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Style Sportive: Fashion, Sport and Modernity in France, 1923-1930

Jaclyn Pyper

Abstracts

Following the First World War, sport and leisure activities such as tennis, golf and swimming became increasingly popular and fashionable among women of the upper classes. The coastline resorts of France developed into trendy playgrounds for the rich and famous, who dressed in casual attire and had a fondness for sunbathing and recreation. Female athletes were increasingly visible in different types of popular culture during this period. Fashion periodicals began to feature more women playing sports, and a number of young French couturiers anticipated and responded to the desire among fashionable women to appear youthful, athletic, and modern through their clothing. The term sportive began to be used to describe the simplified and modern sportswear designs, alluding to the lifestyle of the new, active woman. This article explores the development of the sportive style by a new generation of haute couture designers and its dissemination through French fashion periodicals and their illustrations. The personal style of a new group of celebrity athletes will be examined, as well as notions of the ‘real’ and ‘fake’ sportive as discussed in fashion media. Finally, the importance and growing popularity of sportswear will be discussed as one of the key influences on French fashion in the 1920s.

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  • 1 “La sportive,” Fémina, February 1925, p. 17. Translated from French: ‘Toutes les femmes vraiment mo (...)

1‘All truly modern women play sports...or pretend to be sportive.’1 A declaration made in the fashion periodical Fémina in February 1925 perfectly summarised the newest trend emerging in French haute couture. In the years following the First World War, participation in sport and leisure activities – most often tennis, golf, swimming, or sunbathing – became popular and fashionable among women of the upper classes. The coastline resorts of Deauville, Biarritz, Le Touquet, and later the French Riviera became the glamourous playgrounds of the rich and famous, dressed in casual attire with a fondness for outdoor recreation. Even women who appeared to have no interest in sporting pursuits began to dress in this manner while on holiday, conforming to the new craze for physical culture and the simplified silhouettes that accompanied it. In the five years that followed, a trend that began on the relaxed beaches and tennis courts of luxury resorts would become the single-most important influence on the development of day wear styles in French haute couture.

  • 2 See Sandrine Jamain-Samson, ‘Sportswear During the Interwar Years: A Testimony to the Modernisation (...)

2While female participation in sport increased throughout the decade across all classes, there was a significant difference in both the type of sport enjoyed by different classes of women and what they wore to participate. From working-class athletics clubs to the Paris Olympics in 1924, French women took to the track and pitch as they never had before.2 However, this article will focus on the exclusive world of the upper classes and the transformation of their leisure time to more active settings throughout the 1920s. Beyond the actual playing fields, the clothing of these women inspired a trend in fashionable daywear that would begin in haute couture and quickly trickle down to ready to wear fashion.

3The term sportive was therefore used in French to describe both the simplified sportswear designs and the active, modern, upper-class women who wore them. The visibility of these female athletes greatly increased during the 1920s in many forms of popular culture, including fashion periodicals. Avant-garde illustrators such as Léon Benigni and George Barbier created the ideal sportive woman in their work for periodicals and couturiers, portraying slim, tanned, and active young women on tennis courts, golf courses, and yachts. At the same time, fashion photographers such as the Séeberger brothers captured the upper-class clientele of French couturiers in these new sportive ensembles, appearing in the society pages of Vogue, Fémina and other periodicals.

4The increasing popularity of both ‘active’ and ‘spectator’ sportswear was facilitated by a new wave of young, mostly female French couturiers whose greatest successes came during the second half of the 1920s. These couturiers anticipated and responded to the new desire among their fashionable, upper-class clientele to appear youthful, active, and modern through their clothing. As the popularity of sportswear separates such as patterned sweaters, pleated skirts, and cardigan jackets in soft fabrics grew, this new generation of couturiers saw their businesses flourish, while older, and more traditional, maisons de couture struggled to adapt or risked becoming obsolete.

1. The Sportive Look Defined

  • 3 Amy de la Haye and Shelley Tobin, Chanel: The Couturière at Work, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, (...)

5The style of clothing that would come to be described in the fashion press as sportive by the mid-1920s had originated in the previous decade, with the simplification of the fashionable silhouette by 1910 and the introduction of several new fabrics to women’s wear. The streamlining of the fashionable silhouette developed gradually during the 1910s, as the ‘S-curve’ of the turn-of-the-century gave way to a more tubular shape and narrower skirt. Several designers, most famously Coco Chanel in 1916, began using fabrics previously reserved for men’s wear or undergarments, including fine wool and silk jerseys.3 These light, fluid fabrics lent themselves well to simplified designs that allowed for greater freedom of movement, a desire that was to reach its peak through the 1920s as the practice of certain sports became fashionable for women.

  • 4 “Les 8 points du nouveau traité de modes, printemps 1925,” Fémina, April 1925, p. 1. Translated fro (...)

6By 1925, Fémina placed sportive outfits at the top of its numbered list of new trends for spring4 signaling the beginning of its domination in day wear – a fashion that would last for at least the next four years. The sportive look, as described in fashion periodicals and seen in photographs of the time, can be defined as a two- to four-piece ensemble. Usually consisting of a sweater, a knee-length skirt, and a matching jacket or three-quarter length coat, the design details used were often reminiscent of sports clothes or motifs – a pleated skirt inspired by tennis outfits, or a sweater with a nautical print inspired by yachting. The couturiers’ various interpretations of this formula were presented each season, depicted in illustrations with backdrops of golf courses, tennis courts, motoring scenes, beaches, and yacht clubs.

