'Sporting Fashion' at Cincinnati's Taft Museum

Nov. 5—In his role as a museum curator at the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, Kevin Jones is always on the lookout for rare items to add to the collection.

Since his museum already owns a "phenomenal" scarf collection, Jones says he's not typically looking for scarves.

But one Sunday morning while browsing at a vintage clothing store, a colorful wool scarf caught his eye. It was covered with images of women engaged in a wide variety of sports and had the words "outdoor girl" written all over it.

Excited, Jones called museum colleague Christina Johnson who urged him to buy it. At that moment, he recalls, a light bulb went off in his head. "You know what?" he says. "We're going to do a women's sportswear show!"

You'll see the result at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati where 64 colorful ensembles are on display. The traveling exhibit, titled "Sporting Fashions: Outdoor Girl 1800 to 1960," runs through Jan. 14. Jones will be in town to present a "Signature Talk" on Nov. 9.

If you've seen one of the recent fashion exhibits at the Taft — the Downton Abbey and Jane Austen costumes, for example, or the wonderful shoe show — you know how well the historic Cincinnati home lends itself to these types of exhibitions.

What to expect

The Taft's associate curator Ann Glasscock was responsible for curating the installation locally. "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," she says.

You'll see how women created outfits for a wide range of activities outside of their home — for gardening and shopping, for motorcycling and roller derby, and for ice skating, archery and cricket.

Glasscock says "Sporting Fashion" offers valuable insight into the social customs, innovative technologies and shifting notions of style and functionality behind women's sporting attire. Organized into seven themes, the exhibit explores how clothing met the needs of new pursuits for women, while at the same time preserving their socially approved, restricted mobility.

For example: — Garments for swimming and tanning illustrate how innovative designers and manufacturers responded to the increasing acceptance of exposed skin at beaches and pools. — Winter sports ensembles show how apparel for pastimes such as skiing and ice-skating protected female participants from the elements. — Clothing and accessories for cycling, motoring and flying — often adapted from men's athletic gear — reveal how women navigated open roads and skies.

These mannequins are very special. Unlike most dress forms we're used to seeing, in this exhibit they're positioned to reflect the action of the various sports they represent. These "women" appear to be readying themselves for a horseback ride or game of tennis, a motorcycle ride or dip in the pool.

Jones is obviously amazed at the ways in which his original idea has blossomed. "It's now one of the most important collections of women's sportswear in the world," he says. "We now have 760 objects, a traveling show and a 320-page color catalog!"

Keep in mind that every article of clothing or accessory in this exhibit is the real deal. We're not talking about reproductions. That includes all of the great accessories you'll see.

Scouting sportswear

It's no wonder it took 12 years of scouring the world to find perfect and authentic objects for this exhibit. Jones and co-curator Johnson approached private collectors, dealers and auction houses. "It was challenging to pull together; we have to collect according to the mission statement of the museum and because we're a design museum, every object has to be a strong design for that era," he says. " Plus, it had to be in very good condition." While it's typical for fancy ball gowns and designer clothing to be preserved and maintained through the years, Jones says that's a lot less likely with activewear. "A lot of things we found had, sadly, been eaten to death by moths or sweated out," he adds.

One example? "We wanted to talk about cheerleaders at the turn of the century and very few of the collegiate sweaters have survived," Jones says. " At that time, (female ) cheerleaders were not on the field like we know today; the women were in the bleachers and the cheerleaders on the field were all men." Then women started wearing their boyfriends' sweaters. "I put an ad in the Yale newsletter and got a call from a man who said he had three sweaters belonging to three of his father's friends. They were made between 1904 and 1909."

Examples of what you'll see

Daytonians will be especially interested in the pilot's ensemble. "Piloting for women started at the turn of the century; and by the time you get to the 1930s, flying became possible for a broader reach of the public," Jones relates. "It was still male-dominated and you still had to be pretty well off to fly a plane but women were making inroads. The women had to figure out what to wear and what was appropriate for their time period."

In the early years, female pilots often began by adapting men's clothing. "In the 1920s, women pilots wore mechanic's overalls because the planes were very hands-on; you didn't just get in a plane and fly around, you had to keep up with the maintenance of the plane." But by the 1930s, Jones says, the planes had advanced so they could move away from overalls. "Women wore pants because the planes were extremely cold, not enclosed environments like today. "

One of the most unusual items is a kooky dressing tent for the beach that Jones purchased at an estate auction in France. "You could take it to the beach, put it on, shimmy out of your day clothes and put on your bathing suit. It's a personal changing tent!"

Jones says the women and girls of today will find themselves identifying with one or more of the women represented. "They're going to recognize a lot of the clothing, even some that's 150 years old," he adds. " That's because the textiles may be different today, but the design elements are the same."

He's overheard a wide range of comments from museum visitors. "Oh my god, I wish I could wear that today!" one exclaimed. Another: " How could anyone wear that when they were swimming in the ocean?"

More to see

Additionally, there is more to see at the exhibit. For instance, don't miss: — The 15 minutes of archival videos, clips of women bicycling (in 1895), fencing, motorcycling, playing tennis, basketball, diving, boxing and mountaineering. — "Touch These Textiles," a wall of "please-touch" fabrics in the lobby of the exhibit. It provides a history of textiles and lots of fabric swatches assembled by Elise Solomon, the Taft's director of learning and outreach. — "More to the Story," a history of some of the objects on display.

The take-aways

Although the majority of the outfits are displayed in the special exhibition gallery, you'll also see a variety of ensembles in the historic rooms. "I chose what to put in the historic house based on the time period in which the museum was a home, the early 1800s up to 1930s," Glasscock explains.

In the Duncanson Foyer, where artist Robert S. Duncanson created eight idyllic imagined landscapes, there are two bicycling ensembles. "I thought they'd work with the beautiful landscapes on the walls," Glasscock explains. "You could just imagine these women bicycling through a field in a similar atmosphere." The bicycling outfits are important because they represent the historic introduction of bifurcated garments (pants), an important milestone in women's liberation."

Glasscock hopes visitors who come to this exhibit will not only learn about women's sporting and leisure attire in this specific era but will also understand how the clothes on display influence and impact what we wear now.

"This show is inspiring for us today when we realize what these former athletes did to get out into the world and not be afraid of the ramifications," Glasscock says. "The message? Don't be afraid to challenge yourself and society!"

How To Go:

What: "Sporting Fashions: Outdoor Girl 1800 to 1960," an exhibit organized by the American Federation of Arts and the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles.

Where: Taft Museum, 316 Pike St., Cincinnati

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday. Through Jan. 14.

Tickets: Admission is free for members, military and youth (18 and under); $12 for adults; $10 for seniors. Non-members save $2 by purchasing tickets online.

Parking: Free

Gift Shop: Features items related to the special exhibits and more. For this exhibit, there is a color catalog ($60) as well as scarves, socks, bags and printed leather gloves.

The Cafe is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

For more information:

Related programming: — Curator Kevin Jones will present a Signature Talk on the exhibit from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 9. Tickets are $5 and include admission to the special exhibition. — Drop-in public tours with docents are being held from 2 to 2:45 p.m. on select Sundays. Available with general admission reservations.