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FIT Exhibit: The Sporting Life

One of the myriad nearly-secret pleasures of New York City is the museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  Admission is free, and the gallery is always full of slightly eclectic, fascinating garments.  Until November 5, 2011, the exhibit is “The Sporting Life”, and featured clothing runs the gamut from the 1800s to the 21st century.

Sadly, photos aren’t allowed, and, generally speaking I’ve found that the photos released for publicity by FIT rarely illustrate the scope of the collections.  The current exhibit is no exception, and it’s a pity, because there is so much detail that is wonderful to discuss, and it’s very difficult to do that without images.

Here are two “sporting” outfits, both from the late 1800s, among the very few photos available online:

First, a two piece dress by Haas Brothers, with a middy blouse (I do love me a middy!):

The contrast looks orange here, but it’s not; even 117 years later it’s a bright, clear red.  The trim is a white flat soutache braid used in triple rows around the collar, hem and cuff, and double rows on the tie and belt.  The belt has no obvious fastener; just a diagonal keeper. It’s dressy athletic-wear, 1894 style!

Second, this gym suit, for more active young women:

I’m guessing that waist is about 18 inches, and perhaps it was corseted even for sport, but it does make for a marvelous profile, doesn’t it?  Careful examination (don’t you wish all clothing exhibits were staged with mirrors showing the reverse of the garments?) revealed that this, too, is a two-piece garment.  There’s a small peplum that tucks into the trousers below the very fitted waist on the top.

Another secret:  There are neat little buttoned tabs at the side waist, and longish openings at the side seams.  This suit has a drop seat!  Was it actually used as such?  Or was that just a simple way to accommodate entry and exit?  The collarless, side-buttoned blouse is classic; we’ve seen more than a few like this in the decades since.

Oddly, all of the other PR photos show what I found the least interesting of the garments:  A Patagonia jacket; generic biking jerseys; an OK Tom Ford Gucci ski jacket and an eh LaCroix beach ensemble — all of them from the 1990s.  There’s so much more to see, and many more decades represented than just these two.  I wish the bait had been a little more varied — or that I’d been allowed to show you far more of what I loved seeing!

Above, the Patagonia jacket.  Meh.  Clean design, but .  .  . more commercial than spellbinding.  It might be stupendous in a technical clothing exhibit.  Perhaps, thirty years from now, this will be a curious relic of a distant time in sportswear.  Today?  It just doesn’t seem either ground-breaking, nor particularly representative of a compelling era.  Design-wise, these garments are more utilitarian than cutting edge.  Don’t get me wrong; I love utilitarian clothing, but this sort of thing, like the biking jerseys, seemed out of place in an exhibit that generally celebrated the idea of sport as interpreted by designers responding to cultural change.

Among the rest:  Anne Cole’s “scandal suits” from the 1960s; a fabulous (fuchsia?) neoprene dress with box pleats, a bouffant skirt and a tiny waist; plus fours for golfing;  men’s (and a woman’s) shooting jackets; and a really odd Gaultier ski suit that resembles a cozy mattress cover; and much, much more.

Everything was interesting to one degree or another, but the outfit that amazed and astonished me was a sporting outfit from the mid-40s designed by Claire McCardell.  Think skinny leggings (black) topped with a sleek trim jacket, subtly and narrowly striped in black and gold.  A zipper up the front that terminates in a deep collar — almost a cowl, but with no excess fabric.

The zipper is closed only to the base of the collar; one side of the open collar stands up, the other is folded over.  (Verrry chic!)  Long, slim sleeves are finished with just a touch of elastic hidden in the hems.  There are nearly hidden vertical pockets — all you can see is the hint of the zippers — just at the side, and below, each breast.  Matching boot/shoes that are the same stripe as the jacket, and almost pixie-ish — except that they are the height of era-less style, and not cute at all.  To die for — and eminently wearable today, a mere seventy or so years later.

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  1. Shams
    June 17th, 2011 at 06:51 | #1

    Very cool! You are lucky to live so close to NYC. 🙂

    • June 17th, 2011 at 09:54 | #2

      Not as lucky as those of you in SF, Shams! But it IS amazingly easy to run up to NYC from my neck of the woods. And only $22 (round-trip!) on the Bolt Bus (free wi-fi!).

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