7Between 1925 and 1928, the difference between sport and day wear seems to be in name only, as styles and fabrics for both spheres converged. Indeed, even the fashion press at the time questioned what – if anything – distinguished a sports outfit from an afternoon ensemble. In April 1925, Fémina’s caption to a photograph of the actress Mlle. Gaby Morlay in a Jean Patou design asks ‘Day dress or sports dress?’, concluding that the two had become interchangeable, as modern couturiers were now dressing women all day en sportive. Similarly, in May 1927 Les Modes presented a feature article on the sportive look by Colette D’Avrily, who asked

  • 5 Colette D’Avrily, “La mode et les modes,” Les Modes, May 1927, p. 10. Translated from French: ‘Comm (...)

[H]ow can we deny the influence of sport on fashion when we see that, now, sport ensembles are bought with equal enthusiasm by women who do not engage in a single one, but who wear them to contemplate those who do and to place themselves in harmony with them and remain among the truly elegant. In this perhaps we have found the pitfall of this exaggeration which suppresses refinement and wealth, successful elements of women’s fashion in the past. We blame the woman, sportive or not, who is inclined to go to dinner in a sweater, for it is to lack appropriate dress and is almost tactless.5

  • 6 La Gazette du bon ton, 1925, qted in Christine Bard, Les Garçonnes: modes et fantasmes des années f (...)
  • 7 “Pâques et Pentecôte à Biarritz, Deauville, le Touquet,” Vogue (France), June 1926, p. 5. Translate (...)

8This last sentence suggests D’Avrily believed that the sportive look was replacing all other types of clothing in certain circles, including more formal wear. This statement is likely an exaggeration given the large amount of attention paid to evening wear during this decade, often standing in complete opposition to the sportive aesthetic through heavy beading, embroidery, and rich fabrics. The simplification, and alleged masculinisation, of day wear was in clear contrast to the more feminine and elaborately decorative styles in the evening, with La Gazette du Bon Ton stating in 1925 ‘the young androgynous sportives, by miracle of the pearl, transform themselves at night into sirens and fairy tale princesses,’6 and with Vogue confirming a year later that ‘if the influence of sport clearly modifies, during the day, the elegant look, the fashion in the evening again becomes essentially Parisian.’7 Despite maintaining this symbolic femininity through the consumption of intricately beaded, embroidered, and fringed dresses for evening wear, the trend for pared-down simplicity in daywear would remain a source of debate as the popularity of the sportive woman peaked, and her appearance and lifestyle became synonymous with fashion and youthful modernity.

2. Simplicity, the Sportive and the Challenge to Traditional Couture

9The creation and popularisation of the sportive look in French haute couture represented a break from tradition that incited polarised opinions in the fashion world. On one side were the creators and specialists in sportswear, the majority of whom were based in new couture houses that sought to cater to the active lifestyle of the modern woman. On the other side of the debate were certain older, long established, couture houses, some of which resisted the change to the great detriment and often demise of their businesses.

  • 8 See Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford, Berg, 1998; Dylis Blum, Shocking! Th (...)

10The haute couture creators of sportive collections included several well-known French couturiers as well as many lesser-known names who opened their salons in the post-war period but whose legacies have not survived the passage of time. Coco Chanel is largely credited with, among other things, inventing casual sportswear clothing while Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Lucien Lelong have been recognised as sportswear specialists in the early years of their careers.8 In addition, the names of many small and innovative houses also appeared on the pages of fashion periodicals for their sportive designs, including Amy Linker, Mary Nowitzky, Madame Jenny, and Jane Régny.

  • 9 Lady Duff Gordon, Discretions and Indiscretions, London, Jarrolds, 1932, p. 159-60, qted. in Lou Ta (...)
  • 10 Paul Poiret, qted. in R. Brunschwik, “Où va la mode?,” La Mode: hier–aujourd’hui–demain. Les cahier (...)

11Along with these relative newcomers to haute couture, several of the older, more traditional houses successfully transformed their businesses to include sportswear lines that followed the new sportive fashion. Those couturiers who resisted the change saw their businesses struggle as they held on to old notions of fashion, elegance and luxury. Lou Taylor notes that the designer Lucile dismissed the sportive trend, stating that ‘no woman could cost less to clothe.’9 Her couture house went bankrupt in 1930 and was forced to close. In 1927, Paul Poiret lamented the ‘gradual demise of the luxury that has contributed to Paris’ renown,’ and claimed the only reason why sportswear had become so popular was because it cost less than other types of haute couture.10 Despite some effort to modernise his designs for the new post-war clientele, his house never fully recovered after the war and finally closed in 1929.

  • 11 R. Bizet, L’Art Français depuis vingt ans: la mode, p. 28. Translated from French: ‘Le couturier ac (...)

12For Poiret and Lucile, the simplification of the fashionable silhouette and the stripping down of its decorative elements – embroidery, beading, applique, and so on – was seen as being in fundamental opposition to the luxurious tradition of haute couture, equating the highest degree of elegance with the greatest amount of ornamentation. Poiret saw this simplified taste as a result of the French couturier’s lessened authority over fashion, an opinion echoed by author and journalist René Bizet in his 1925 book, La Mode: L’Art Français depuis Vingt Ans: ‘Today’s couturier, by pushing women towards the simple line, by making clothes that are nothing more than fabric, is heading towards his end.’11 In an article titled “Où Va la Mode?” René Brunschwik interviews several haute couture designers and artistic directors about their thoughts on the state of French fashion in 1927. Alex, the artistic director of the house of Doeuillet, describes this shift from elaborate fashionable surface decoration to minimal refinement in silhouette and fabric:

  • 12 Alex, qted. in R. Brunschwik, “Où va la mode?,” p. 79. Translated from French: ‘Le grand principe [ (...)

