March 6, 2013
At every stump speech, meet and greet, and town hall gathering during the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry wore a very distinctive bracelet: the bright yellow LiveStrong wristband. He wasn’t the only recognizable figure to embrace the cancer cause through a silicone band. Usher, Lindsay Lohan and Ben Affleck were also some of the 80 million-plus people who made it known they supported a good cause, and felt cool doing it too.
What followed was a charity wristband explosion, a distinctive way to wear your heart on your sleeve, or your cause on your wrist. Silicone gel “awareness bands” were made in all shades of the rainbow to build awareness and foster support for all types of causes: pink for breast cancer, purple for pancreatic cancer, blue for autism, red for AIDS, orange for anti-smoking. For a mere buck, you could slip a piece of rubber on your wrist and be braceleted, give yourself a pat on the back for your contribution to making the world a better place.
Look around. How many people do you see wearing those bands now? Almost none. They’d already lost their luster before the Armstrong doping debacle, disappearing almost as quickly as they emerged (although LiveStrong still sells them). In about 15 years, they’ll make an ironic comeback.
The aughts haven’t yet receded into the distant past, but already we’re thinking about what we’ll look back on and associate with the first decade of the 21st century. Not long ago, the New York Times published, “What Will We Miss When It’s 2033,” a rather broad assessment of the music, culture and style we’ll associate with 1999 to 2009, name-checking everything from Gwyneth Paltrow to the Black Eyed Peas to “Project Runway” to angular haircuts, flared jeans and trucker hats.
Last week, the fashion site Refinery29 ran a piece, “From Uggs to Y2K, What the ’00s Meant to Us,” that examined what cultural events influenced fashion during that decade. (Full disclosure: I was quoted in that article.) The post considered the sobering impact of 9/11 and the technological advances associated with the iPod and social networks. And although we may want to look the other way, it also mentioned a few cringe-worthy trends of the decade (Uggs boots everywhere with everything, low-slung jeans and midriff-bearing tops, tramp stamps, velour sweatsuits and gazillion-dollar “It bags,” just for starters).
Let’s look on the bright side and give the aughts some points for meshing style with intentionality. The popularity of cause-specific wristbands are on example. But there are others.
Simultaneous with – and in response to – fast fashion came a push for more sustainable clothing, reimagined for the aughts. Hemp-y, shapeless, neutral-toned bag dresses were updated with more form-fitting, stylish eco-fashion lines like Loomstate, Edun, Barneys Green Label and Stella McCartney. They found an audience who was willing to listen to why producing clothes in more earth-friendly ways (than, say, using 700-plus gallons of water to make one cotton T-shirt) was vital.
Remember Anya Hindmarch’s “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote bag that sold out in a matter of minutes in 2007? Or Lauren Bush’s FEED bag that followed on its heels? Both were green status symbols, especially as plastic bags were spurned and sustainable fashion, and its accompanying accessories, gained cachet.
The credit default swap led to the proliferation of clothing swaps. A desire to work with our hands, along with other responses to fast fashion, resulted in an uptick of DIY, crafting, recycling, upcycling, thrifting, as well as an appreciation for all things handmade, thanks to Etsy, which launched in 2005.
And however you may feel about TOMs shoes, its “one for one” model for giving shoes to needy children, begun in 2006 and now promoted in shoe stores around the globe, mainstreamed the discussion about a consumer’s responsibility to make socially aware clothing choices.
The Refinery29 post concludes by referencing a BBC article about the science of resurfacing trends, addressing the cycle of style. Only time will tell if we’ll look back on these cause-related fashion trends with amusement, befuddlement or gratitude, particularly if – and maybe it’s overly optimistic – in hindsight, we find that one small step for fashion leads to one more substantive step toward building a better world.
August 10, 2012
The XXX Olympiad nears its end, and soon our athletes will be saying goodbye to the crowds and the cameras, finally exhaling, and heading back across the pond to the States. Yes, packing is on my mind again, but it must feel weird to stand there, looking around your Olympic village digs, packing up your clothes and gear, and then carefully folding your opening ceremony outfit, wondering what you are going to do with Ralph Lauren’s fitted navy blazers and cream trousers/skirts and matching head wear?
Besides embarrassment at Lauren’s scandalous mode of manufacturing (made in China!), I wonder what the athletes thought of their duds. Yes, the customary opening night uniforms were weird. But they often are. By now, it is nearly a tradition for Olympians to parade around in front of the world in questionable dress. Let’s take a look at some notable moments.
