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Sportswear. Shaping the American Look

In the Thirties, a group of American fashion designers turned to sportswear to meet the needs of the modern American woman. Their easy, utilitarian looks, far from those of the French couture, gave new shape to the American look.

Beryl Williams wrote in ‘Fashion is our Business’ (1945) that the American designers were ‘the sensitive, intelligent reflectors of what American women want them to be, creating what American women want to wear.’ What American women wanted to wear were, at the time, practical and versatile clothes. American designers started to design them when, during the 1930s, they decidedly distanced themselves from French fashion and turned to sportswear.

Dress designed by Claire McCardell, 1949. Courtesy Gemeentemuseum Den Haag via Modemuze, all rights reserved.

Sportswear was then leading the campaign of emancipation from Parisian fashion, whose influence was, in fact, strongly felt overseas. Well before the 1930s, most of American designers used to produce ready-to-wear copies of the creations showcased on Parisian catwalks, a reality well described by Elizabeth Hawes in her book ‘Fashion is Spinach’. Elizabeth Hawes herself was, along with Bonnie Cashin, Claire McCardell and Vera Maxwell, one of the designers who turned to sportswear, creating democratic, affordable ready-to-wear clothes for the American market.

Dress designed by Claire McCardell, 1949. Courtesy Gemeentemuseum Den Haag via Modemuze, all rights reserved.

Sportswear and its ‘straightforwardness’ met the economic and practical needs of the American women. The clothes were easy to be washed and ironed at home, accessible to women which could not be helped by housemaids. Their materials and accessories were simple, even before of the restrictions of the War-years.

Dorothy Shaver of Lord & Taylor coined the term ‘American Look’ when in 1932 he launched a series of off-stores presentation featuring the newest looks from American designers. Between 1932 and 1939, her presentations featured the practical sportswear creations of more than sixty designers. On another front, PR pioneer Eleanor Lambert promoted the use of the new American fashion on magazines and publications, spreading the consciousness of an American fashion identity.

Browse Europeana Fashion to find the creations of the pioneer designers that shaped the American Look!

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