DIALECTICS OF MAKING AND WEARING: exploring sportswear, image and women in 1970s New York

This postdoctoral research fellowship will be undertaken at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art between September 2020 and August 2021.

This research investigates women’s visual and material experience of dress during the 1970s through the cross-analysis of garment, image and oral history via a dialectical lens of design and wear. It foregrounds the female designer-wearer relationionship, and begins with the analysis of an important collection of garments in the Costume Institute, by Bonnie Cashin (c. 1908-2000), Anne Klein (1923-1974), Betsey Johnson (b. 1942) and Norma Kamali (b. 1945). This is supplemented by the study of advertorial and editorial imagery concerning those brands, and women’s testimony. Through the cross-examination of making and reception, this project seeks to shed light on women’s experience of dress during a historical moment of heightened awareness of their political and social states, and a shift into postmodern modes of imagemaking. 

The designers studied in this research were at various points in their careers during this decade. While Cashin and Klein entered the industry in the 1930s and 1940s, an early yet defining moment of growth in the development of New York sportswear, Johnson and Kamali established themselves in the 1960s and 1970s. The identity of the sportswear industry is closely bound within shifting ideals of twentieth-century femininity and fashion, as scholars such as Rebecca Arnold have demonstrated, and this project extends those inquiries. It questions connections between the creative output of Cashin, Klein, Johnson and Kamali, who made up an important faction of sportswear despite differences in age and business identity, and new definitions of gender, social constructs, and the politics of appearance during feminism’s “second wave.” How was their work affected by ideas of commentators such as Judy Chicago, Kate Millett and Laura Mulvey, on the cultural creation and acquisition of gender, or the reality of patriarchy and women’s “false consciousness,” for instance? In turn how did messaging behind these designs filter to a consumer group of women and operate in fields of representation and appearance?

The research seeks to complicate the idea of women dressing women, which is simplified in many past studies. To explore the dialectic between making and wearing I will analyze the over sixty garments and ensembles in the CI archives, whose simplicity is complicated by close study, just as it hides complex femininities. What versatile woman did Klein envisage for one of her many interchangeable suit ensembles? In one 1973 example, a wool jacket came with both skirt and trousers, and a synthetic blouse with earth-toned foliate ribboned pattern. Its many contrasts (the trousers’ wide leg, the jacket’s short length and the shirt’s narrow cut) and details (dramatic collar, cuff and pocket) make the eye dance. Such contrasts are remarked throughout, and beg further study: bodysuits that hug and contain the body paired with wide, flowing silhouettes of Johnson. The layered, ballooning synethic silhouettes of Kamali, find an intriguing comparison in the sculptural leathers of Cashin. Deep hues distinguish from pastels, printed cottons, textured knits, wovens. How were Cashin, Klein, Johnson, and Kamali mapping their own life experiences and ideas onto the bodies for whom they designed?

© 2020 Alexis Romano