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.

‘A Good Old-fashioned Head Lock’: Sport and Slimming Aids Battle it out in the Pages of Vogue

Wrestling Sept 1925

‘Wrestling,’ from ‘Daily Dozens for Debutantes’, Vogue, September 1925.

As I was buried in old issues of British Vogue at the British Library this week, I came across an illustrated column called ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes’ in a September issue from 1925. The column covered the topic of sports under the title ‘Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’. The series of mock-advisory illustrations by Charles Martin (a fashion designer, graphic artist, costume designer and illustrator) are a spot-on satire of the drastic reinvention of the female silhouette in the 1920s. The emancipated climate of post-war London led to an increase in sport and leisure activities, which in turn ushered in a new look that prioritized freedom of movement for liberated women. The modern aesthetic – streamlined, flat and tubular – demanded a leaner body. This posed a problem for some, and a proliferation of adverts in Vogue for quick-fix slimming products and regimes bears witness to this. Although this column precedes the first use of the term ‘keep-fit’ by about four years, Martin’s illustrations resemble commentators’ mild mockery of groups such as the Women’s League of Health and Beauty and the Legion of Health and Happiness in the thirties.

The sketches show women engaged in extreme sporting activities usually associated with men such as wrestling and boxing, accompanied by farcical counsel:

One of the best ways to do anything is to do it involuntarily. For instance, Yvonne, who is here seen volplaning through the ether, had no idea of going in for high jumping until her bicycle tactlessly wound itself about a telegraph pole.

These captions humorously allude to the incompatibility of women and sport, whilst others highlight their newfound right to inclusion:

Women are no longer content with ring-side seats at boxing entertainments, but must themselves be equipped to enter the arena and take on all corners.

Boxing Sept 1925

‘Boxing,’ from ‘Daily Dozens for Debutantes’, Vogue, September 1925.

It is rather amusing – and suspicious – that Vogue published these sketches mocking the popularity of sport alongside advertisements for ridiculous weight-loss products – my personal favourites being ‘thinning bath salts’ which promise to dissolve excess fatty deposits, and a magical ‘reducing paste’ to ‘slenderize thick ankles’. (The same advert also warns against ‘violent exercise’).

Clarks Sept 1925

Clark’s advertisement, Vogue, September 1925.

Were the new attitudes in health and hygiene a threat to the beauty industry, and by association the fashion magazines? The battle between sport, dieting and quick-fix beauty products is one that would continue to play out across the pages of women’s publications throughout the interwar years.

Slenderise Sept 1925

Clark’s advertisement, Vogue, September 1925.

Sources:

Martin,Charles, ‘Daily Dozens for Débutantes: Hygienic Hints for Our Sweet and Strenuous Ones’ Vogue. Late September, 1925

Matthews, Jill Julius, ‘They had Such a lot of Fun: The Women’s League of Health and Beauty Between the Wars,’ History Workshop Journal, 30 (1), 1990, p.23