Hunters circa 1910
Riding attire, circa 1910

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, "sportswear" describes a broad category of fashion-oriented comfortable attire based loosely on clothing developed for participation in sports. "Active sportswear" is the term used to cover the clothing worn specifically for sport and exercise activities. Now generally accepted as the most American of all categories of dress, sportswear has become, from the second half of the twentieth century, the clothing of the world. It consists of separate pieces that may be "mixed and matched," a merchandising term meaning that articles of clothing are designed to be coordinated in different combinations: trousers or shorts or skirts with shirts (either woven or knit, with or without collars, long-sleeved or short) and sweaters (either pullovers or cardigans) or jackets of a variety of sorts.

Pre-Twentieth Century Sportswear

The origins of sportswear, so intimately tied to the rise of sports, are complex, arising from pervasive social change and cultural developments in the mid-nineteenth century. Previously, sport had been the domain of the landed well-to-do, revolving mostly around horses, shooting, and the hunt. Clothing generally was modified fashion wear, but distinctions between the clothing of the country and of town had appeared as early as the eighteenth century. Men, especially young men, wore the new collared, sometimes double-breasted, skirtless but tailed frock for shooting or country wear, itself probably adapted from the military uniform of the early eighteenth century. This coat was quickly adopted into fashionable dress for young gentlemen. Fox or stag hunting called for skirted coats and high boots to protect the legs, and for trim tailoring that would not hamper the rider maneuvering rough terrain and the new fences that were an outcome of the British Enclosure Acts (1760-1840). These acts, by transferring common grazing lands to private holdings, resulted in fences never needed before, thereby adding new challenges to cross-country riding and revolutionizing the sport of hunting.

Riding Attire

The long, straight, narrow, severely tailored riding coats that emerged toward the end of eighteenth-century England traveled to France as the redingote, to become a high-fashion garment for both men and women for the next several decades, through the 1820s. Eventually, red coats became the acceptable color for the hunt, possibly for the obvious reason of making the riders more easily visible. As early as the eighteenth-century, women also adopted severely tailored riding coats based directly on men's styles, creating a standard that still characterizes women's sportswear in the early twenty-first century. Americans, both men and women, followed the English lead in sporting activity. These upper-class choices set the tone and provided the models for the future, but it took democratization to affect change overall. That came with the industrial revolution and the rise of leisure activity among even the poorer classes.

Urban Sports and Games

With the movement of the population away from its agrarian past into the cities, reformers realized that the working classes had no real outlets other than drinking for what little leisure time they had. In an era of revivalist fervor that preached temperance, the concerned middle classes sought other, safer avenues of activity for the poorer classes. Both active and spectator sport and games helped fill that gap. European immigrants to the United States, particularly those from Germany and the Scandinavian countries, brought a variety of outdoor sports and games for men with them, and an accompanying culture of health and exercise that they nurtured in their private clubs. Clothing for these activities was more relaxed than the street clothes of the time, and consisted often of a shirt and trouser combination. Native-born Americans also had had a long history of team games, early versions of various ball games that continued to be played once the population moved to the cities. However, it was baseball, with its singular attire, that most influenced men's clothing for sport. Baseball had emerged as a popular team game with new rules after the first meeting of the elite New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club with the New York Nines at Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 19 June 1846. By the 1850s, many other more democratic clubs of workers played the game as well, quickly turning it into America's favorite sport. In 1868, the Cincinnati Redstockings were the first major team to adopt a uniform of bloused shirt, baggy knee breeches, and sturdy knee socks. The unusual pants, so different from the long stove-pipe trousers of the time, were named after Washington Irving's seventeenth-century character, Dietrich Knickerbocker-not coincidentally the same surname the first baseball team in America had adopted as its own. These became the accepted trouser for active sports in general, and were dubbed "knickerbockers" after the original team. Knickerbockers's success may be seen in their appearance for the next century for shooting, bicycling, hiking, and golf. By the 1920s, they were even worn by women.