‘The big principle [...] is simplicity. Gone are the decorations of the past, “rich” decorations. We make a dress in three seams. All of the refinement is placed on that which, before, held the least importance: the form and the fabric. [...] None of the luxury is lost.’12

  • 13 “Du chic avec peu de chose,” Vogue (France), June 1926, p. 30. Translated from French: ‘Une garde-r (...)
  • 14 Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford, Berg, 1998, p. 248.
  • 15 “Pâques et Pentecôte à Biarritz, Deauville, le Touquet,” Vogue (France), June 1926, p. 4. Translate (...)

13This sentiment was stressed one year earlier in a June 1926 Vogue article titled “Du Chic avec Peu de Chose,” which declared that ‘a practical wardrobe must have the brevity and concision of a telegram,’ instructing readers to eliminate the superfluous in their clothing.13 Increasingly by the 1920s, overt displays of wealth through embellishment and decoration were considered in poor taste. Valerie Steele associates this shift with a change in fashionable attitudes, observing that ‘to appear to pay too much attention to clothes was démodé, while to wear one’s clothes avec désinvolture, in a free and easy manner, was the look of modernity.’14 This deliberate attitude of studied, casual indifference, however, still required careful planning and consultation of the latest fashion reports, as Vogue observed on the coast of Normandy in 1926, noting ‘the triumph of this sportive elegance, of a charm so special that what seems nonchalant and casual is actually only obtained through careful study of each detail.’15 The sportive look, therefore, did not represent any sort of move against fashion or a transformation of the fashion system, but merely a shift in the fashionable attitudes of the couturiers and their wealthy clientele.

  • 16 Paul Poiret, qted. in R. Brunschwik, “Où va la mode ?,” p. 84.
  • 17 R. Bizet, L’Art Français depuis vingt ans: la mode, p. 28. Translated from French: ‘Le couturier ac (...)
  • 18 C. Evans, The Mechanical Smile, p. 108.
  • 19 C. Evans, The Mechanical Smile, p. 125.

14When asked in 1927, Paul Poiret felt that this shift towards simplicity, and away from what he perceived as traditional luxury in haute couture, represented a threat to the authority and international superiority of French fashion.16 René Bizet agreed, stating in his history of French fashion since 1900, published in 1925, that ‘the couturier, by forcing women towards the simple line, by making garments that are nothing more than fabric, is heading towards his own ruin.’17 Caroline Evans identifies this change as early 1915, observing that ‘subtly, the balance was shifting from an idea of superior French taste into which Americans could buy [...] to an idea that the French had themselves to modify their fashions and adapt their own taste to appeal to the transatlantic market.’18 Evans contends that this ‘Americanisation’ of French fashion went beyond being merely a question of taste; that modernity began to be associated with the stereotype of the American body. This association was perpetuated by Jean Patou during his sales trip to America in 1924 where he recruited six models, whose ‘leaner, longer, and generally more slender’ bodies he claimed were more suited to his designs.19 This physical stereotype of American women led many in France to associate the sportive creations of Jean Patou and other sportswear specialists with an American clientele, interpreting the style as a possible insult to fashionable French women and a threat to the French fashion industry.

  • 20 P. Nystrom, The Economics of Fashion, p. 186.

15The creation and popularisation of the sportive trend by a new generation of haute couture designers reflected the overall social atmosphere of changing post-war France and the aspirational desires of French women to appear active and at ease in their clothing. The long-established couture houses had no choice but to respond commercially to the demands of their clientele, who, as Paul Nystrom commented in 1928, had increasingly become foreign buyers for large, North American department stores after the war.20 Shifting their focus away from the rich surface decoration and design embellishment that had until then been their tradition, the houses of Paquin, Premet, and Worth, among others, introduced simplified collections inspired by the sportive woman and lifestyle.

3. French Fashion Periodicals of the 1920s

  • 21 Cally Blackman, 100 Years of Fashion Illustration, London, Lawrence King Publishing, 2007, p. 71.

16The development of mass consumer culture in the years following the First World War led to increased readership of existing fashion periodicals, as well as the introduction of new titles in France. L’Art et la Mode (1883), Fémina (1901), Les Modes (1902), Art, Goût, Beauté (1920), Vogue (1920), L’Officiel de la Mode (1921), Le Jardin des Modes (1922) and others flooded the market with a range of fashion journalism aimed at various audiences. Cally Blackman notes that the 1920s can been considered one of the final decades of the golden age of illustration as the main form of visual fashion communication, as fashion plates largely gave way to photography by the beginning of the following decade.21 This shift can be detected in the visual mediums used by different fashion periodicals, with Vogue, Le Jardin des Modes and Fémina continuing to frequently employ illustrations by eminent artists such as Georges Lepape, George Barbier, Carl Erickson and Léon Benigni during the 1920s, while publications like Les Modes and L’Officiel de la Mode increasingly used photography of either models or members of high society to promote the latest fashion trends.

  • 22 Marcel Valotaire, “Fashion Advertising in France,” Commercial Art 3.18, 1927, p. 254.
  • 23 M. Valotaire, “Fashion Advertising in France,” p. 254.

