With so much heartbreaking news and so many head-smacking decisions, is there space to consider the history of women’s sportswear?
I’ve found “Sporting Fashion: Outdoor Girls 1800 to 1960” to be not just a comforting distraction from the latest pandemic surge, but a look at how style, gender and women’s sports have evolved. There’s so much virtual programming that I almost don’t mind not seeing it in person at The Frick Pittsburgh.
Construction, detail and form aside, these outfits seem like they’re from another planet. There’s an ensemble a woman would wear in the 1890s for mountaineering. Try rock-climbing in a flowy skirt and a shirt with poofy mutton sleeves. To go swimming in the 1900s, don’t forget your personal changing tent that hangs from your neck.
We’ve moved past that era.
Or have we?
I geeked out on this exhibit as I was watching the Olympics. More than a century has passed since women wore some of these pieces, yet this summer Norway’s women’s beach handball team was fined for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms. Paralympian Olivia Breen was told the opposite: trade her revealing briefs for shorts. And don’t forget Serena Williams’ sleek catsuit banned from the French Open.
Women’s bodies are still being policed and clothing is still subject to approval.
I first heard about the exhibit on the excellent podcast “Dressed: The History of Fashion.” (My only complaint with the podcast is the pace of two episodes a week. It’s a commitment to keep up, but hosts April Calahan and Cassidy Zachary make it worth the time.) A recent two-part episode focused on this sportswear exhibit organized at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.
The exhibit was supposed to open last fall at FIDM and then travel to other museums. Thanks to COVID-19, the exhibit opened at Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh this summer.
“Sporting Fashion” looks at sportswear in a time period when so much changes for women. In these outfits we see the evolution of the rules surrounding women doing things. They’re also pretty fabulous works of craftsmanship, from a furry winter walking ensemble from the 1820s to a leather mama motorcycling uniform from the 1930s.
While I’m not able to go to the Frick by the time the exhibit ends Sept. 26, there is so much virtual context to explore.
Take the “Dressed” podcast. Two of the exhibit’s curators sat down for a winding interview. They explain how the idea for “Sporting Fashion” sprung from a vintage scarf, how they collected 700 objects over 10 years and who the women were who wore these clothes. There are so many fascinating tangents, including why they wanted to track down period undergarments and how they managed to do that.
There’s more to learn in the Frick’s schedule of virtual talks.
Every Monday, docents give virtual talks ($5 for nonmembers). I joined a small group on Zoom for a speedy overview of the exhibit. The docent shared photos of some of the outfits. It would have been great to zoom in and see some of the detail. For example, our expert tried to highlight a woven hat in an 1830s riding outfit, but the photo wasn’t large enough.
Otherwise, most outfits were paired with newspaper articles and artwork from that time period, giving even more context.
Every Friday, staff give free virtual talks about a specific item or a theme. The talks are posted on the museum’s Facebook page so you can learn more about swimming (or “bathing”) in the 1800s or roller derby uniforms of the 1940s.
There are also more in-depth talks inside the gallery ($15 and includes admission to the museum). The one I joined had a lot of insight from the experts. The tone was more conversational and less like reading from a thesis paper.
These outfits come from all over the country with at least one local connection: a green 1940s roller derby ensemble from Reading. I’d love to see more local additions from the museum’s own collection or on loan from the community.
Exploring “Sporting Fashion” has been a great distraction.
The virtual talks have made it easy to learn more without a long drive. For some, virtual is the only option. One of the people in our small group chat said they were immune compromised and not going out soon because of the pandemic.
“This means I can see the exhibit,” they wrote.