Taft Museum exhibit shows 160-year evolution of women’s athletic wear

A traveling exhibition making its way to Cincinnati this October showcases the colorful evolution of women’s sporting attire in Western fashion over a 160-year period.

“Sporting Fashion: Outdoor Girls 1800 to 1960” will be on display at the Taft Museum of Art in downtown Cincinnati from Oct. 14 through Jan. 14, 2024. It features more than 60 fully accessorized ensembles consisting of more than 400 objects selected from collections at the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.

FIDM Museum collaborated on the road show with the American Federation of Arts.

Motorcycling ensemble, 1930s. (Brian Sanderson/FIDM Museum Courtesy American Federation of Arts)
Motorcycling ensemble, 1930s
(Brian Sanderson/FIDM Museum Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

“We are thrilled to present ‘Sporting Fashion’ in Cincinnati,” said Ann Glasscock, the Taft Museum of Art’s associate curator. She’s curating the museum’s installation of the show. 

“The exhibition not only includes an array of stylish, innovative, and truly stunning attire, but it also gives us the opportunity to explore the lives of women – as both athletes and spectators – and how they helped break down the barriers that had isolated them from the then male-dominated sporting world.” 

“Sporting Fashion” shines a light on the complex evolution of women’s athletic wear. Historically, innovations in the field often considered not only physical performance but also the social values and popular fashions of the time.

Clothing and accessories in the exhibit range from outlandish getups from the turn of the 19th century to more familiar sportswear from the mid-20th century. 

Garments come from legacy sportswear companies like Champion, Pendleton, Spalding, and Stetson as well as major fashion brands, such as Balenciaga, Patou, Pucci and Chanel.

The inspiration behind the show’s ‘Outdoor Girls’ subtitle comes from printed script on a 1940s wool scarf. The piece depicts women engaged in 13 different sports – golf, horseback riding, ice-skating and tennis. But the show also has ensembles worn by women taking part in more than 40 other outdoor activities – from calisthenics to motorcycling to promenading.

Behind the scenes of Sporting Fashion, Picnicking ensemble, 1890s. (Brian Davis/ FIDM Museum)
Behind the scenes of Sporting Fashion, Picnicking ensemble, 1890s
(Brian Davis/FIDM Museum. Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

“Sporting Fashions” is broken into seven themes focused on the type of athletic activity and the gear being worn.

Garments for swimming and tanning, for example, illustrate how innovative designers and manufacturers responded to the increasing acceptance of exposed skin at beaches and pools. Not surprisingly, styles for winter events, such as skiing, show how adaptations in fashion focused on keeping people warm and safe from the elements.

Much of the clothing and accessories used by women in cycling, motor sports (or motoring) and flying adapted from men’s athletic gear.

In the “Stepping Outdoors” section, visitors learn how women who dressed for leisurely outdoor pursuits in the early 1800s had to maintain properties considered socially necessary for their time.

Exhibit organizers emphasized that most of the pieces weren’t broadly worn and don’t represent the lives lived by many women of these eras.

The garments and accessories on view come primarily from western Europe and North America. They often belonged to the affluent, who had greater access to leisure and sport activities. 

“Nevertheless, these rare pieces illustrate the active lives of women – some known, others anonymous – who wore ensembles such as these to challenge the status quo, for the betterment of themselves, and as examples of achievement for ensuing generations,” the Taft wrote in a release.

A hands-on experience developed with the University of Cincinnati offers museumgoers a chance to touch some of the sportswear technology of these bygone eras.

Tickets and related events

Cincinnati is the second-to-last stop for “Sporting Fashion” as part of a United States tour. 

Once the exhibit opens locally, the Taft plans to host several events surrounding it, starting with a themed “Family Funday” on Oct. 15.

The museum will also host a signature talk “Bringing the Girls Together” on Thursday, Nov. 9. The guest speaker is Kevin Jones, curator of the FIDM Museum/Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising

Guests can also take their passion for the subject off-site on Oct. 19 to Sew Valley on Hulbert Avenue. Guests will receive a tour and demonstration of modern and historic women’s sporting fashion assembly techniques and patterns.

Admission to “Sporting Fashion” is free for Taft members, military and anyone under the age of 18. Tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for seniors. Non-members save $2 by purchasing tickets online. Sundays are free.ter

Tickets go on sale this September. 

Taft Museum “Sporting Fashion”

Roller derby, 1940s.
Roller Derby, 1940s
(FIDM Museum.Courtesy American Federation of Arts)

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