playing sports professionally and for fun, but working class men were also expanding their activities – with a range of football strips and boots readied for matches. Alongside actual dress, film, posters, sketches and promotional material were also included. As you moved past the displays, it became clear how iconic sportswear is – as a marker of personal and team achievement, as souvenirs for spectators, and as a link between professional and amateur. Stars such as Suzanne Lenglen and René Lacoste forged new styles that entered mainstream fashion, and which still affect how we dress today.

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

Display on Contemporary Sportswear

The latter sections of the exhibition showed how technology has caught up with lifestyle, providing running shoes and kit that not only streamline the wearer, but also enhance the body’s performance, while streetwear and high fashion appropriate and redeploy such innovations for everyday and occasion wear.