1984 was mild: on their home turf of Los Angeles, the American team dressed down in unisex tracksuits, red visors and white kicks.
Four years later, the U.S. female athletes looked oddly girly, in prairie skirts, oversized baby blue sweatshirts with swirly designs, and little red ribbon neckties – like athletic Stepford Wives, except for the right-on-trend 80s hair.
In 2000, in Sydney, being American apparently meant wearing rodeo formal. Look closely: that was only 12 years ago. For the women, it was Anne Taylor meets cowgirl with white ten-gallon hats, red boxy blazers like some kind of western Working Girl, dowdy full skirts, patriotic silk scarves and prim white stockings. The men were prep school seniors with an odd ensemble that somehow included tasseled loafers and cowboy hats.
Back on home turf for the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, we returned to the casual look. Berets, fleeces warm-up jackets, and…white turtlenecks? Oh, and then-President Bush stopped by to hang with the Olympians.
At the 2008 Beijing games, the unisex uniforms had an updated classic, tidy look: well-fitting navy blazers with the Ralph Lauren logo over one breast pocket (just a minor product placement) and the Olympic logo over the other, white trousers, straightforward red, white and blue striped ties and the most prominent accessory – white pageboy caps.
Preparing for a blustery opening ceremony at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, U.S. Olympians work unisex, practical outfits – black hiking boots, puffy North Face-style coats – with a couple of notable details: the white tapered pants tucked into E.G. Smith-style socks were a very deliberate choice in the skinny jean era, as were the cozy, handmade-looking knit caps (reindeer and all!).
While the opening ceremony outfits have evolved over the years, that sense of pride and excitement has not, and that’s the point of wearing matching costumes, right? For the sake of America’s pioneering spirit, I want the next designer to forget Ralph Lauren’s retro-classicism, and maybe branch out into the great beyond. I mean the Japanese already showed up in swirling, rainbow-colored capes in 2000. Where can we go from there?
August 8, 2012
A few years before Farrah Fawcett donned her red bathing suit, seven-time gold medalist Mark Spitz wore his stars and stripes Speedo to dramatic effect in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Tanned and toned in this photo, Spitz stands, arms akimbo, grinning and gilded with first-place medallions. If Fawcett was the 1970s manifestation of the All-American girl in her one-piece, Spitz was the male equivalent: virile and mustached, confident. (That ‘stache, incidentally, began as a form of rebellion against his swimming coach’s instructions and was going to be shaved off before the Olympics, but Spitz’s facial hair became such a part of his look that he always competed with what he referred to as his “good-luck piece.”)
While Speedos remain popular, competitive racing suits have evolved since the ’70s. They’ve become so technically advanced that the suits, and, in particular, Speedo’s full-body LZR Racer worn by the likes of Michael Phelps, were banned from competition in 2010. As Sarah Rich wrote on Design Decoded: “A suspicious number of record-breaking times were documented after competitors began wearing this gear, which includes drag-reducing polyurethane panels, buoyancy-enhancing material, and no seams—instead, the pieces are welded together ultrasonically.”
Before ultrasonic welding and mimicking sharkskin were part of the repertoire, what did U.S. swimmers of yore wear in the Olympics? Sure enough, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, has some answers!
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku is famous as the father of surfing, but the Hawaiian athlete took his swimming ability to the Olympics, where he first won the gold in 1912 in Stockholm. Kahanamoku went on to win medals during the 1920 Games in Antwerp and 1924 Games in Paris and competed again in 1932 on the U.S. water polo team.
Kahanamoku set swimming records, rescued drowning fishermen, appeared in films and brought surfing to the world with international exhibitions; he eventually became sheriff of Honolulu (where he remained in office for almost 30 years).
In this portrait from 1915, he stands proudly on a beach in front of a surfboard inscribed with his name, wearing a fetching one-piece. (The suit is likely made of wool, the board solid koa wood.)
Then there’s Gertrude Ederle, 1924 gold and bronze medalist in swimming. Medals aside, she’s more well-known as the first woman to swim the English Channel. Annette Kellerman (who rather infamously wore one of the first skin-tight women’s one-piece bathing suits) attempted the 21-mile swim unsuccessfully on three occasions in 1905. But on August 6, 1926, Ederle set out at 7:08 a.m. and swam 14 hours 31 minutes to reach England’s Dover coast. With that time, she bested the five other Channel-crossing swimmers (all male) by an hour.
