Sportswear (fashion)

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Woman wearing a "sport suit," American, June 1920. Sportswear originally described interchangeable separates, as here.

Sportswear has been called America's main contribution to the history of fashion design,[1] developed to cater to the needs of the increasingly fast-paced lifestyle of American women.[2] It started out as a fashion industry term describing informal and interchangeable separates (i.e., blouses, shirts, skirts and shorts),[2] and in the 1920s became a popular word for relaxed, casual wear typically worn for spectator sports.[1] Since the 1930s the term has been used to describe both day and evening fashions of varying degrees of formality that demonstrate this relaxed approach while remaining appropriate wear for many business or social occasions.[3]

The term can also refer to activewear, which is clothing designed specifically for participants in sporting pursuits.

History of sportswear design[edit]

Although sports clothing was available from European haute couture houses and "sporty" garments were increasingly worn as everyday or informal wear, the early American sportswear designers were associated with ready-to-wear manufacturers.[4][5][6] American sportswear clothes were intended to be washable and easy to care for, with accessible practical fastenings to enable the modern, increasingly emancipated woman to dress herself without a maid's assistance.[6] While most fashions in America in the early 20th century were directly copied from, or influenced heavily by Paris, American sportswear became a home-grown exception to this rule.[6]

Pre-sportswear tailormade by Redfern. Bon Ton, April 1914.


Sportswear originally described clothing made specifically for sport. One of the first couturiers to specialise in this was the British John Redfern who in the 1870s began designing tailored garments for increasingly active women who rode, played tennis, went yachting, and did archery. Redfern's clothes, although intended for specific sporting pursuits, were adopted as everyday wear by his clients, making him probably the first sportswear designer.[7] Also in the late nineteenth century, garments associated with sportswear and/or modified from menswear, such as the shirtwaist began to form part of the working woman's wardrobe.[5]

While 1920s Paris designers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Patou offered haute couture designs that could be considered sportswear, it was typically not their design focus.[6] A notable exception was the tennis player Jane Régny (the pseudonym of Madame Balouzet Tillard de Tigny), who opened a couture house specialising in clothing for sport and travel.[5][8][4] Another famous tennis player, Suzanne Lenglen, was director of the sportswear department at Patou.[4] In contrast to the flexibility of American sportswear, these expensive couture garments were typically prescribed for very specific circumstances.[6][4] Many couturiers began designing clothing that, whilst suitable for sport, could be worn in a wider range of contexts.[4] Chanel, who promoted her own active, financially independent lifestyle through relaxed jersey suits and uncluttered dresses, became famous for clothes of "the sports type."[5][9] In 1926 Harper's Bazaar reported upon Chanel's sporty garments, noting the absence of equivalent apparel from New York fashion presentations.[5]

As more generic, versatile sportswear became more prominent in the Paris collections, the press increasingly promoted the wearing of such garments in an everyday context.[4] By the mid-1920s, American advertisers also began actively pushing the idea that sporty clothing was just as appropriate for regular daywear as it was for active pursuits, presenting it as the epitome of modernity and the American ideal.[5] One advertisement put out by Abercrombie & Fitch in Vogue in 1929 suggested that while men might admire a girl in an glamorous evening gown, they would be less intimidated by her approachable, friendly appearance in good-quality sportswear.[5][10] Sportswear was also presented as an accessible version of resort wear, a term for the luxurious travelling clothing and holiday wear worn by those who could afford a leisurely lifestyle with multiple vacations, such as cruises, yachting, and skiing.[5] Affordable, well-designed all-American sportswear was presented as a way of enabling a less wealthy customer to feel part of that same lifestyle.[5] Although the influence of Europe, particularly Parisian high fashion and English tailoring, was always significant, the Great Depression which started in 1929 acted as a trigger to encourage American fashion to focus on homegrown style and design - particularly sportswear.[5] Despite the acceptance of fashionable sportswear as a form of casual dressing in French fashion in the 1920s, the American garment industry went on to become the most prominent producers of such clothing.[4] The key difference between French and American sportswear was that French sportswear was usually a small part of a high-end designer's output, while the American sportswear designers focused on affordable, versatile, easy-care garments that could be mass-produced and were relevant to the customer's lifestyle.[6]

A smart young woman in a lightweight jacket and printed silk blouse. American, 1935.


