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NEW YORK -- Some of the most fashion-forward looks have involved teamwork between designers of athletic sportswear and runway-worthy couture. It's what led to bikinis, bike shorts, tennis skirts -- actually skirts that hit above the ankle, in general -- and the popularization of stretch fabrics.
The influence of activewear has gone beyond nitty-gritty sports since at least the 19th century when women started wearing split skirts for biking, explains Colleen Hill, co-curator of an exhibit at the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) called "Sporting Life": Think of the men's tweed hunting jacket that became the uniform for college professors, the dancewear that turned into streetwear in the disco era, and the sexy scuba dresses that were a favorite of the 1990s supermodels.
Figure skating, yachting, and skiing seem to be endless sources of inspiration for designers and favorites of consumers who probably have never actually laced up, booted up, or hoisted a sail. Yet who could resist a camel-colored wool skating-style ensemble -- cape and all -- with black Persian lamb trim?
The aspirational aspect complements the whole fashion-as-fantasy thing that also sometimes has city-dwellers adopting the look of country-club cricket players, and suburbanites dressing like downtown nightclub-goers. In that context, Ralph Lauren's safari jacket, Jean Paul Gaultier's rayon-and-polyester football jumpsuit, and even Isabel Toledo's gray gym-teacher dress with a funnel neckline and fluid skirt don't seem so crazy.
And, real women continue to wear monokinis on the beach, which was one scandalous step away from a dominatrix get-up when Rudi Gernreich created the breast-baring one-piece suit in 1964.
The swimwear section of the exhibit is a reminder of just how far the collective eye has come when it comes to revealing the body. Silk bathing boots from the 1910s are a far cry from today's standard-issue flip-flops, and there isn't anything similar about head-to-toe wool bathing costumes from the turn of the 20th century and the suit with a black mesh bodice by Cole of California in the 1960s.
Yet, Ms. Hill notes, in those intervening years swimwear designers made it possible for people, and women in particular, to transition from being mere recreational bathers to actual swimmers. "As we moved into more stretch fabrics and a fit closer to the body, it allowed women a more active interest in swimming," she explains.
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Technical innovations have been launched by sportswear, too.
This summer, for example, there was the debut of Commuter by Levi's, a small collection of products including a version of the skinny-leg 511 jeans crafted with the urban cyclist in mind. The fabric, the result of partnerships with Schoeller Technologies and Clariant, is supposed to make denim water-resistant, dirt and odor-repellant, and more durable, while the actual design of the pant has been tweaked to raise the back yoke to minimize the gap felt by hunched cyclists. A reinforced gusset makes the crotch stronger and more breathable.
Erik Joule, Levi's senior vice president of men's merchandise and design, often rides his bike to work, and the Commuter styles were born from the practical solutions he and other cycling members of his design team developed for themselves. He says he expects more athletic adaptions woven into everyday clothes.
"I think purpose is becoming much more important in how things are designed in fashion. People are looking for a 'marriage.' There is a convergence of functionality and fashion, and a lot of that comes from the active world and the active lifestyle," he says.
It's this same thinking that put Neoprene -- previously used on boats -- into wetsuits in the '50s, and waterproof ripstop nylon, used for sails and parachutes, as a top layer on ski parkas.
"Fashion is interested not just in the look of sportswear, but the materials," says Ms. Hill. "But true active sportswear also wants to be modern-looking. Being fashion-forward will drive sales."