17Despite these variations, the visual identities of many of the magazines of this period were often quite similar with simple line drawings, sometimes in colour but often in grayscale or black ink only, in a modernist or Art Deco style which dominate the pages of every periodical. In 1927, Marcel Valotaire reported in Commercial Art that ‘there is no branch of publicity which is more stereotyped in form than fashion advertising.’22 He described periodicals like Fémina and Vogue as journals whose ‘common basis is the illustration [...] which instruct[s] the smart woman as to what is being done today and what will be fashionable tomorrow.’23 Many of the most successful fashion illustrators of the decade had similar styles and recurring narratives in their works, often featuring the young female personas of popular culture, including the sportive. Although a few artists worked exclusively for a single periodical, many were commissioned by different magazines at different times. Georges Lepape for example, is most often associated with the covers he illustrated for Vogue, but also contributed illustrations to Fémina and Le Jardin des Modes. All of these factors contributed to a relatively homogenous visual language in French fashion periodicals of the 1920s, with often almost formulaic features and themes, one of which would become the clearly identifiable sportive ensemble.

4. ‘Vraies et Fausses Sportives’

  • 24 “Pâques et Pentecôte à Biarritz, Deauville, le Touquet,” p. 4. Translated from French: ‘Quelle diff (...)

18As the trend was adopted by more and more women, several fashion periodicals became interested in the theme of distinguishing between what was referred to as ‘vraies et fausses sportives,’ or real and false sportswomen, and the difference in clothing worn by these two groups. In June 1926, Vogue’s feature report on the spring holiday season in Biarritz, Deauville and Le Touquet devoted significant attention to the difference between the outfits worn by women who actually engaged in sport and the growing number of women who desired to merely appear sportive. Declaring ‘what a difference, however, between the tennis player, the golf player and those who, without actively taking part in any game, are sportive in costume alone,’ the article compares the clothing of vacationing tennis players, golf players, and spectators with accompanying illustrations.24 The first illustration depicts a tennis player’s outfit seen at Le Touquet that year, a simple wool tricot jacket and pleated skirt, minimally accessorised with a wool cloche and matching silk scarf. Similarly, the second image depicts a golf player’s outfit seen at the same time; described in the caption as a beige tricot jacket, dark beige sweater, brown wool skirt, and accompanied by a striped scarf, brown cloche and striped wool stockings. Finally, the third image shows a typical outfit of the so-called fausse sportive, wearing similar items of clothing but heavily accessorised with several pieces of jewellery, a handbag, and high-heeled shoes.

  • 25 See Art, Goût, Beauté, March 1926. Reproduced in Madeleine Ginsburg, Les Années Folles de la mode, (...)

19These three examples demonstrate how, although they may appear quite similar upon first glance, it was easy to distinguish between the women who played sports while on holiday, and those who were merely spectators or wanted to convey a fashionably sportive allure. A second example of this phenomenon was depicted a month earlier in Art, Goût, Beauté of March 1926, where an illustration of two spectatrices de sport and two golf players deliberately reinforces these differences in clothing and accessory choices based on activity level.25 Initially through resort wear but eventually in all settings, quintessential items of sportswear such as the sweater and pleated skirt were being adopted for casual wear and were being turned into fashionable ensembles through the addition of embellishments and accessories.

5. The Influence of ‘Les Grandes Sportives’

  • 26 See L’Art et la Mode, 12 June 1925, 12 June 1926, 4 June 1927, 15 May 1928, 2 June 1928, 25 May 192 (...)
  • 27 Lucy G. Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,”, L’Art et la Mode, 25 May 1929, p. 727.

20This distinction between real and false sportives was also reiterated by a two-part feature article in L’Art et la Mode in 1929. Recognising its importance and fashionability, the weekly periodical would devote several issues to l’élégance sportive between 1925 and 1929, with the majority or all of the articles and illustrations focusing on sportswear.26 In two consecutive issues from 25 May and 1 June 1929, Lucie G. Neuymeyer interviewed several famous or accomplished French female athletes about their views on fashion. Neuymeyer stated in the introduction to her article that her intention was to find out what effect these athletes’ chosen sports had on their sense of style and femininity.27 The eminent sportswomen, given the title grandes sportives, represented a number of different sports, from yachting to automobile racing to golfing, but there was an overall consensus in their opinions.

  • 28 Virginie Hériot, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 727. Translated fr (...)
  • 29 See French Vogue (France), July 1927, p. 16.
  • 30 Mme. Vaussard, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 728. Translated from (...)

21All of the women interviewed made a clear distinction between the clothes they wore when playing a sport and their everyday clothing. However, most acknowledged a correlation between the two, with the champion yachtswoman Virginie Hériot for example stating, ‘when I return to my everyday life, it is evident that my favourite sport actively influences the manner that I dress in general.’28 An Olympic champion and world-renowned athlete, Hériot was photographed for Vogue two years earlier in 1927.29 For most of the grandes sportives, this influence can be seen in their taste for simple designs in comfortable fabrics, often very similar to their sports clothes. Jeanne Vaussard, a tennis player who represented France in both the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games, is quoted as saying, ‘Do I mantain a sportive allure in life? Meaning a taste for simple things, neat, harmonious? Yes. I have a weakness for a well-cut suit, for two-piece jersey outfits and for coats in the redingote style.’30

  • 31 Andrée Joly, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 728. Translated from F (...)
  • 32 Jeanne Vaussard, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 728. Translated fr (...)

