The Rise of Sportswear Separates

The mix and match separates which illustrate this post date to about 1960.  The designer was Irene Saltern, who designed for Tabak, one of the large California sportswear companies.  In 1950 Saltern designed one of the first mix and match lines of separates for a major California manufacturing company.  By the time she designed these in 1960, separates were pretty much the industry standard.  These separates actually came from Ms. Saltern’s estate.

Separates are clothing pieces that one can mix and match in order to make a wide assortment of ensembles. Today we take separate dressing for granted, as it is the method by which most of us get dressed every day. We take a blouse, pair it with pants or a skirt, and top it with a sweater or jacket. Chances are, none of these pieces were bought together, but through the use of color and style, an ensemble is born.

One hundred years ago, this was a new idea. Women had been dressing in matching suits and in dresses for many years. In the last years of the 19th century the spread of ready-to-wear manufactured clothing gave rise to a new way of dressing. Factories began making only one type of garment, such as shirtwaists or skirts, making these items readily available.  Working women wore the skirt and waist combination, as did middle and upper class women for casual occasions.

By 1920, separates dressing was well established.  World War I had put many more women into the workplace, many of whom wore the waist and skirt combination.  The addition of a jacket or a sweater turned the outfit into a kind of informal suit. Women were now faced with many choices, and the term “separate” crept into the fashion vocabulary.  The earliest reference I’ve found is in the spring 1919 New Idea Quarterly, which was a sewing pattern catalogue.  The Separate Blouse and Skirt was the caption of one page of such choices.

In the 1920s women increasingly turned to sportswear, and as a result, separates became even more popular. Some stores opened sportswear departments in which women could shop for skirts and overblouses, jackets, sweaters, and near the end of the decade, beach pyjamas and eventually, slacks and shorts.

American women found that separates dressing fit a lifestyle that was increasingly mobile.  A wardrobe of mix and match clothing worked well for vacations, which were becoming commonplace.  Women found that with separates they could have more “looks” with less clothing. In the 1930s some designers began producing co-ordinating wardrobe pieces, all of which were designed to match, but which were sold separately. 

By the late 1940s, this was a common way to shop, and stores and mail order catalogues might have had entire departments of mix and match separates. A playsuit became a dress with the addition of a matching skirt.  A bathing suit became a sundress in a similar manner.  A blouse and skirt became a suit when a matching jacket was added.

Many designers became known for their separates collections:  Tina Leser, Claire McCardell, Bonnie Cashin, Greta Plattry and BH Wragge come to mind.  It’s no coincidence that these were sportswear designers.  The idea of sportswear and separates went hand in hand, as Western life continued to become more casual. 

Perhaps just as important were the hundreds of mid-priced ready-to-wear companies who made separates.  Some, like Villager and Ellen Tracy, started out as blouse makers.  Others, like Bobbie Brooks and Koret of California, produced large wardrobes of mix and match separates.


Filed under Collecting, Vintage Clothing

10 responses to “The Rise of Sportswear Separates

  1. I remember my aunt’s ‘first dressmaking’ book (from the 50s) was all about building up a simple range of seperates, from a basic sun bonnet (lesson one: get felt, applique felt, add ribbon) to a light jacket involving basic tailoring. I was fascinated by the extent of the mix-and-match theme. The book was indeed American.


  2. This is wonderful Lizzie. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and these glorious examples of mix-and-match separates. Adorable!


  3. mdmurgia

    Edna Chase used to be a customer at a place I worked at. She used to tell me all about her days as an editor for Seventeen, and how she loved featuring sportswear when it was up-and-coming 🙂


  4. Well, Lizzie, as you know, the pieces featured in your blog hold a very special place in my heart! I’d forgotten how cute they were–sometimes I wish I’d kept them, but they are much, much better served under your curator-ship!


  5. They really are fantastic pieces, and it’s wonderful having the history you provided!


  6. Sources:
    Martin, Richard
    American Ingenuity, Sportswear 1930s – 1970s. New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

    Chambers, Bernice G., Color and Design, New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1942.

    New Idea Quarterly, spring, 1919

    Roshco, Bernard, The Rag Race. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1963.


  7. Pingback: The Vintage Traveler

  8. Pingback: A Life in Fashion—Irene Saltern | The Vintage Traveler

  9. Pingback: 1957 Jantzen Junior Dealer’s Catalog | The Vintage Traveler

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