The curator Richard Martin put on an exhibition on sportswear in 1985 at the Fashion Institute of Technology, in which he described sportswear as "an American invention, an American industry, and an American expression of style." For Martin, American sportswear was an expression of various predominantly middle-class aspects of American culture, including health ideals, the concept of democracy, ideas of comfort and function, and innovative design which might refer to historical concepts or leisure attributes. The establishment of a five-day working week and an eight-hour working day in America in the mid-20th century led to the need for clothing which enabled the fullest possible enjoyment of such increased leisure time, and was designed accordingly. A subsequent exhibition of 1930s-70s sportswear, also curated by Martin, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1998, was introduced by Philippe de Montebello as showing pioneering garments, whose modesty, comparative simplicity, and wearability treated fashion as a "pragmatic art." de Montebello carefully explained how significant American designers such as Norman Norell, Pauline Trigère, Charles James and Mainbocher, were not considered sportswear designers, as they were not dedicated to the design principles of versatility, accessibility and affordability in the way that Claire McCardell or Emily Wilkens were.
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In the 1970s Geoffrey Beene, one of the first significant male sportswear designers, incorporated relaxed layering and elements of menswear into his women's clothing - details that continue to widely influence early 21st century industry designers. In 1970, Bill Blass, whose fashion career began in 1946, founded his own company, Bill Blass Limited. 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. Like Beene, he introduced menswear touches to his sportswear, which was described as clean, modern and impeccable in style. Kirkland commented in 1985 that sportswear designers such as Liz Claiborne and Joan Vass were no longer "borrowing from the boys," but had begun making menswear too. In addition to the high-end names who produced apparel in large quantity, a more personal level of sportswear was offered in the early 1980s by smaller designers such as Mary Jane Marcasiano and Vass, who specialised in hand-knits in wool and cotton. By the mid-1980s, sportswear had become a key part of the international fashion scene, forming a large part of America's contribution to the twice-yearly fashion presentations alongside top-end collections from Paris, Milan and London.
While 1920s Paris designers offered haute couture designs that could be considered sportswear, it was typically not their design focus. 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. Another famous tennis player, Suzanne Lenglen, was director of the sportswear department at Jean Patou. In contrast to the flexibility of American sportswear, these expensive couture garments were typically prescribed for very specific circumstances. Many couturiers began designing clothing that, whilst suitable for sport, could be worn in a wider range of contexts. Coco Chanel, who promoted her own active, financially independent lifestyle through relaxed jersey suits and uncluttered dresses, became famous for clothes of "the sports type." In 1926 Harper's Bazaar reported upon Chanel's sporty garments, noting the absence of equivalent apparel from New York fashion presentations. However, Martin has noted that while Chanel was undeniably important and influential, her work was always based on couture construction rather than the easy-wear nature of American sportswear.
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. 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. Maxwell and Potter were two of the first three sportswear designers, along with Helen Cookman, to be showcased and name-checked in Shaver's window displays and advertisements for Lord & Taylor. Between 1932 and 1939, Shaver's "American Look" program at Lord & Taylor promoted over sixty American designers including McCardell, Potter and Merry Hull. Shaver advertised her American designers as if they were French couturiers, and promoted their lower costs as a positive feature, rather than a sign of inferiority. One of Shaver's retail experiments was a 'College Shop' section in the store, opened in the early 1930s and run by her assistant Helen Maddock, with the intent of offering casual but flattering clothing to young female college students. The stock, however, ended up selling swiftly to adult women as well as to the students.
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