22The grandes sportives all stressed the importance of maintaining their femininity through their clothing, and seemed to fear being labeled as too masculine due to their engagement in sport and the way they dressed. When asked whether the pared-down sportive style should replace all other types of dress, including in the evening, the two-time Olympic champion figure skater Andrée Joly exclaimed, ‘What a shame that would be and how appealing it is to be gently feminine, how ugly it would be to resemble a man! We are not made for that! We would be nothing but abominable imitators without style, without truth!’31 Similarly, in her interview with Jeanne Vaussard, the tennis player stressed that she ‘loves to dress up for the evening, be feminine, very feminine, I find pleasure in all the vanities, all the fantasies.’32

  • 33 Maryse Bastié, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives (continué),” L’Art et la (...)

23Many of the women interviewed expressed their distaste for both false sportives and for women who abandoned their femininity because they played sports. The aviatrix Maryse Bastié, who would go on to set several international records, stated that she was ‘horrified by women who, under the pretext that they play sports, want to resemble men and convey garçonnières allures, wearing masculine clothes. How ugly!’33 Neuymeyer concluded that the public perception of the sportive had been negatively distorted and exaggerated by false sportswomen, stating:

  • 34 Lucy G. Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives (continué),” p. 755. Translated from Fren (...)

I have arrived at the conclusion that the perfect principle of this style has been deformed by false sportives. These are those women who, by snobbery, by genre, demand of the couturier, of the milliner, of the bootmaker, eccentric creations; it is them who beg the hairdresser for a particular cut, bronze their faces to look tanned, who are nothing but grossly obvious artifice, and adopt the garçonnière line that they think is elegantly athletic! Behaving in this way, they caricaturise the style.34

24This final evaluation placed the blame for any controversy surrounding the sportive on fashion victims, those desiring to participate in a trend but interpreting it in their own different, ‘caricaturised’ ways – such as through the use of artificial sun tan. In Neuymeyer’s opinion, women’s participation in sport did not equate to masculinisation, and this is confirmed in the interviews conducted with French women playing sports at a competitive, international level.

6. Garçonne and Sportive: Synonymous or Distinct?

  • 35 See for example, “Les ensembles pour le sport,” Vogue, October 1927, p. 16-19; “Le mode simple sur (...)

25Through the opinions of the grandes sportives in L’Art et la Mode in 1929, Lucy Neuymeyer sought to emphasise a fundamental difference between the sportive and another young female persona: the garçonne. In fashion periodicals and other popular media of the period, however, this distinction is often blurred. Popularised by Victor Margueritte’s hugely successful and controversial 1922 novel La Garçonne, the term was used throughout the decade in many different forms of popular culture. Similar to the English term ‘flapper,’ in the popular imagination a garçonne was a young women who may have smoked, drank, danced the night away at wild parties and night clubs, drove a car herself, was financially independent, and played sports. In the fashion world, garçonne was used to describe the popular short hairstyle of the decade, and often also attributed to the simple, streamlined silhouettes in daywear. However, the term appears to have been used more commonly in media outside of fashion periodicals, with ensembles more often referred to as neat, simple, modern, charming, elegant or sportive in fashion editorials.35

26The sportive therefore is often interpreted as simply a sub-category of the garçonne, nearly synonymous in meaning and implications. This may, however, be a contemporary over-simplification of the relationship. A survey of the use of images of female athletes in advertisements found in popular French fashion periodicals reveals an association between the sportive, beauty, and health. Advertisements for tonic tablets, rubber girdles, depilatory creams and other products used images of female athletes to convey messages of youth, vitality, elegance, and modernity. These advertisements, along with the numerous illustrations and articles referring to the athletic woman, indicate that images of the sportive reveal a distinct persona, separate from the garçonne or flapper. The sportive evidently represented the modern, liberated, and fashionable woman of the 1920s, but in a manner that was completely at odds with the promiscuous, partying, makeup-wearing, and cigarette-smoking garçonne.

  • 36 Susan Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Women’s Sport, New York: Macmill (...)
  • 37 Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France (...)

27There are several reasons why the sportive may have been grouped within the same debates as the garçonne. As Susan Cahn notes in her 20th century history of women’s sport, ‘the female athlete resembled the flapper in her boyish athleticism, independence, and willful, adventurous spirit. Frequently applauded for their physical beauty and modern charm, each also presented an image of youthful sexual appeal.’36 Both the garçonne and the sportive also implied a blurring of gender divisions as women placed themselves in increasingly masculine and public roles. Mary Louise Roberts observed that in the 1920s, ‘fashion bore the symbolic weight of an entire set social anxieties concerning the war’s perceived effects on gender relations: the blurring or reversal of gender boundaries and the crisis of domesticity.’37 Writing in 1925, the author and journalist René Bizet remarked that:

  • 38 René Bizet, L’Art Français depuis vingt ans: la mode, Paris: F. Rieder et Cie., 1925, p. 17. Transl (...)

In today’s fashion, there is a tyranny of liberty. Sport has emancipated the woman from affected elegance. There is as much difference between women’s clothing from 1900 and 1924 as there is between the first automobiles and today’s touring cars (torpédos). Women want to give themselves, today, the illusion of being free...in their clothing. Women today do not vote yet, but they are already putting their hands in their pockets.38

28By creating designs made for specific sports, and by evoking the elements of sportswear in many of their designs, haute couture designers were placing themselves within post-war debates on gender, symbolically associating their clothing with female liberation and modern gender roles. As Bizet noted, French women were not yet allowed to vote, but through their rising disposable incomes and the consumer culture of the early twentieth century, young, single women were becoming progressively emancipated, both socially and culturally.