The precursors of true sportswear emerged in New York before the Second World War.[2] 1930s designers such as Clare Potter and Claire McCardell were among the first American designers to gain name recognition through their innovative clothing designs, which Richard Martin described as demonstrating "problem-solving ingenuity and realistic lifestyle applications".[6] Garments were designed to be easy-to-wear and comfortable, using practical fabrics such as denim, cotton, and jersey. McCardell in particular has been described as America's greatest sportswear designer.[11] Her simple, practical clothes suited the relaxed American dress code, neither formal nor informal, that became established during the 1930s and 1940s.[2] One of McCardell's key designs was the Popover dress, which was versatile enough to work in multiple contexts from swimsuit cover-up to party dress.[12] Other McCardell signatures included ballet slippers as everyday footwear and functional pockets in skirts and trousers.[13] McCardell once proclaimed: "I belong to a mass production country where any of us, all of us, deserve the right to good fashion."[14][15] Other sportswear designs often used elements of sporty informal or casual wear such as Clare Potter's innovative evening sweater and evening skirt draped like a sidesaddle riding habit.[16]

Many of the first sportswear designers were women. A common argument was that female designers projected their personal values into this new style.[6] In the 1930s and 40s, it was rare for clothing to be justified through its practicality. It was traditionally thought that Paris fashion exemplified beauty, and therefore, sportswear required different criteria for assessment.[6] The designer's personal life was therefore linked to their sportswear designs. Another selling point was sportswear's popularity with consumers, with department store representatives such as Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor using sales figures to back up their claims.[6] Martin credits the 1930s and 40s sportswear designers with freeing American fashion from the need to copy Paris couture. Where Paris fashion was traditionally imposed onto the customer regardless of her wishes, American sportswear was democratic, widely available, and encouraged self-expression.[6] The early sportswear designers proved that the creation of original ready-to-wear fashion could be a legitimate design art which responded stylishly to utilitarian requirements.[6] One of the few male sportswear designers at this time was Tom Brigance, who by the late 1930s was regularly ranked alongside Clare Potter as a leading name in mid-range priced sportswear.[17] Like Potter, Brigance understood how to design smart and fashionable clothing for mass-production, which made his clothes attractive to manufacturers as well as to customers.[17]

After the Second World War, the emergence in Paris of the luxurious "New Look" popularised by Christian Dior, with its emphasis on accessorising and femininity, was in direct contrast to the relaxed, easy-wear American look.[13] Unlike traditional made-to-measure French couture fashion, designed for specific silhouettes, American sportswear was designed to accommodate a variety of body shapes and enable freedom of movement.[13] Authors such as Rebecca Arnold and Emily S. Rosenberg noted that the American look, demonstrated through healthy teeth and the use of affordable, good-quality fashionable clothing to present a neat and practical appearance, despite claims of egalitarianism, was ultimately held up against white standards of beauty.[18][19] Rosenberg has pointed out a six-page spread in LIFE dated May 21, 1945, which explicitly described girls with an athletic 'American look' of good teeth, good grooming, and good, not-too-masculine, simple, neat attire, as being seen as preferable to girls from England, France, Australia or Polynesia.[19][20]


In the 1970s Geoffrey Beene, one of the first significant male sportswear designers, incorporated elements of menswear into his relaxed women's clothing. His fondness for layering garments and menswear elements are widely used by early 21st century industry designers.[2] In 1970, Bill Blass, whose fashion career began in 1946, founded his own company, Bill Blass Limited.[21] Blass's wearable designs were designed to be worn day and night and he was said to have raised American sportswear to the highest possible level.[22] Like Beene, he introduced menswear touches to his sportswear, which was described as clean, modern and impeccable in style.[22] In 1976, the designer Zoran brought out the first of a number of collections of extremely simple garments made of the finest quality fabrics; garments that barely changed over the years and which became cult objects to his wealthy clientele.[23] In 1993, the fashion journalist Suzy Menkes declared Zoran's less-is-more sportswear prophetic of the early 1990s modernist trend.[23]

Marc Jacobs, who set up his eponymous label in 1986, is renowned for layered informality in both day and evening wear.[2] Late 20th century sportswear designers with the highest profile include the industry empires of Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, and Tommy Hilfiger, each of whom created distinctive wardrobes for the American woman based upon stylish but wearable, comfortable and interchangeable multi-purpose clothes that combined practicability with luxury.[2] In 1993, Zoran, who had always worked along these principles, praised the work of Klein, Karan, and the work of the Anne Klein label as epitomising the "comfort, simplicity, and practicality" associated with sportswear.[23] Most early 21st century sportswear design follows in the footsteps of these designers.[2]

Alongside Jacobs and Zoran, other notable 1980s and 1990s sportswear designers include Isaac Mizrahi, who presented his first collection in 1987. The original Isaac Mizrahi label closed in 1998, and Mizrahi subsequently designed a womenswear diffusion collection for Target from 2002 to 2008.[2]

21st century sportswear[edit]

Relaxed easy-wear sportswear by Michael Kors, Spring-Summer 2014.

