The Museum at FIT is an internationally recognized collection of fashion design, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2019. Based in New York city, the Fashion Institute for Technology is a college for design, fashion, art, communications, and business. Founded in 1969, the Museum was installed in the current building in 1974, and exhibitions began to be presented in 1975. Dr. Valerie Steele has been director of The Museum at FIT since 2003 and chief curator since 1997. Over 100,000 visitors, from academic researchers to generalists visit annually, and the mission of the Museum is to advance knowledge of fashion through exhibitions, programs and publications. The Museum at FIT, accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, is one of a few specialized collections, including the Musée de la Mode, the Mode Museum, and the Museo de la Moda.
Prof Jean Williams represented jjheritge at the Museum at FIT for a week of research with a view to developing our sports clothing expertise and, it is an experience to be highly recommended. Whatever your specialism, there is a really rich range of material available. The museum's permanent collection encompasses some 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present and, significantly, the objects are often presented first. Methodologically, this focuses the attention of the researchers on the thing itself, which may seem an obvious point, but one that is often overlooked in the search for contextual detail in catalogues and so forth. So for reasons of space, we have limited this blog to discussions of 1. Equestrian wear and motoring clothing, 2. Swimwear and 3. Case study of Abercrombie and Fitch est. 1892.
Equestrianism meets automobilism
One of the things that was really evident from the equestrian and mototring clothing was the continuity of materials, and designs based on seasonal circumstances. So that when equestrians wore light, long dust-jackets of cotton for the Summer these garments were often designed to keep dust off the hind quarters of the horse, as well as the body of the rider. Similarly, when early automobilists took to the streets in their vehicles at the turn of the twentieth century, dust jackets, although much shorter in cut were very much in vogue in the summer months along with veils and large wide-brimmed ‘picture’ hats for women, and peaked caps for men. So much so, was this kind of headwear symbolic of motoring that young women who could not afford a vehicle would wear large hats in the street, only to be taunted by young boys with calls like, ‘Where’s your car, miss?’. In the Winter months too, heavier fabrics, like leather, fur and glamorous velvet were adapted from equestrian fashions to motoring styles, and here the wide brimmed hat was a necessary defence against inclement weather, with goggles and leather headwear for men increasingly used, as a nod (if you will excuse the pun) to military styles. Significantly, society equestrians and automobilists wanted to be seen on their journey, so there is often a lot of intricate embroidery and detail in these fashions.
As Jean has already argued in articles like Aquadynamics and the Athletocracy the county of Leicestershire in England, has a unique place in the development of racing sportswear, using very fine silk racing swimsuits for men from the turn of the twentieth century, and for women since at least the 1912 Olympic Games although expensive and specialist items of clothing for elite races, the fine qualities of the suits showed that fit and racing technology could enhance the experience of swimmers more used to the everyday qualities of woollen suits. Not known for their hydroponic qualities!
Unlike equestrian and motoring clothing, which relied upon layers for comfort, and outerwear for protection against the elements, swimwear had major links with underwear. Swimming bloomers for men and women could be fashionable, although not to our taste today. For instance, sailor-style necklines were indicative of leisure-wear generally and used for styles for both men and women, and, from the 1890s patented sea-side wear celebrated both swimming itself and lounging on the beach, or near water. So there were rational elements affecting women’s clothing particularly as heavy ankle length dresses were proven to hamper efforts to swim during disasters, and there were perceptions that women were less often taught to swim than men. So swimming was a life skill, and life saving received a Royal approval in 1904 in the UK.
As time went on swimwear became ever more brief and more technically constructed. This linked with changes in body shape, and personal grooming which emphasised the revealed body as toned, honed and young. For the lucky few cruise wear became a staple of an upper class wardrobe, as those who could afford to do so followed the sun, year round.
Sportswear and leisurewear: Abercrombie and Fitch est. 1892
One of the rich sources for the researcher of sporting and leisurewear is the history of branding available at the Museum at FIT. Few today know for example, that multi billion dollar company Abercrombie and Fitch, began as an outfitters for those who enjoyed the great outdoors, in 1892 by David T. Abercrombie. A topographer himself, Abercrombie favoured camping style canvas and twill clothing in serviceable designs, which were nevertheless elite in tone because only the upper classes had the leisure and money to purchase specialist items, such as he provided. Ezra Fitch, initially a customer and then a partner in 1900, realising that selling a lifestyle could appeal to those in New York who never intended to spend more time than was strictly necessary outdoors. The two men quarrelled and, ultimately, Fitch’s vision was the more persuasive, so much so that by 1907 Abercrombie left the business to pursue the outdoors market. By 1910 both women and men were catered for in the Abercrombie and Fitch vision, although women have generally been less well catered for in sports clothing compared with men, in stark contrast to other areas of fashion. Made fashionable by a host of pioneers, A&F has evolved to one of today’s luxury lifestyle brands, whether worn inside, or out on the great outdoors.
Posts written by Jean or Joanna.