Football uniforms
Football uniforms, circa 1910

Active sports uniforms and clothing grew out of necessity. Players needed protection from bodily harm in contact sports like football and hockey; they also needed to let the body breathe and enable it to move as easily and freely as possible while performing the sport. The entire history of active sports clothing is tied to higher education, the increasingly rapid developments in textile technology, and the Olympics. For example, football, a new and favorite game in men's colleges in the late nineteenth century, adopted a padded leather knickerbocker, pairing it with another innovation, the knitted wool jersey pullover. Lightweight wool jersey, an English invention of the 1880s, was perfect for men's sporting pullovers (which soon were referred to as "jerseys"). Perhaps the most enduring of these has been the rugby shirt-striped, collared, and ubiquitous. It had its beginnings as the uniform for the "new" nineteenth-century game begun at the venerable British school, Rugby, but proved so enduring that it is still worn in the early 2000s, by men, women and children who never thought of playing the game. Jersey was equally adopted into women's dress for sport as well. The new lawn tennis of the 1870s was ripe for a flexible fabric that allowed greater movement, and jersey filled that need by the 1880s. In that same decade, students in the new women's colleges left behind their corsets, petticoats, and bustles for simpler gathered dirndl-style skirts and jersey tops taken directly from men's styles in order to participate in sports like crew and baseball. At the same time, men's schools added a heavier outer layer of wool knit to keep the body warm, and since athletic activity brought on healthy sweating, "sweater" clearly described its role. When a high roll collar was added, the "turtleneck," still a staple of sportswear, was born. The college environment was important because it allowed a looser, less rigid, more casual kind of clothing on campuses frequently isolated from the formality of fashionable urban attire. Soon after the introduction of these pieces of specific clothing for sports in collegiate settings, women borrowed them, wearing them for their own sports and leisurewear from the end of the nineteenth century and on.

Olympic Clothing

The modern Olympic Games introduced new generations of active sportswear. From the first meet in 1896, men appeared in very brief clothing to compete in track and field and swimming events: singlets, or tank tops, with above-the-knee shorts, and knit-sometimes fine wool and sometimes silk-skin-baring one-piece suits for swim competition. More surprising than these were the bikini-like liners that men wore under the sheer silk suits, without the tops, as typical practice garb. These items became the clothing for sport for men as the century progressed; even the briefs under the suits found their way into swimwear for men and women some half-century or so after their introduction.

Twentieth Century

Fabrics have played an important role in the development of active sportswear. As with sheer knits at the turn of the twentieth century, so too did stretch fabrics form a second skin shaving seconds off time in competition. From the introduction of Lastex in the 1930s to the spandex of the twenty-first century, clothing for active sports has reflected the attention to sleek bodies, to speed. Speedo, the Australian swimwear company, first introduced its one-piece stretchy suit in the 1950s. From that time on, swimwear became sleeker, tighter but more comfortable because of the manufactured stretch fibers. The concept proved irresistible for men and women in all active sports: new stretch textiles produced ski pants in the 1930s fashioned with stirrups to anchor the sleek lines, bicycle shorts in the 1970s, all-in-one cat suits for skiing, sledding, sailing, speed skating, even running in the 1980s and 1990s. With the biannual Olympic publicity, the new active suits, shorts, and tops found their way into active sportswear and onto athletic bodies everywhere. Even the nonathlete wanted the look, pressing fashion-wear manufacturers to adopt the tight-fitting yet comfortable clothing that technology had made possible.

New Definition of Sportswear

Anne Nason wearing golf blazer
Championship golfer Anne Nason, 1913

Sportswear, as opposed to active sportswear, fulfills an entirely different role. Though their roots are the same, sportwear concerns the fashionable aspect of clothing for sport rather than the athletic. Individual items such as jerseys, sweaters, and turtlenecks came directly out of active sports. Certain jackets also became linked with sports and therefore sportswear. The most notable of these, still a staple of modern dress, is the blazer. This standard straight-cut lounge jacket of the late nineteenth century was adapted both by colleges and early sports clubs, the new tennis, golf, or country clubs that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s, who used their own club colors for these jackets, often fashioning them in stripes called "blazes." Hence, blazers. Striped blazers, popular through the 1920s, have had revivals since, most notably in the late 1950s and 1960s. Generally, however, they gave way to single-colored blazers in the 1930s. The best recognized of these is the bright green Masters jacket of golf.

For women's leisure wear (and it must be noted that women never wore this casual, "new" clothing in any other setting), women adopted men's clothing, as they had earlier. This had been noticeable in the 1890s with the clothes of the New Woman, with her blazer, shirt-waist, and easy skirt, or even, on occasion (though not as routinely as is now believed) with divided skirts for such activities as bicycling. By the turn of the twentieth century, young women wore jerseys, turtleneck sweaters, and cardigans, borrowed directly from their brothers. In addition, many chose to leave off their corsets when participating in active activities, opting instead for lighter, unboned "sporting waists." This last move was perhaps the most forward-thinking of all in affecting change in women's dress. Magazines of the day picked up the new "daring" fashions, with illustrations, to spread them across the country. Early movies, even those prior to the 1920s, also helped distribute and popularize the new styles, showing beautiful young women dressed for all sorts of activities: swimming, golf, tennis and, as time went on, simply for leisure. So the foundations had been laid in the nineteenth century, but the phenomenon of sportswear for women really began in the 1920s with the post-World War I emergence of mass production in women's wear.

