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The Frick’s “Sporting Fashion Exhibit”: An Ode to Evolution

Updated: Aug 2, 2021

With the Tokyo Olympics in full swing, athleticism at the highest level unites global audiences in tradition for the love of sport. Imagine today’s tennis phenom Naomi Osaka in a binding corset and cumbersome layers of garments (below) while attempting a strong backhand. Or gliding on ice simultaneously lifting the heavy fabrics of your floor length skirt so it doesn’t get caught in your skates as you lift yourself for a double toe loop.

The Frick Pittsburgh’s “Sporting Fashion: Outdoor Girls 1800 to 1960” explores the advancing social conventions and shifting notions of style and functionality that opened doors for women to participate in physical activities of all kinds. Women throughout history who donned these period pieces challenged the status quo, defining femininity in bold new ways, trendsetters for future generations of athletes.

Ornate artifacts of female fashion in sports curated by the American Federation of Arts and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising covers athletic pursuits from motorcycling (above) and skiing to activities of leisure like swimming and picnicking.

Innovative women of the 19th century didn’t let corsets and bustling yards of fabric inhibit them from taking the reins in a predominantly masculine activity like horse riding. The masculine association eventually declined as riding became the catalyst for fashions like tailored daywear synonymous with city life, industrial evolution, and ultimately ready to wear attire.

The female cowgirl was the pinnacle of strength in the male dominated field, with practical details like a fringed rawhide jacket to withstand sudden downpours, sturdy leather boots with spurs “made for walkin”, and of course a ten-gallon hat to ward off the blazing sun.

The progression of accepted modesty is evidenced above as the early days of long, nautical skirts gradually modifying to a far less clothed swim look on the left. The periwinkle crushed velvet ensemble was my favorite, with its rushing, decorative pearls, and cut fit for a 50’s version of a Rihanna style trendsetter, bold in dress.

Leisurely looks for hobbies like shopping and driving were at the hallmark of 50’s fashion, bringing sportwear to a larger platform along with practical ease in garments. Silk heafscarves, cat eyed shades, and A line dresses adorned women’s closets in abundance, the essence of femininity.

As the 2021 Olympics take stage, female athletes along with minority athletes across the world are leveraging their voices more than ever before, proudly expressing their beliefs and heritages through dress. The women’s German gymnastic team made headlines as they ditched the traditional leg bearing leotards for a covered one piece, a stance against sexualisation of the sport. While the German team was embraced in their decision to determine their own level of comfortability, other women were not nearly as supported in their choice.

The Norwegian women’s handball team was recently fined for refusing to wear bikini underwear, demonstrating the lack of respect and tolerance even today for women’s choices over their attire and bodies.

Africa showed up and showed out when it came to the outfit choice at the Opening Ceremony, dropping jaws in animal print attire and unique combinations of pattern and color. South Africa’s above zebra print short sleeved button downs and matching masks infused with pops of color enhanced the team’s style in effervescence.

Countries like Senegal, Cameroon, The Gambia, Nigeria and Kenya rocked traditional attire, many with modern twist.

Liberia went for a different approach, opting for the above sleek gender-neutral look from Liberian American designer Telfar. Dubbed “the coolest” of the Olympic Uniforms by Vogue, Telfar’s innovation in style shines beyond his signature box shaped bag. As people from underrepresented segments of society rise in representation, values strengthen and diversify, enhancing not only sports, but humanity. While challenging the status quo may not be easy, the Frick’s “Sporting Fashion” exhibit is evidence that evolution and change are possible through persistence and commitment.

“Overpower. Overtake. Overcome.” -Serena Williams.

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