In 2000, the Lifestyle Monitor, an American trade magazine owned by Cotton Incorporated published that their surveys showed that an average of 64% of women interviewed preferred casual wear, including sportswear as distinct from active wear.[24]

Notable New York sportswear designers of the first decade of the 21st century included Zac Posen, Proenza Schouler, Mary Ping, Derek Lam, and Behnaz Sarafpour, who were all featured in the Sportswear section of the Victoria and Albert Museum's New York Fashion Now exhibition in 2007.[2]

Designers who do not typically work in the sportswear tradition such as Monique Lhuillier sometimes incorporate elements of sportswear and activewear into their work. Lhuillier, mainly known for formal gowns, introduced sporty necklines and aerodynamic elements into her collection for New York Fashion Week, Fall 2011.[25]

In 2012 Tim Gunn noted that the boundaries between activewear and fashion sportswear had become increasingly blurred since the 1980s, with many people choosing to wear hoodies, tracksuits, yoga pants, and other garments explicitly associated with athletic wear as everyday dress.[26]

Other notable sportswear designers[edit]

Many 20th and 21st century designers work, or have worked in the sportswear tradition. Some of the most influential American sportswear designers not mentioned above include:

Outside the United States[edit]


In the late 1940s and 1950s non-American designers began to pay attention to sportswear, and attempted to produce collections following its principle. French couturiers such as Dior and Jacques Fath simplified their designs for ready-to-wear production, but at first only the Italian designers understood the sportswear principle.[27] Italy already had a reputation for fine fabrics and excellent workmanship, and the emergence of high quality Italian ready-to-wear that combined this luxury with the casual quality of American sportswear ensured the worldwide success of Italian fashion by the mid-1970s.[28] Designers such as Emilio Pucci and Simonetta Visconti grasped that there was a market for clothing that combined sophistication and comfort.[27] This was a challenge to the American industry. John Fairchild, the outspoken publisher of Women's Wear Daily opined:

The Italians were the first to make refined sportswear. [...] Americans don't mind spending if the sweater is by Krizia or Missoni.[28]

Before co-founding the business that later became Missoni with his bride Rosita in 1953, Ottavio Missoni, himself an athlete, and his teammate Giorgio Oberweger had an activewear business in Trieste making wool tracksuits christened Venjulia suits.[29] The success of the Venjulia suits, which took into account the need of athletes for functional, warm garments enabling freedom of movement, led to their being worn by the 1948 Italian Olympics team (which included Missoni himself).[30] In the 1960s Missoni became renowned for their uniquely colored, mix-and-match knitwear separates based upon activewear,[31] which have remained desirable and fashionable well into the 21st century.[32]

The quality of Italian sportswear was recognized early on by Robert Goldworm, an American sportswear designer who in 1947 joined his New York-based family company Goldworm.[33] Through his second company base in Milan, Goldworm became the first American knitwear designer to take advantage of Italian quality and bring it to the New York market.[33] In 1959 Goldworm, in recognition of his active promotion and support of the Italian knitwear industry, was made a Commander of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity by the Italian government.[34][35]

In the 21st century, Italian fashion remains a leading source for sportswear design outside the United States. Narciso Rodriguez, who is known for streamlined and pared down clothing, launched in Milan in 1997, but moved to New York in 2001.[2] Miuccia Prada revived the fortunes of her family company Prada with her top-quality sportswear designs in the 1990s, and continues designing for the firm.[27]

United Kingdom[edit]

Successful British sportswear designers include Stella McCartney, known for her jumpsuits and easy-to-wear separates. McCartney was asked to design the athletic uniforms for the 2012 Summer Olympics, bringing fashionable sportswear design to the world of high-profile activewear.[36]


