Sportswear has been called America's main contribution to the history of fashion design. The term became popular in the 1920s to describe relaxed, casual wear typically worn for spectator sports.[1] Since the 1930s the term is used to describe both day and evening fashions of varying degrees of formality that demonstrate this relaxed approach whilst remaining appropriate wear for many business or social occasions.[2]

History of sportswear

Sportswear started out as a fashion industry term describing informal and interchangeable separates (i.e., blouses, shirts, skirts and shorts), but now describes clothing worn for a wide range of social events. It was developed to cater to the needs of the increasingly fast-paced lifestyle of American women. The early sportswear designers were associated with ready-to-wear manufacturers, rather than haute couture houses. The clothes were intended to be easy to care for, in easily washable fabrics, with accessible practical fastenings, to enable the modern, increasingly emancipated woman to dress herself without a maid's assistance. While most fashions in America in the early 20th century were directly copied from Paris, designer sportswear was the exception to this rule, being an American invention.


Sportswear originally described clothing made specifically for sport. One of the first couturiers to specialise in this was 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.Redfern suit, circa 1911 in the collections database of the Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Some early 20th century Paris designers such as Gabrielle Chanel created haute couture designs that could be considered sportswear, though were not exclusively sportswear designers. Chanel promoted her own active, financially independent lifestyle through her relaxed jersey suits and uncluttered dresses. 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–. [1] (October 2004) Other designers offering high end sportswear for resort wear included Jean Patou and Elsa Schiaparelli. 1928 Schiaparelli sweater In contrast to the flexibility of American sportswear, these expensive couture garments were prescribed to be worn in very specific circumstances.


The precursors of true sportswear emerged in New York before the Second World War. 1930s designers such as Clare Potter and Claire McCardell were among the first American designers to gain name recognition through their innovative clothing designs. Richard Martin described these designers as aiming to produce clothes demonstrating "problem-solving ingenuity and realistic lifestyle applications".Martin, Richard, American Ingenuity: Sportswear 1930s-1970s in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [2] (October 2004) McCardell has been called America's greatest sportswear designer. Her simple, practical clothes suited the relaxed American dress code, neither formal nor informal, that became established during the 1930s and 1940s. Sportswear uses elements of sporty informal or casual wear such as Clare Potter's innovative evening sweater and evening skirt draped like a sidesaddle riding habit.Schiro, Anne-Marie, Clare Potter, Who Set Trends In Women's Clothes, Dies at 95 New York Times, January 11 1999

Many of the first sportswear designers were women. A common argument was that female designers projected their personal values into this new style. In the 1930s and 40s, it was rare for clothing to be justified through its practicableness. It was traditionally thought that Paris fashion exemplified beauty, and therefore, sportswear required different criteria for assessment. 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. 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.The early sportswear designers proved that the creation of original ready-to-wear fashion could be a legitimate design art which responded stylishly to utiliarian requirements.

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  1. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named fdf
  2. Sportswear. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: March 11, 2009)

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