  • 39 Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Spor (...)
  • 40 Alan Little, Suzanne Lenglen: Tennis Idol of the Twenties, p. 17.
  • 41 Sarah Pileggi, “The Lady in the White Silk Dress,” Sports Illustrated, 13 September 1982, p. 64-65.

29This association of the controversial behaviours of garçonnes with sportive women could have also been supported by the personality and reputation of the decade’s biggest female sports celebrity, Suzanne Lenglen. Making her debut at Wimbledon in 1919, Lenglen defeated the seven-time champion Dorothea Chambers in what Jennifer Hargreaves considers ‘a symbolic battle between the old and the new – in terms of styles of play, styles of dress and attitudes to the role of women.’39 Alan Little writes that Chambers dressed traditionally in an ankle-length gored skirt and a long-sleeved shirt, and played solidly from the base-line; Lenglen wore a lightweight, calf-length dress with a pleated skirt belted at the waist, and played with an energy and agility unseen before in women’s tennis.40 By 1921, Lenglen was being dressed by the couturier Jean Patou both on and off the court, and her colourful bandeaus, sleeveless cardigans, and pleated skirts became the quintessential tennis uniform of the decade. Although she would continue to dominate her sport, losing only match over the next five years, Lenglen’s celebrity was equally built on her glamourous lifestyle, clothes, and temperamental personality. Known for sipping cognac in-between sets, having multiple lovers, and withdrawing from tournaments for questionable illnesses or other complaints, Lenglen simultaneously embodied characteristics of both the vivacious sportive and the controversial garçonne.41

  • 42 Fiona Skillen, “It’s Possible to Play the Game Marvelously and at the Same Time Look Pretty and be (...)
  • 43 S. Cahn, Coming on Strong, p. 46.

30For the women themselves, these mythical personas also seem to have had an effect on their consciences, with the grandes sportives interviewed in L’Art et la Mode, for example, not wanting to be classified as garçonnes for fear of being associated with the perceived masculine, provocative behaviours of the latter persona. This supports Fiona Skillen’s contention that for women in the interwar period, involvement in sport was a complex negotiation between preserving one’s femininity while engaging in a traditionally masculine activity.42 Although overall visibility of female athletes increased in the 1920s, certain sports that were more physically demanding or competitive were still considered unsuitable for women and were rarely featured in sportive features in fashion periodicals.43 Tennis and golf, however, were definitely the strongest represented and most fashionable sports, and their association with resort vacations and the upper classes made them both desirable and suitable pursuits for women.

Conclusion

31The sportive and the other ubiquitous young female persona of the period, the garçonne, were not created equal. They represented two different types of the archetypal modern woman of the 1920s. Attributing beauty to a healthy lifestyle and a body toned by physical activity, the sportive presented in French fashion periodicals, print advertisements and popular literature did not communicate the same ideals of femininity as the garçonne. While both young female personas were emblematic of the changing pace and structure of women’s lives after the First World War, the sportive’s active, healthy beauty stood in complete opposition to the drinking, smoking and promiscuous garçonne. Although certain sportive personalities, such as Suzanne Lenglen, occasionally displayed garconnière behaviours, many others, including grandes sportives such as Maryse Bastié and Viriginie Hériot, refute any straightforward relationship between these two cultural ideals of the 1920s.

32French couturiers elevated the sportive look to haute couture, using luxurious fabrics, innovative techniques and modern motifs to translate it to daywear for all settings. Two categories emerged as sportswear became fashionable for both participants and mere observers – “active” and “spectator” sports clothing – shown alongside each other in the couturiers’ new mid-season collections. Following the First World War, many new couture houses were established, mostly by women and several catering to the new category of sportswear. Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, Elsa Schiaparelli, Lucien Lelong, Jane Régny, Mary Nowitzky and Madame Jenny, among others, advocated for the new simplified silhouette, claiming it to be better suited to the needs and desires of the modern, liberated woman. Older, more traditional couture houses were forced to cater to the demands of their clientele and adapt to a new definition of luxury, shifting their focus from elaborate surface decoration to refinement in cut and elegance in simplicity.

33Fémina had declared the end of the sportive influence on day wear by 1928, admitting in that year’s April issue:

  • 44 “Les caractéristiques des collections d’été,” Fémina, April 1928, p. 3.

Do you remember a short time ago when we proclaimed the triumph of the sportive style? The fact we thought would last many years, the little straight silhouette in our eyes was the symbol of an era, the result of our tastes, our aspirations, our modern lives [...] The instability of human nature! Of feminine nature above all! At this hour we find ourselves in clouds of silk chiffon, and fabrics as light as butterfly wings...44

  • 45 “Vogue lit dans les astres l’avenir de la mode,” Vogue, February 1928, p. 3. Translated from French (...)
  • 46 “Les caractéristiques des collections d’été,” p. 3.

34Similarly, two months earlier Vogue had declared ‘the real sports costume has its own rules and forms a separate category from the rest of fashion,’ a noted difference from discourse in the fashion press three years prior, in which sports clothes and daywear had converged and were nearly synonymous terms.45 By 1929, the influence had notably waned, as haute couture designers led by Jean Patou, one of the top proponents of the sportive trend, began raising the waistline, dropping the hemline and softening the rectilinear silhouette that had defined the previous decade. However, as Fémina assured its readers, sports for women were not condemned – ‘we remain sportives at the sporting hour, but we will no longer look like golf players until midnight.’46 The seasonal fashion styles of the Paris couturiers had moved on, but sportswear would remain an important part of many women’s wardrobes and participation in sport would continue to be a symbol of female modernity and liberation.

