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Progressive Styling (Further Reading)

Thank you for your interest in our recent acquisition of a Vassar woman’s athletic uniform, dating to 1926. The ensemble is comprised of a cropped sailor top of white cotton with red cotton short sleeve cuffs and collar, and “1926” applied in red cotton across the front at the bust-level, as well as a pair of just below knee-length red cotton bloomers, gathered at waist and cuffs to provide fullness and allow greater agility. The ensemble is in quite good condition, excepting the natural yellowing that results from general wear and age.

This object was an important acquisition for the Costume Institute, and an extremely generous gift by Madge Baker, as it exemplifies the progressive-minded changes to women’s sport clothing and, ultimately, to women’s fashions during the first half of the twentieth century. The acquisition will serve to document the emergence of the sport-chic aesthetic, which has been perhaps the most profound and far-reaching American contribution to high fashion. Drawing influence from the dress and health reform groups of the nineteenth century, and adopting the sartorial details of men’s military-, sport-, and formalwear, early twentieth century women’s fashion began to exhibit an enthusiasm for bifurcated garments and separates items that would later become defined as “sportswear”.

Bloomers were perhaps the first iconic women’s sporting garment, derived from Amelia Bloomer’s eponymous costume of the 1840s, and eventually modified for women’s bicycling costumes just before the turn of the twentieth century. The full costume, fitted with a fashionably corseted bodice and shortened, full pants modeled after Turkish trousers, was imagined by Bloomer and her supporters, the “Bloomerites” (comprised of notable ‘feminists’ like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, amongst others), to reform dress as a means of inspiring social change and aesthetic reformation. In the Costume Institute’s 2004 exhibition Bravehearts: Men in Skirts, curator Andrew Bolton pinpointed the failure of the mid-nineteenth century Bloomer costume: “Because there had never been a tradition of exposed, bifurcated garments for women in Europe or America, Bloomer's opponents felt that the adoption of trousers by women might lead to radical changes in the relationships between the sexes.” While Amelia Bloomer’s original get-up didn’t take with fashionable audiences, the wool tweed bloomer bicycling costume, tapered from long, trailing skirts to knife-pleated bloomers and accessorized with riding jackets, tailored shirts, ties, and the lace-up boots of the English Hunt by circa 1895, attained widespread success and fostered the turn-of-the-century era of ‘fashionable sporting’. By the 1910s, women purchased more liberated cotton and wool ensembles that featured both a shorter length and a freer shape to partake in tennis, golf, cycling, and gymnastics.

The 1920s was an emphatically significant period in the development of women’s sportswear and of the conflation of the active woman with the ‘modern’ woman. In a 1985 exhibition at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, entitled All-American: A Sportswear Tradition, curator Richard Martin discussed the notion of 1920s “sport idealism,” or the American reverence of the athlete as both a community pillar and a hero. The creation of uniforms with college or town titles applied prominently on the back or front of one’s shirt, as well as the graduation year of a particular college team (as aptly demonstrated by this particular uniform) confirmed the glorification of athletic prowess as heroism. These moving banners became the common ground between the grandstander and the player, each a part of the team’s particular niche. Martin claimed that this “idealism” allowed the audience, as an inactive component of the population, to participate in the phenomenon of sport by wearing sporty garments similar to those championed by the athletes. Parading a convenient pullover top and the controversial bloomer pant, the female athlete became a new woman, who embodied a redefined ideal of physical beauty and was evolved morally. She wore more liberated garments and participated in activities that were previously designated men’s fare. This alliance of ‘modernity’ or fashionability and movement or activity quickly allowed the conflation of stylish clothing trends and sport clothing templates. With its fresh, minimalist lines, items like the sailor top, which Gabrielle Chanel quickly popularized in the mid-1920s as part of her progressive garçonne, or “boy” look, became the basics for a redefined Haute Couture. The image of ‘la femme sportif’ became an international symbol of modernity. The athletic woman, whether a collegian or a member of the leisure class represented the early twentieth century feminine ideal and was a popular purveyor of an aesthetic that inspired the culotte, bathing suit, and separates creations of American designers like Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, and Tom Brigance by the late 1930s and 1940s. More contemporaneous design houses like Yves Saint Laurent, Vivienne Westwood, and Prada, all of the international set, have since revived the bloomer pant and separates suit as a costume of the wealthy, empowered woman.

The Costume Institute was delighted to accept Katherine Jones’s Vassar College uniform into our archive as a stellar example of early twentieth century women’s sport clothing. The acquisition allows us to document important innovations in women’s active clothing as catalysts for social and cultural reform and as templates in the creation of “sportswear” as high fashion, often designated “American style”. With its near pristine condition, this ensemble will likely make a welcome addition to future exhibitions at the Costume Institute that explore topics inherent in or related to the aforementioned social and design histories.