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

This research began as a 2020-21 postdoctoral fellowship at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It 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 relationship, and begins with the analysis of an important collection of garments in the Costume Institute. This is supplemented by the study of advertorial and editorial imagery concerning those brands, and women’s testimony. Through the cross-examination of making, representation and consumption, this project seeks to shed light on women’s experience of 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 Bonnie Cashin, Vera Maxwell, and Anne Klein entered the industry in the 1930s and 1940s, an early yet defining moment of growth in the development of New York sportswear, Betsey Johnson, Diane Von Furstenburg, Carol Horn, Holly Harp, and Norma Kamali established themselves in the 1960s and 1970s. The list of makers studied is continuously expanding. 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 designers 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? How were designers mapping their own life experiences and ideas onto the bodies for whom they designed?

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Images courtesy of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art