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Notes

1 “La sportive,” Fémina, February 1925, p. 17. Translated from French: ‘Toutes les femmes vraiment modernes font du sport...ou font semblant d’être sportives.’ All translations are the author’s own unless otherwise noted.

2 See Sandrine Jamain-Samson, ‘Sportswear During the Interwar Years: A Testimony to the Modernisation of French Sport,’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, London, Routledge, 2011, p. 1944-1967; Marianne Amar, ‘La Sportive rouge, 1923-1939. Pour un histoire des femmes au sein du sport ouvrier francais,’ Les Origines du sport ouvrier en Europe, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1994, p.167-191.

3 Amy de la Haye and Shelley Tobin, Chanel: The Couturière at Work, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1994, p. 24.

4 “Les 8 points du nouveau traité de modes, printemps 1925,” Fémina, April 1925, p. 1. Translated from French: ‘1. Pour le jour, la tenue “sportive.’

5 Colette D’Avrily, “La mode et les modes,” Les Modes, May 1927, p. 10. Translated from French: ‘Comment nier l’influence des sports sur la mode lorsque nous voyons que, maintenant, les ensembles sport sont achetés avec autant d’enthousiasme par les femmes qui n’en pratiquent aucun, mais qui les revêtent pour contempler celles qui en font et se mettre ainsi en harmonie avec elles et rester dans la vraie note de la mode élégante. Là peut-être trouverons-nous l’écueil de cette exagération qui supprime la recherche et la richesse, éléments des grands succès de la mode féminine d’autrefois. Nous blâmons la femme, sportive ou non, qui est encline à se mettre à table avec un sweater, c’est un manque de tenue et presque un manque de tact.’

6 La Gazette du bon ton, 1925, qted in Christine Bard, Les Garçonnes: modes et fantasmes des années folles, Paris, Flammarion, 1998, p. 37. Translated from French: ‘Les jeunes androgynes sportives, par le miracle de la perle, se transforment le soir en sirènes et princesses de contes de fées.’

7 “Pâques et Pentecôte à Biarritz, Deauville, le Touquet,” Vogue (France), June 1926, p. 5. Translated from French: ‘Mais si l’influence du sport modifie aussi nettement, durant la journée, la physionomie de toute réunion élégante, la mode du soir redevient essentiellement parisienne.’

8 See Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford, Berg, 1998; Dylis Blum, Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli, New Haven, CT, Yale UP, 2003; Jacqueline Demornex, Lucien Lelong: L’Intomporel, Paris, Éditions Gallimard, 2007.

9 Lady Duff Gordon, Discretions and Indiscretions, London, Jarrolds, 1932, p. 159-60, qted. in Lou Taylor, “The Hilfiger Factor and the Flexible Commercial World of Couture,” The Fashion Business: Theory, Practice, Image, eds. Ian Griffiths and Nicola White, Oxford, Berg, 2000, p. 126.

10 Paul Poiret, qted. in R. Brunschwik, “Où va la mode?,” La Mode: hier–aujourd’hui–demain. Les cahiers de la république des lettres, des sciences et des arts, Paris, Les Beaux-Arts, 15 July 1927, p. 84. Translated from French: ‘Cette mort progressive d’un luxe qui a contribué au renom de Paris [...].’

11 R. Bizet, L’Art Français depuis vingt ans: la mode, p. 28. Translated from French: ‘Le couturier actuel, à force de pousser la femme à la ligne simple, à force de faire des vêtements qui ne sont plus que des étoffes, va vers sa perte. Et c’est, croyons-nous, ce danger pressenti par tous qui fera plus sûrement revenir la mode à ses fantaisies de naguère, que toutes les considérations esthétiques.’

12 Alex, qted. in R. Brunschwik, “Où va la mode?,” p. 79. Translated from French: ‘Le grand principe [...] est la simplicité. Finies les garnitures d’autrefois, les garnitures “riches.” On fait une robe en trois coutures. Tout le raffinement s’est reporté sur ce qui, autrefois, avait le moins d’importance: la forme et les tissus. [...] Le luxe n’y perd rien.’

13 “Du chic avec peu de chose,” Vogue (France), June 1926, p. 30. Translated from French: ‘Une garde-robe vraiment pratique doit avoir la brièveté et la concision d’un télégramme.’

14 Valerie Steele, Paris Fashion: A Cultural History, Oxford, Berg, 1998, p. 248.

15 “Pâques et Pentecôte à Biarritz, Deauville, le Touquet,” Vogue (France), June 1926, p. 4. Translated from French: ‘le triomphe de cette élégance sportive d’un caractère si spécial où ce qui semble négligence et laisser-aller n’est obtenu que par une étude minutieuse de chaque détail.’

16 Paul Poiret, qted. in R. Brunschwik, “Où va la mode ?,” p. 84.

17 R. Bizet, L’Art Français depuis vingt ans: la mode, p. 28. Translated from French: ‘Le couturier actuel, à force de pousser la femme à la ligne simple, à force de faire des vêtements qui ne sont plus que des étoffes, va vers sa perte.’

