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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

American Ingenuity: Sportswear, 1930s–1970s

America—and New York in particular—has enjoyed innumerable golden ages, but none is more resplendent than the time—from the 1930s to the beginning of the ’70s—that is captured in the phrase “American Ingenuity.” That phenomenon of an American sportswear was chiefly defined on Seventh Avenue, with some support from the Connecticut and surrounding hillsides and from the sports- and car-oriented burgeoning West Coast, and was committed to making ready-to-wear and affordable fashion realistic and attractive to women of the epoch of the Great Depression through the American world of hegemony.

The significant designers of this era did not seek the grand style and the refinements of traditional fashion authority, and they exercised a remarkable independence from French couture. Significantly, they rethought fashion from its very roots, not simply paring away some of the accretions of traditional prettiness but establishing a new standard for a practical, modern style in accord with the lives of the women of their era. Furthermore, the chief impetus came from women designers, not from men. The sportswear tradition in America includes male manufacturers and a few early pioneers such as Sydney Wragge and later John Weitz, but the driving force of fashion’s fresh invention resides with the women who answered women’s needs.

We live today indebted to McCardell, Cashin, Hawes, Wilkens, Leser, and Maxwell, and other women who liberated American fashion from the thralldom of Parisian design. Independence came in tying, wrapping, stowing, eschewing ornament, harmonizing, and rationalizing that wardrobe. These designers established the modern dress code, letting playsuits and other activewear outfits suffice for casual clothing; allowing pants to enter the wardrobe, often as an alternative in an outfit also offering a skirt; and prizing rationalism and versatility in dress, in contradiction to dressing for an occasion or allotment of the day. Fashion in America was logical and answerable to the will of the women who wore it. Implicitly or explicitly, American fashion addressed a democracy, whereas traditional Paris-based fashion was authoritarian and imposed on women, willing or not.

In an earlier time, American fashion had also followed the dictates of Paris, or even copied and pirated specific French designs. Designer sportswear was not usurped from Europe, as “modern art” would later be; it was genuinely invented and developed in America. Its designers were not high-end with ancillary lines. The design objective and the business commitment were to sportswear, and distinctive traits were problem-solving ingenuity and realistic lifestyle applications. Ease of care was paramount: summer dresses and outfits, in particular, were chiefly cotton, readily capable of being washed and pressed at home. Closings were simple, practical, and accessible, as the modern woman depended on no personal maid to dress her or to tie a corset at the back. American designers prized resourcefulness and assumed the nonchalant freedom of the women who wore the clothing.

Many have argued that the women designers of this time were able to project their own clothing values into a new style. Of course, much of this argument in the 1930s and ’40s was advanced because there was little or no experience in justifying apparel on the basis of utility. If Paris was cast aside, the tradition of beauty was also to some degree slighted. Designer sportswear would have to be verified by a standard other than that of pure beauty; the emulation of a designer’s life in designer sportswear was a crude version of this relationship. The consumer was ultimately to be mentioned as well, especially by the likes of Dorothy Shaver, who could point to the sales figures at Lord & Taylor.

Could utility alone justify the new ideas of the American designers? Fashion is often regarded as a pursuit of beauty, and some cherished fashion’s trivial relationship to the fine arts. What the designers of American sportswear proved was that fashion is a bona fide design art, answering to the demanding needs of service. Of course these practical, insightful designers have determined the course of late twentieth-century fashion. They were the pioneers of gender equity, in their useful, adaptable clothing, which was both made for the masses and capable of self-expression.