Sportswear originally described activewear - clothing made specifically for sport. Part of the evolution of sportswear was triggered by 19th-century developments in female activewear, such as early bathing or cycling costumes, which demanded shorter skirts, bloomers, and other specific garments to enable mobility, whilst sports such as tennis or croquet could be played in barely-modified conventional dress.[4] One of the first couturiers to specialise in sports-specific clothing was the British 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.[7] Also in the late nineteenth century, garments associated with activewear and/or modified from menswear, such as the shirtwaist began to form part of the working woman's wardrobe.[8] Prior to 1920, men and women could both demonstrate their being at leisure simply by removing a jacket, either literally in the case of menswear, or metaphorically by a woman wearing a shirtwaist blouse that resembled a man's shirt worn without a jacket.[4]
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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.[2] In 1970, Bill Blass, whose fashion career began in 1946, founded his own company, Bill Blass Limited.[42] 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.[43] Like Beene, he introduced menswear touches to his sportswear, which was described as clean, modern and impeccable in style.[43] 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.[22] 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.[22] 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.[22]
Despite the acceptance of fashionable sportswear as a form of casual dressing in French fashion in the 1920s, the American garment industry went on to become the most prominent producers of such clothing.[12] The key difference between French and American sportswear was that French sportswear was usually a small part of a high-end designer's output, while the American sportswear designers focused on affordable, versatile, easy-care garments that could be mass-produced and were relevant to the customer's lifestyle, enabling the modern, increasingly emancipated woman to dress herself without a maid's assistance.[10] Although the influence of Europe, particularly Parisian high fashion and English tailoring, was always significant, the Great Depression which started in 1929 acted as a trigger to encourage American fashion to focus on homegrown style and design - particularly sportswear.[8] With 13 million Americans left unemployed by the Depression, it was necessary to create jobs and reduce the competition from imported goods in order to improve the American economy.[6] At the same time, the growth of female athleticism and increased female employment fueled a need for simpler and less expensive clothing.[6][17]
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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.[4] 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.[9]
Sportswear is an American fashion term originally used to describe separates, but which, since the 1930s, has come to be applied to day and evening fashions of varying degrees of formality that demonstrate a specific relaxed approach to their design, while remaining appropriate for a wide range of social occasions. The term is not necessarily synonymous with activewear, clothing designed specifically for participants in sporting pursuits. Although sports clothing was available from European haute couture houses and "sporty" garments were increasingly worn as everyday or informal wear, the early American sportswear designers were associated with ready-to-wear manufacturers. While most fashions in America in the early 20th century were directly copied from, or influenced heavily by Paris, American sportswear became a home-grown exception to this rule, and could be described as the American Look. Sportswear was designed to be easy to look after, with accessible fastenings that enabled a modern emancipated woman to dress herself without a maid's assistance.
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