In this photograph, taken a year before crossing the Channel, we see Ederle standing on the beach holding an oar and some buoyant-looking contraption (Anyone know what it is?). Ederle’s wearing a suit emblazoned with what appears to be a chariot, and since her hair is done in 1920s-style pin curls, she certainly hadn’t just emerged from the water. (Not pictured here are the goggles she invented using leather and rubber, which are part of the Smithsonian’s collection.)
Also: Notice any similarities between her suit and the 2012 U.S. women’s swimming team suits?
Keeping with 1924 medalists, we turn to Johnny Weissmuller. He finished the 1924 and 1928 Olympics with five gold medals and one bronze and was heralded as one of the greatest swimmers of the first half of the 20th century.
Even then, the swimmers’ build was a ticket to advertising; Weissmuller traded his suit for briefs when he became a model for underwear company BVD. And then he traded his underwear for a loincloth when he scored the role of Tarzan. He was in six Tarzan movies before he went on to play Jungle Jim, start a swimming pool company, launch the Swimming Hall of Fame, start the failed tourist attraction Tarzan’s Jungle, have his golf cart captured by Cuban rebels, and find his face on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Seen here in this portrait of a portrait, Weissmuller perches jauntily on a drop cloth wearing a white suit, a similar style to Ederle’s and Kahanamoku’s, and well, to current Speedos, it appears. Holding his palette, the painter stands by his work and gazes not at the camera but at his apathetic subject.
And finally, Olympic swimmers Eleanor Holm and Helene Madison: Madison swam competitively for only five years, but in that time, she won three gold medals in the 1932 Games. Holm, standing beside her, competed in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics. She was en route to the 1936 Games when she was dismissed from the U.S. swimming team for a “champagne-drinking incident.” What does an international incident involving champagne look like? Apparently, Holm helped turn the boat taking the U.S. swimming team to the Berlin Olympics into a booze cruise; she had too much to drink, was reported to the team captain and got booted from the team. Devastated, she watched from the stands as her teammates competed. Despite the scandal, Holm was able to follow in fellow swimming medalist Weissmuller’s bare footsteps when she took her place on the silver screen as Tarzan’s love interest in the 1938 Tarzan’s Revenge.
In this photo, taken at the 1932 Summer Games, teammates Holm and Madison pose together on diving boards, wearing the basic aquatic one-piece and swim caps, toes pointed, waving to an unknown crowd. Not the suits typical of the day, they’re similar in cut to today’s competitive gear. Aquatic fashion, it seems, has stepped back from the flashy 1970s and ’80s to take its cues from the modest 1920s.
All this makes me wonder what it must be like to devote your entire youth to training, competing and winning, and then wake up one day realizing it’s time to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. Do you teach the world to surf? Portray a jungle denizen? Drink a little too much bubbly? Become a real estate mogul? Now that Michael Phelps has retired at age 27 as the most decorated Olympian in history, what’s next for him, besides collecting millions in oh-so-boring endorsements? Maybe he should bring back tradition and consider swinging from vines wearing nothing but a loin cloth.
July 17, 2012
Artist and author Leanne Shapton trained for the Olympic swimming trials as a teenager. Her newest book, Swimming Studies, which was released this month, is a quiet, weightless and elegant collection of stories about the life of a swimmer who is inescapably drawn to the water even after she is no longer rigorously competing. To continue Threaded’s Swimsuit Series, and with the Summer Olympics around the corner, I’ve excerpted part of her chapter “Bathing” along with some of the book’s images of Shapton’s swimsuits and their accompanying provenances.
Bathing implies having some contact with the ground while in the water—propulsion and speed are secondary. Bathing. Bathing: the word itself feels like a balm, a cleanse, rather than the wavy struggle of swimming. I wonder why swimming in North America feels different from swimming in Europe.
Until the late seventeenth century, the sea was regarded as a place of danger and death, the aspect of houses was directed inland, sailors were not taught to swim, in order to foster in them a true respect for the sea. The ocean stank, was dangerous, belched up seaweed and flotsam, and was full of marauding pirates and monsters. The value of any coastline was in proportion to how fortified it was. Swimming instruction as military drill for men and horses began in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in northern Europe, accompanying developments in toilets and indoor plumbing.
In The Springboard in the Pond: An Intimate History of the Swimming Pool, Thomas A. P. van Leeuwen talks about the impression physical activity made on European visitors to the United States in the 1890s: “Americans seem best to express their spiritual energy by moving their bodies, by running, walking fast, and competing in sports.”
