This story is featured in CityBeat's Oct. 4 print edition.
Women’s sports have always been an undeniable display of talent, dedication and entertainment. Yet, whether women have historically gained the attention, pay or credit they deserve hasn’t been so evident. The rise of popularity in women’s sports has been slow, especially in the early years when it defied social norms and expectations for how women should participate in society.
An upcoming exhibit at the Taft Museum of Art is uncovering more than a century’s worth of fashion and feminism surrounding the history of female athletics.
Sporting Fashion: Outdoor Girls 1800 to 1960 opens at the Taft Museum on Oct. 14 and runs through Jan. 14, 2024. The display demonstrates women's value in and contribution to all sports while exploring their lives through clothing, accessories and ephemera.
“The Taft aims to present exhibitions that spark conversations and allow us to engage with various communities,” Ann Glasscock, associate curator at the Taft, said in an email. “The works in Sporting Fashion will challenge visitors to consider the important intersection between fashion and women’s greater role in public life and drive toward social equality.”
The traveling exhibit was organized by the American Federation of Arts and the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. It is the first of its kind to examine women’s sporting attire in Western fashion throughout the 160-year period. In the 1800s, when women began to pursue new roles outside of their domestic responsibilities, wardrobes and gear had to be invented and manufactured to suit their activities.
The evolution of these garments during this specific time period hasn’t been explored in this way. Sporting Fashion is a one-of-a-kind display that carries lessons in history and fashion. Most importantly it tells the story of how powerful women earned their place in the world of sports and how that progressive journey informed and affected women’s everyday lives, too.
“The outfits are only part of the picture,” Glasscock says. “We should recognize the strong-willed, independent and talented women who wore the clothes that advanced the history of sports over the 160-year period covered in the exhibition. These garments are a reminder of how fashion developed over time, how technology changed and that what was socially acceptable changed from one decade to the next — all with powerful women pushing the boundaries for a better tomorrow.”
Sporting Fashion exhibits more than 60 fully accessorized ensembles and hundreds of objects like helmets, bows, bags, rackets and skis among many other objects. Brands still relevant today like Champion and Spalding are represented throughout the outfits and accessories, which have transformed from practical garb to works of art.
“Fashion is an art form. Every object has a story to tell,” Glasscock tells CityBeat. “In the case of this show, it could be a story about the wearer, designer, materials, technology, activity, move away from corsets, use of pants by women or a combination of these and other things.”
In a virtual event about Sporting Fashion, FIDM Museum curator Kevin Jones revealed that each item displayed in the exhibit is authentic. He explains that finding actual surviving objects and clothing was a difficult task because 200 years ago no one thought of them as worth saving. Jones said there are tons of surviving ballgowns and couture dresses but far less sportswear, which is why this exhibit’s collection is so rare and impressive.
“Looking at the history of sportswear is difficult,” Jones said during the virtual event. “There have been other projects that have come about with sportswear but, generally, it’s men and women together and it starts maybe around 1900 and it's always brought up to the present because, of course, we live in a world of sportswear now. And there’s lots of sportswear now. We wanted the challenge of just focusing on women only, no men, and also taking it back to as far as we could with actual surviving objects because we are a museum and every project that [we] work on, they are acquisition exhibitions.”
The Taft’s “More to the story” labels throughout the exhibit uncover everything from fun facts to accounts of women overcoming oppression. Labeled near an ice skating outfit from the ’30s, the story of Madge Syers (1881–1917) is revealed.
She was an English figure skater who took advantage of an oversight in the 1902 World Skating Championships that gained her access to the competition even though it was comprised only of men. She won second place.
Another label reveals the need for garments to cover the skin in order to keep it pale, which was in fashion in the 19th century and early 20th century. Pale, unblemished skin used to signify upper class, as tanned skin or freckles “suggested manual labor and lower social class.” Some women began to reverse their mindset about skin tone in the 1920s when outdoor activities and leisure became more popular.
Swimming garments and gear show the evolution of mindset as well. As exposed skin became more acceptable, designers and manufacturers followed suit, creating more fashionable and practical garments. Winter sport ensembles show how outfits protected women from the elements, while gear for cycling, motoring and flying were initially adaptations from men’s wear.
The exhibit is organized into seven themes: Stepping Outdoors, Further Afield, Subzero Style, Taking the Reins, A Team Effort, Wheels and Rings and Making Waves. The themes feature specific sports or activities that chronicle tales of women exploring previously male-dominated pursuits, women who were ultra adventurous and took up mountaineering or the development of regulation uniforms.
Sporting Fashion considers women’s roles in breaking boundaries and taking action for a better future, though it does focus on garments and accessories primarily from western Europe and North America that were owned mainly by the affluent, who had the means to participate. The exhibit is as much of a lesson in history as it is an account of style and fashion. These women challenged the status quo and shaped a future of design, progression, talent, taste and athleticism.
“Broadly speaking, we hope that visitors will learn about women’s sporting and leisure attire from 1800–1960, but we also hope that they understand how the clothes on display influenced and impacted what we wear now,” Glasscock says. “Plus, everything is original, it’s the last chance to see it in the Midwest, and this is the first exhibition to explore the evolution of women’s sporting attire in Western fashion over this 160-year period.”
Sporting Fashion is on view at the Taft Museum of Art from Oct. 14 through Jan. 14. Info: taftmuseum.org.
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