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June 10, 2011 10:02 pm

Fit for purpose

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Bathing attire from the 1920s and 1930s

Bathing attire from the 1920s and 1930s; bathing caps from the 1950s and 1960s

The relationship between sport and fashion hasn’t always been so symbiotic, as a new exhibition at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) makes clear. Sporting Life explores the interplay between the two sectors and demonstrates how innovations in manufacturing and social evolution have resulted in the merging of fashion and function.

Featuring more than 100 garments, accessories and textiles representing 16 sports, with a focus on American and European designers, Sporting Life is grouped by athletic pursuit. According to Colleen Hill, an assistant curator at the museum at FIT and one of the exhibition’s co-creators, it is also surprisingly “relevant in looking at [current] designer collections.”

As certain sports players become famous beyond their own sporting worlds (David Beckham and Rafael Nadal, for example), designers are often inspired by the clothing worn by these athletes, and vice versa. But it wasn’t always like this.

In the early 19th century, garments worn to engage in sports were designed with modesty, not function, in mind. Take, for example, a gym suit from 1896 featuring full bloomers, or heavy woolen swimwear.

It wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that fashion and function began to meld. Beautiful examples include a Claire McCardell striped ensemble with Capezio ankle boots; a Norma Kamali sweatsuit from 1981; and an Isabel Toledo “gym” dress are also stylish and practical.

Then there’s Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s silk crêpe dress from 1926, nicely juxtaposed against a Catherine Malandrino-designed tennis dress for Lacoste from the current spring season to illustrate that tennis ensembles have, throughout the last century, maintained the strongest relationship between what is perceived as “normal” versus “sport”.

Water sports, namely sailing, surfing and swimming, occupy the largest space in the exhibition. The evolution of materials, from fibres like wool and cottons to synthetic and techno-textiles, is well presented, and pieces from Alaïa and Halston showed the influence swimwear has had on the runway – not to mention the truth behind the words of Fred Cole, founder of American swimwear company Cole of California: “Fashion would wear out my suits faster than sun or sand.”

In my opinion, a significant gap from a fashion point of view is the absence of any outfits from contemporary ice-skating (there are two from the early twentieth century) which, along with tennis, has had the closest relationship with design of perhaps any sport in the late 20th and early 21st century.

It doesn’t, however, undermine the curators’ argument: that men and women, at least in athletic pursuits, are enjoying increasingly equal footing when it comes to advances in design.

This exhibition illustrates the vigour with which women, who in the 19th century risked arrest in Paris if their bicycling outfits were worn out of context, have fought for their liberation – the fruits of their labour paralleled both in their recreational and professional lives.

‘Sporting Life’, until November 5,

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