The streamlined silhouettes of the 1930s form much of the foundation of modern dressing as we view it today. Guided by resurgent classical ideals of proportion and the art moderne aesthetic, designers embraced harmony and grace, creating clothes that ran sinuously along the curves of the body. In addition to the long, lean lines created in the form of languorous couture evening gowns, activewear in the 1930s marked a new attitude toward sporting, movement, and the body.
While the scale and scope of the Lake Placid Olympics in 1932 may seem quaint by today’s standards of hyper-performance gear—with teams actively emphasizing the role their attire plays in competition—new technology in the form of synthetic fibers such as Lastex® in 1931 invoked its own emphasis on movement and performance in 1930s sport. The Ski Togs ensemble from Saks Fifth Avenue, on view in Elegance in an Age of Crisis, has ease of movement embedded in its design: vertical darts on the jacket and an elastic band at the waist promote both fit and comfort, principles which, in a marked break from the turn of the century, were no longer antithetical. The 1930s woman was fit and fashionable; she participated in sports such as swimming, skiing, tennis, and golf, often in international competition alongside men. As Assistant Curator of Costume & Textiles Ariele Elia notes in her essay in the book accompanying our exhibition, the “Chamonix” style ski pant, a straight leg trouser with a stirrup, was so-named after the first Winter Olympics held in 1924 in Chamonix, France. The purpose here was to invigorate and celebrate the active body, and nowhere is this purpose more evident than in Olympic competition.
The USA men’s bobsled team, pictured above, certainly look dapper in their woolen, double-breasted ski jackets, worn at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1932. One of the 105 originals made is housed in the collection of Raleigh DeGeer Amyx. These jackets bear a striking resemblance to pea coats you might see on the street today, and in 2010 Ralph Lauren cited them as his inspiration for designing the US team’s official opening ceremony uniforms at the 21st Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
Ironically, the much-discussed speed skating uniforms of 2014 have perhaps more in common with the bodysuit donned by the charming, stilt-skated performer at the 1932 Lake Placid opening ceremony than they do the speed skaters of ’32.
The sweaters worn by gold medalist skaters Sonja Henie (Norway) and Karl Schäfer (Austria) embody a brisk combination of sport and design: ribbed knit and modernist Art Deco graphics.
And back to our ski jacket—the practical, even stolid, navy blue of the ski ensemble belies a form of ebullience not visible when worn: a bold color print lining on the inside of the jacket. As a form of intimacy known only to the wearer, the lining is a fitting metaphor for the ethos of the 1930s: if the outer appearance served almost to efface, to show quiet dignity in times of crisis, the lining exudes dynamism and panache—the combination of wit and whimsy required to survive in the face of uncertain times.
Until next time, tweet us with #1930sFashion with your thoughts and impressions on the exhibition.