Alongside Dorothy Shaver, Eleanor Lambert was an important promoter of the American Look and sportswear. As founder of the Council of Fashion Designers of America and creator of New York Fashion Week, Lambert is considered the first fashion publicist. In the summer of 1940, Lambert was hired by the Dress Institute to promote American fashion, leading to newspaper and magazine articles about how New York was replacing Paris as a global fashion leader. In 1940, both Harper's Bazaar and Vogue published issues devoted to American fashion.
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Martin has observed that in America, prior to increasing worker freedoms from the mid-late 19th century onwards, leisure had been a luxury available only to the leisured classes during the Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1860), and before that, Puritan America had condemned leisure for all. He cites the 1884 Georges Seurat painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte as an immobile, "static and stratified" depiction of leisure in "direct antithesis" of the relaxed, casual American equivalent. T.J. Clarke notes how La Grande Jatte illustrates people from the breadth of Paris society taking advantage of their free time by going to the riverside to show off new clothes, but that the act of removing one's jacket or otherwise loosening garments as a signifier of actually being at leisure was almost never done.
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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. 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. 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. 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. Affordable, well-designed all-American sportswear was presented as a way of enabling a less wealthy customer to feel part of that same lifestyle. However, at first, American apparel firms mostly copied French styles.
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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 1950s and 1960s, designers continued to develop the theme of affordable, practical and innovative sportswear, producing clothing that focused on wearability rather than fashion fads, including Anne Fogarty's coat-and-dress sets and dresses made with removable waistcoats to alter their look. The film costume designer Bonnie Cashin, who started producing ready-to-wear clothing in 1949, is considered one of the most influential American sportswear designers. She was known for her extremely practical layered ensembles inspired by ethnographic garments and textiles such as the Japanese kimono and happi, ikats, and the South American poncho. Her designs incorporated leather bindings, pockets with purse clasps, hooded jersey dresses and tops, and industrial zippers and fastenings. She put a brass clip resembling those used on dog leashes, on a long formal skirt so that it could be securely hitched up to enable the wearer to run up and down stairs, and her ponchoes and hoods (which could be rolled down to form elegant cowl-collars) were originally designed for driving on cool mornings. Cashin became one of the first American designers to have an international reputation. Alongside Cashin, Rudi Gernreich emerged in the 1950s as a key name in sportswear design, first becoming known for his swimsuits, but then expanding into geometrically cut, graphic clothes and knitwear that Kirkland described as the epitome of the "new California."
Many of the first sportswear designers were women, including McCardell, Potter, Elizabeth Hawes, Emily Wilkens, Tina Leser, and Vera Maxwell. A common argument was that female designers projected their personal values into this new style. One of the few male designers at this time was Tom Brigance, who by the late 1930s was regularly ranked alongside Potter as a leading name in mid-range priced sportswear. 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. Two other notable male designers of sportswear at this time were Sydney Wragge and John Weitz.
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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