  1. ^ a b Calasibetta, Charlotte Mankey (1988). Fairchild's Dictionary of Fashion (2nd edition). Fairchild Publications, New York. p. 545. ISBN 1-56367-235-9. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Stanfill, Sonnet (2007). New York Fashion. V&A Publications, London. pp. 28–49. ISBN 978-1-85177-499-9. 
  3. ^ "Sportswear". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: March 11, 2009)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Stewart, Mary Lynn (2008). Dressing modern Frenchwomen : marketing haute couture, 1919-1939. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 209–10. ISBN 9780801888038. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Arnold, Rebecca (2008). "New York and the Evolution of Sportswear 1929-39: Sportswear". The American look : fashion, sportswear and the image of women in 1930s and 1940s New York. London: I. B. Tauris. pp. 23–29. ISBN 9781860647635. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Martin, Richard, American Ingenuity: Sportswear 1930s-1970s in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)
  7. ^ Redfern suit, circa 1911 in the collections database of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London
  8. ^ Staff writer (August 1932). "The Dressmakers of France" (PDF). Fortune. Time, Inc. Retrieved 19 November 2015. 
  9. ^ Krick, Jessa. "Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883–1971) and the House of Chanel". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)
  10. ^ Advertisement (16 March 1929). "Advertisement caption for Abercrombie and Fitch". Vogue: 15.  Cited by Arnold, p.24
  11. ^ Steele, Valerie (1997). Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look To Now. Yale University Press, New Haven & London. p. 27. ISBN 0-300-07132-9. 
  12. ^ Claire McCardell: "Popover" dress (C.I.45.71.2ab) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History" The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 14 Nov 2009.
  13. ^ a b c Unknown. "American Look". Fashion Encyclopaedia. Advameg Inc. Retrieved 17 November 2015. 
  14. ^ Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977
  15. ^ Batterberry, Michael; Batterberry, Ariane (1982). Fashion, the mirror of history (2nd ed.). New York: Greenwich House. ISBN 9780517388815. 
  16. ^ Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Clare Potter, Who Set Trends In Women's Clothes, Dies at 95" New York Times, January 11, 1999
  17. ^ a b Arnold, Rebecca (2008). The American look : fashion, sportswear, and the image of women in 1930s and 1940s New York. London: I. B. Tauris. pp. 9, 107, 120–122. ISBN 9781860647635. 
  18. ^ Arnold, Rebecca (2008). The American look : fashion, sportswear, and the image of women in 1930s and 1940s New York. London: I. B. Tauris. pp. 47–48. ISBN 9781860647635. 
  19. ^ a b Rosenberg, Emily S.; Fitzpatrick, Shanon (30 Jul 2014). Body and Nation: The Global Realm of U.S. Body Politics in the Twentieth Century. Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822376712. 
  20. ^ Lewis, Nina (21 May 1945). "What is the American Look?". LIFE: 87–91. 
  21. ^ Biography of Bill Blass (from the Encyclopædia Britannica). Accessed 16 March 2012
  22. ^ a b Bill Blass, Whose Clothes Gave Casual an Elegant Air, Dies at 79. Published 13 June 2002. Accessed 16 March 2012
  23. ^ a b c Menkes, Suzy (28 September 1993). "Simply Modern:Contrasting Looks at Luxury for the 1990s". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 March 2015. 
  24. ^ The Monitor Celebrates Sixty Years of Sportswear, Lifestyle Monitor, 23 March 2000
  25. ^ Critchell, Samantha. "Fashion world marks Sept. 11 as shows go on", The Boston Globe, September 12, 2011. Accessed 16 March 2012
  26. ^ Gunn, Tim; Calhoun, Ada (2012). "Athletic Wear: Attack of the Playclothes". Tim Gunn's fashion bible : the fascinating history of everything in your closet (1st Gallery Books hardcover ed.). New York: Gallery Books. pp. 205–212. ISBN 9781451643862. 
  27. ^ a b c da Cruz, Elyssa. "Made in Italy: Italian Fashion from 1950 to Now". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)
  28. ^ a b Steele, Valerie (1997). Fifty Years of Fashion: New Look To Now. Yale University Press, New Haven & London. pp. 104–105. ISBN 0-300-07132-9. 
  29. ^ "Ottavio Missoni Bio, Stats and Results". Sports Reference. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  30. ^ Steve Piccolo (translator) (1995). Isa Tutino Vercelloni, ed. Missonologia : the world of Missoni (1st U.S. ed.). Milan: Electa. p. 19. ISBN 0789200481. 
  31. ^ Black, Sandy (2006). Fashioning fabrics: contemporary textiles in fashion. London: Black Dog. p. 176. ISBN 1904772412. 
  32. ^ Watson, Linda (10 May 2013). "Ottavio Missoni: Fashion designer who transformed the world of luxury knitwear". The Independent. Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  33. ^ a b Perso Heinemann, Barbara (2008). Fashioning an Artful Life: One Woman's Life History in Clothes. University of Minnesota. pp. 107–108. ISBN 9780549405054. 
  34. ^ Lambert, Eleanor (1976). World of fashion : people, places, resources. New York: R.R. Bowker Co. p. 224. ISBN 9780835206273. 
  35. ^ "Ms. Mandell, Mr. Goldworm are Married at Makonikey". Vineyard Gazette. 7 August 2008. Retrieved 24 February 2014. His late father was a fashion designer and executive for Goldworm Knitwear based in New York and Milan, Italy. He was awarded the Star of Solidarity and the title of commander by the Italian government. 
  36. ^ Chetty, Derick. "Stella McCartney brings a sexy vibe to sportswear", The Star, 4 October 2011. Accessed 16 March 2012

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