Athleisure in NY

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

I have been living in London since September, but I am from Canada. So when our class travelled to New York for our study trip last week, for me, it was sort of like going home. I was excited to once again see familiar stores and restaurant chains, as they are part of my native landscape of home comforts. However, now that I think back on our trip, it turns out, surprisingly, that it wasn’t these North American landmarks that made me feel right at home: it was how people dressed. (Maybe not that surprising, come to think of it, for a student of fashion history.) Seeing the way people in New York dress – head-to-toe black athleisure – meant I was back!

 For those of you who are not familiar with the term, athleisure is a style of dress characterised by body-con, athletic-inspired clothing. It became increasingly popular beginning around 2000 as advancements in athletic-wear fabrics stimulated the creation of new light-weight, flexible, high performance and fashion-forward sports garments. Brands like Lululemon are credited for having sparked the trend that has been considered the most important fashion trend of the twentieth century. According to Forbes, the American athleisure industry is worth $44 billion.[1]

All images taken from the official Instagram account of Michi New York (a women’s athletic wear brand)

The question that begs to be asked is: is athleisure really is just a trend? Did the American appeal for versatility and practicality really spawn from athletic-wear brands that launched in the late 90s?

The visits we made to the Parsons, Fashion Institute of Technology and Brooklyn Museum archives would lead me to argue that, in fact, a preference for practical clothing attests to a distinctive American pragmatic attitude to dress that goes back to the first half of the twentieth century. We got to see sketches from various American designers, and it was interesting to see that underpinning their aesthetic were definite links to this established American taste for understated practical clothing. In fact, during the 1930s, Claire McCardell – one of the most influential American designers of the time – was already designing functional sportswear for women.

When I moved to London, it hit me that my ‘go-to’ North American uniform of Lululemon leggings and hoodies, which at home made me blend in with every other college student on my campus, actually made me look extremely underdressed and out of place on the chic streets of London. I was on an entirely different register from the sophisticated, tailored, colourful London look.

Therefore, interestingly, New York made me realize that while personal style may be specific to each person, it is definitely influenced to a certain extent by the surrounding fashion culture.

References: Wilson, Chip. ‘Why the Word “Athleisure” is Completely Misunderstood.” Forbes. April 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chipwilson/2018/04/18/why-the-word-athleisure-is-completely-misunderstood/#1c5aa6564697.

Book Review: The Hidden History of American Fashion: Rediscovering 20th Century Women Designers, edited by Nancy Deihl. Bloomsbury 2018.

Nancy Deihl has edited a fascinating compilation of sixteen essays each of which examines an American fashion designer whose work has been all but forgotten. The chosen examples are women who were successful in their day, and their style encompasses everything from custom-made to ready-to-wear, as well as demonstrating interconnections with the entertainment industry and fashion media. As such, it is a book that relies on forensic research of fashion history, and exposes the rich narratives of individuals who helped to build the American industry.

I was thrilled to see Tina Leser included in the list of contents. I have long admired her work, having become fascinated by the beautiful hand-painted blouses and dresses I saw in museum collections when researching my book The American Look: Fashion, Sportswear & The Image of Women in 1930s and 1940s New York.  Written by FIT Special Collections Archivist April Calahan, the chapter reveals new details of Leser’s life and career that illuminate her progress and the significance of her work.

It is so interesting to read about her early married life in Hawaii in the mid-1930s, and how her glamorous, sportswear-inspired style developed when she opened a shop opposite a chic hotel, whose clients quickly became her key customers.  Here, she imported leading designers from the mainland, including Nettie Rosenstein, and gradually built her own signature look, before she switched to the East Coast herself.  She was prompted to move by a series of external events, from a shipping strike that cut off her wholesale supplies, to the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941.  Once in New York, she began to work with manufacturer Edwin H. Foreman, and continued to grow her business over the coming decades, to become a significant member of America’s fashion industry.

What Calahan’s essay eloquently shows is the way Leser’s career developed to include international influences in her use of fabrics and design elements, as well as her commitment to outsourcing production to other countries. She was, as such, a pioneer of globalisation, looking, for example, to Indian tailors to make up her designs, and seeking to create mutually-beneficial partnerships with her collaborators. Although not always as successful in execution, her dedication to overseas artisans is admirable, and adds a new layer of understanding to her well-known love of Asian references in her designs.  Dhoti-inspired evening dresses, for example, are the perfect encapsulation of her version of the American Look – simple, fluid jersey forms given emphasis through their Indian silhouette.

Calahan’s chapter demonstrates the book’s strength as a whole – it celebrates female creativity and business knowledge – and will surely, as Deihl states in her introduction to the compilation, inspire further work on America’s myriad fashion talents.