The precursors of true sportswear emerged in New York before the Second World War. Clare Potter and Claire McCardell were among the first American designers in the 1930s to gain name recognition through their innovative clothing designs, which Martin described as demonstrating "problem-solving ingenuity and realistic lifestyle applications". Garments were designed to be easy-to-wear and comfortable, using practical fabrics such as denim, cotton, and jersey. McCardell in particular has been described as 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. McCardell once proclaimed: "I belong to a mass production country where any of us, all of us, deserve the right to good fashion." 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 utilitarian requirements.
Among the key designs produced by this new generation of American designers were capsule wardrobes such as McCardell's group of five wool jersey pieces from 1934, comprising two tops, long and short skirts, and a pair of culottes; and Maxwell's "weekend wardrobe" of five tweed and flannel garments. Both were designed to accommodate formal and informal occasions depending on how they were assembled and accessorised. McCardell also became well known for designs such as the Monastic and Popover dresses which were versatile enough to work in multiple contexts from swimsuit cover-ups to party dresses. Other McCardell signatures included ballet slippers (made by Ben Sommers of Capezio) as everyday footwear and functional pockets in skirts and trousers. Dressy garments made from casual fabrics, such as McCardell and Joset Walker's evening dresses and dress-and-coat ensembles made out of cotton, became a key sportswear look. The American couturier Norman Norell declared that McCardell could make a smart dress to wear anywhere out of "five dollars worth of common cotton calico." Other sportswear designs often incorporated elements of sporty informal or casual wear, as exemplified by Clare Potter's evening sweater worn with a long skirt draped like a sidesaddle riding habit.
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