18 C. Evans, The Mechanical Smile, p. 108.

19 C. Evans, The Mechanical Smile, p. 125.

20 P. Nystrom, The Economics of Fashion, p. 186.

21 Cally Blackman, 100 Years of Fashion Illustration, London, Lawrence King Publishing, 2007, p. 71.

22 Marcel Valotaire, “Fashion Advertising in France,” Commercial Art 3.18, 1927, p. 254.

23 M. Valotaire, “Fashion Advertising in France,” p. 254.

24 “Pâques et Pentecôte à Biarritz, Deauville, le Touquet,” p. 4. Translated from French: ‘Quelle différence, cependant, entre la joueuse de tennis, la joueuse de golf et celle qui, ne prenant une part active à aucun jeu, n’a de sportif que le costume.’

25 See Art, Goût, Beauté, March 1926. Reproduced in Madeleine Ginsburg, Les Années Folles de la mode, 1920-1932, Paris, Celiv, 1990, p. 88.

26 See L’Art et la Mode, 12 June 1925, 12 June 1926, 4 June 1927, 15 May 1928, 2 June 1928, 25 May 1929, 1 June 1929.

27 Lucy G. Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,”, L’Art et la Mode, 25 May 1929, p. 727.

28 Virginie Hériot, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 727. Translated from French: ‘Quand je reprends la vie ordinaire, il est évident que la pratique de mon sport favori influe vivement sur ma manière de me vêtir en général.’

29 See French Vogue (France), July 1927, p. 16.

30 Mme. Vaussard, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 728. Translated from French: ‘Si je garde l’allure sportive dans la vie? Au point de vue de goût des choses simples, nettes, harmonieuses? Oui. J’ai un faible pour le tailleur bien coupé, pour le deux-pièces de jersey et pour les manteaux de forme redingote.’

31 Andrée Joly, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 728. Translated from French: ‘Comme ce serait dommage et que c’est charmant d’être gentiment femme, que ce serait laid de resembler à l’homme! Nous ne sommes pas faites pour cela! Nous ne serions jamais qu’une abominable copie sans chic, sans vérité!’

32 Jeanne Vaussard, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives,” p. 728. Translated from French: ‘J’aime m’habiller le soir, être femme, très femme, je me plais à toutes les coquetteries, toutes les fantaisies.’

33 Maryse Bastié, qted. in Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives (continué),” L’Art et la Mode, 1 June 1929, p. 755. Translated from French: ‘J’ai horreur des femmes qui, sous prétexte qu’elles font du sport, veulent ressembler à des hommes et affectent des allures garçonnières, arborent des tenues masculines. Fi! Que c’est laid!’

34 Lucy G. Neuymeyer, “La mode vue par les grandes sportives (continué),” p. 755. Translated from French: ‘J’en suis arrivé à cette conclusion que le parfait principe de cette mode est déformé par les fausses sportives. Ce sont elles qui, par snobisme, par genre, exigent du couturier, de la modiste, du bottier, des créations excentriques, ce sont elles qui réclament du coiffeur une coupe particulière de la chevelure, s’ocrent le visage pour lui donner l’aspect hâlé, qui n’est qu’artifice grossièrement visible, et prennent la ligne garçonnière qu’elles pensent élégamment athlétique! Agissant ainsi, elles caricaturent la mode.’

35 See for example, “Les ensembles pour le sport,” Vogue, October 1927, p. 16-19; “Le mode simple sur la riviera,” Vogue, January 1928, p. 42-43; “L’influence sportive se fait nettement sentir dans les nouvelles collections,” Fémina, April 1925, p. 3-6; “Nuances clairs au grand soleil,” Fémina, May 1927, p. 18-21.

36 Susan Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in 20th Century Women’s Sport, New York: Macmillan, 1994, p. 35-6.

37 Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashion in 1920s France,” The American Historical Review 98.3, 1993, p. 661.

38 René Bizet, L’Art Français depuis vingt ans: la mode, Paris: F. Rieder et Cie., 1925, p. 17. Translated from French: ‘Dans la mode actuelle, il y a une tyrannie de la liberté. Le sport a affranchi la femme de l’élégance apprêtée. Il y a autant de différence entre les vêtements féminins de 1900 et ceux de 1924 qu’entre les premières autos et les torpédos. Les femmes veulent se donner, aujourd’hui, l’illusion d’être libres...dans leurs vêtements. Les femmes d’aujourd’hui ne votent pas encore, mais elles mettent déjà leurs mains dans leurs poches.’

39 Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports, London, Routledge, 1994, p. 116.

40 Alan Little, Suzanne Lenglen: Tennis Idol of the Twenties, p. 17.

41 Sarah Pileggi, “The Lady in the White Silk Dress,” Sports Illustrated, 13 September 1982, p. 64-65.

42 Fiona Skillen, “It’s Possible to Play the Game Marvelously and at the Same Time Look Pretty and be Perfectly Fit: Sport, Women and Fashion in Inter-War Britain,” Costume 46.2 (2012), p. 165.

43 S. Cahn, Coming on Strong, p. 46.

44 “Les caractéristiques des collections d’été,” Fémina, April 1928, p. 3.

45 “Vogue lit dans les astres l’avenir de la mode,” Vogue, February 1928, p. 3. Translated from French: ‘Le véritable costume de sports a ses règles propres et forme une catégorie séparée du reste de la mode.’

46 “Les caractéristiques des collections d’été,” p. 3.

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References

Electronic reference

Jaclyn Pyper, « Style Sportive: Fashion, Sport and Modernity in France, 1923-1930 », Apparence(s) [Online], 7 | 2017, Online since 01 June 2017, Connection on 13 December 2017. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/apparences/1361

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Author

Jaclyn Pyper

Independent Historian, MA History of Design & Material Culture, University of Brighton
jaclyn.pyper@gmail.com

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue Apparence(s) sont disponibles selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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