I think of the only time my medals have come in handy, at the U.S. border crossing in Buffalo. As Jason and I pull up at the border after inching through a traffic jam from Toronto, a guard eyes us suspiciously and asks for our passports. We look a mess; the car reeks of B. O. and chicken nuggets. Vintage clothes are strewn across the backseat, moth-eaten blankets lumpily cover Jason’s camera equipment. One of my father’s art-college paintings is jammed between our luggage. I’m certain we’ll be pulled over to the side, as I often am, and interrogated. The guard gets out of his booth and asks me to pop the back. I do. Shuffling sounds, then: “Who’s the swimmer?” I smile at Jason. “I am.” The hatchback shuts quietly. The guard hands us our passports with no further questions, just “Drive safely.” Before I left my parents’ house I heaved a large tote bag into the car; in it were eight years’ worth of gold, silver, and bronze swimming medals.
While visiting Berlin, I meet an artist who swims every morning, so I ask him about the city’s pools. He quickly makes a list of those he likes in my notebook. His daily laps are done at Stadtbad Mitte, in Gartenstrasse.
I head first to Stadtbad Charlottenburg– Alte Halle, a small, pretty pool nestled in the leafy streets of western Berlin. I borrow a pair of children’s goggles from the lifeguard booth and swim short widths beside a thick red rope bisecting the pool. A labored mural of Hylas and the Nymphs overlooks the deep end. The pool is beautiful but feels heavily furnished, like a parlor. The other swimmers seem to be annoyed by my splashing.
Stadtbad Mitte, completed in 1930, is a soaring, gridded glass box. It is bright and unusually airy for a pool, thanks to its high mullioned transparent roof. (In 1945 its roof was struck by two Allied bombs—conceivably dropped by my grandfather or some friends of his—that failed to explode.) The deck is tiled in small pale gray squares; there are slurping gutters along the sides, two staircases that lead to a very shallow end, and a three-foot drop from the deck to the water’s surface that makes the pool feel contained, tanklike. There are only eight other swimmers, most doing relaxed but steady laps. In the deep end I sink to the bottom and look around. The swimmers glide calmly overhead, my bubbles rise, glittering. I push off the bottom.
In Bath, England, for a literary festival, I visit the ancient Roman baths. Usually, any ruin filled with algae- greened water thrills me, but as I walk through the boxy displays and past the projected re-creations of “Romans” wearing too much mascara, I am bored. Even the two-thousand-year-old skeleton with cavities from eating honey does nothing for me. The statues the Victorians erected around the terrace overlooking the large outdoor pool upstage the real Roman stonework, the bath’s cruder but authentic roots. What I love, however, are the Roman curse tablets: tiny outrages scratched into pieces of lead and pewter and nailed to the wall, requesting that the gods visit misfortune on the heads of whoever stole their stuff while they were swimming. One reads:
To Minerva the goddess of Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.
I could relate, remembering the time my coral-pink Club Monaco sweatshirt was stolen from the Clarkson pool women’s locker room when I was thirteen. One minute I belonged to The Club of Monaco. Then suddenly I didn’t. My father was furious at the theft; on the chilly drive home his incredulity at my trust in other children vibrated in the car. I cursed the girl who had taken it.
Bathing chapter excerpted from Swimming Studies, copyright 2012 by Leanne Shapton, courtesy Blue Rider Press. Images: Michael Schmelling
July 5, 2012
It’s widely regarded that on this day 66 years ago, the bikini was first introduced to the public by French engineer Louis Réard at the Piscine Molitor swimming pool complex in Paris. The two-piece was coined the “bikini” by Réard because he believed the new itty-bitty suit would wield the same explosive effect as recent atomic tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. And it did.
In planning the debut of his new swimsuit, Réard had trouble finding a professional model who would deign to wear the scandalously skimpy two-piece. So he turned to Micheline Bernardini, an exotic dancer at the Casino de Paris, who had no qualms about appearing nearly nude in public. As an allusion to the headlines that he knew his swimsuit would generate, he printed newspaper type across the suit that Bernardini modeled on July 5 at the Piscine Molitor. The bikini was a hit, especially among men, and Bernardini received some 50,000 fan letters.” — History.com
But I beg to differ that today is, in fact, the anniversary of the bikini. Yes, it’s true that Réard unveiled his skimpy two-piece on July 5, 1946. But as I detailed in a recent post on Threaded about the history of swimsuits, the first iteration of a bathing suit was depicted around the fourth century A.D. in an Italian mosaic at the Villa Roma de Casale in Sicily. Sicilian women appear to be exercising, lifting weights and tossing a ball, clad in nothing more than a two-piece . . . bikini?