The new loose, unfitted styles of the 1920s allowed a much freer approach to women's dress for play and leisure. Although women still clung to skirts, the dresses for such sports as golf and tennis were so admired (to say nothing of the sports figures who wore them, like Suzanne Lenglen, a French tennis champion, and later, Babe Didrickson) that they became day dresses for women whose lifestyles and pocketbooks allowed variety in their clothing. These golf and tennis dresses, with their pleated skirts and tailored tops, sometimes two-piece and sometimes one, comfortable and washable, became the prototypes for the most American of all clothing, the shirtwaist dress. So welcome were tennis dresses that in the 2000s they still prevail over shorts for competition tennis and, as early as the 1940s, offered a new, short skirt length that eventually became accepted into fashion wear.

Pants for Women

Trousers for women were another matter. The struggle for their acceptance was a long one, dating from the early nineteenth century when, as baggy "Turkish trowsers," they were introduced for water cures and exercise, then later adopted as dress reform. It was sport, however, that provided the reason for their acceptance, as long as they were kept within strictly sex-segregated environments like the emerging women's colleges or all-women gyms. The heavy serge bifurcated bloomers worn for the new game of basketball were the first acceptable pants for women, and worn with turtlenecked sweaters in the early part of the twentieth century, became an outfit for magazine pinups. The bloomers slimmed down by the 1920s, becoming the popular knickers of that decade, and the introduction of beach pajamas for leisurewear at the same time led to further acceptance, even if not worn in town settings.

Fannie Harley
Fannie Harley, originator of the "Bifurcated Harley" trousers for women, c. 1915

The movies helped to sell the image of women in trousers, especially in the 1930s with actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Even then, women did not wear pants for fashion wear. World War II changed their image, when trousers became the norm for factory workers, but still, pants were not acceptable for the average woman except when she was on vacation or in the country. Indeed, trousers were not accepted for professional working women until the end of the 1970s or early 1980s. But since that time, trousers have become the norm for women everywhere, professionals and vacationers alike, proving once again that women borrow their most comfortable clothing from men's wear.

Ready to Wear and Sportswear

Mass manufacturing made the simple items of ready-to-wear sportswear inexpensive and practical for everyone. The notion of designing separates to go together in coordinated fashion, a key concept of sportswear, began in New York in the mid-1920s when Berthe Holley introduced a line of separates that could be interchanged to suggest a larger wardrobe. The concept of easy separates for leisurewear in resort or casual surroundings, if not for more formal wear, grew in the 1930s and finally took hold for more general wear in the 1940s, during World War II. American designers such as Claire McCardell, Clare Potter, and Bonnie Cashin turned to designing ready-made American sportswear, using inexpensive fabrics and following the easy, comfortable styles that made it so popular in the United States. Companies such as B. H. Wragge in the 1940s marketed well-designed separates, particularly to the college-aged crowd, at inexpensive prices that they could afford. After the war, with manufacturing back to prewar norms and the introduction of the more formal New Look from France, the distinction between American and Parisian clothing became even more evident. American designers more and more turned to the casual expressions in fashion that American women loved. By midcentury, the great designers who captured the essence of American style, Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene, had begun to be recognized, and were turning their attention to ready-to-wear sportswear. Eventually they even brought sportswear ideas into eveningwear, directly translating the shirts, sweaters, and skirts women were so attached to into elegance for evening. Finally, toward the later twentieth century, Ralph Lauren took what had become the staples of sportswear-jackets, sweaters, shirts, pants, and skirts-and gave them a distinctly upper-class edge by reviving the elegance of the club-based sports clothing of the 1930s and 1940s. These later twentieth-century designers captured the American Look and made it their own, turning the higher end of sportswear back to its origins by appealing to the upper classes. But by then, the style of dress known as sportswear was open to all, in all classes and levels of society, through mass manufacturing and mass marketing. A truly American style, sportwear has spread throughout the world, representing a first in clothing history.

See also Activewear; Blazer; Ralph Lauren; Sport Shirt; Sweater; Swimwear.


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