American Sportswear, Part III, The Designers

Ad for White Stag Separates, 1955

And today, the conclusion of my series on American sportswear:

A very important development in women’s sportswear was the concept of co-ordinates, or separates.  These were garments made from the same or matching fabrics that were bought one piece at a time to mix and match.  Separates became very popular, partly because women found that with separates they could have more “looks” with less clothing.

Bonnie Cashin for Sills, 1957

Practical considerations were all important in sportswear.  For the first time, women’s clothing began to have pockets.  Some designers took pockets to a whole new level, as in Vera Maxwell’s travel jacket with plastic lined pockets, and Bonnie Cashin’s skirts and coats that had snap-purse pockets.

By the 1940s, sportswear designers were beginning to gain recognition. Claire McCardell was one of the first to make a name for herself, designing simple and easy to wear clothing.  Her “Pop-Over” dress, a wrap and tie kimono-style dress was made for years in dozens of different fabrics.

1946 Bates ad featuring Louella Ballerino

Many of the designers of the 1940s became known for their takes on exotic and ethnic wear.  Among there were Tina Leser, Louella Ballerino and Carolyn Schnurer. These designers scoured the post-WWII world for design inspiration.  Bathing suits, sun dresses and other play clothes had an international appeal, but with American style comfort and ease.

The growth of the movie industry led to Southern California becoming a vacation resort.  Pictures of the stars in Palm Springs and lounging around their own pools combined with a climate that allowed year-round outdoors activities gave rise to a certain casual lifestyle image. As a result, California became a center of sportswear manufacturing.

Catalina ad, 1957

Many of these firms, such as Catalina and Cole of California, got their start making swimsuits, and swimsuits remained an important part of the industry.  Other California sportswear names to remember are Addie Masters, Pat Premo, Agnes Barrett, Mabs, DeDe Johnson, Louella Ballerino, Alex Colman, Lanz and Koret of California.

Tom Brigance ad, 1940

As the biggest clothing making center, New York City had dozens of designers and manufacturers who made primarily sportswear. The best known are probably McCardell and Cashin, along with Leser and Schnurer. Also important were Tom Brigance, Jeanne Campbell for Sportswhirl, Clare Potter, Dorothy Cox for McMullen, Vera Maxwell, BH Wragge, Emily Wilkins, David Crystal and Joset Walker.

Pendleton ad, 1953

Sportswear was not confined to the two major centers. There were great sportswear makers all over the country – Bill Atkinson at Glen of Michigan, Lorch of Dallas, White Stag, Jantzen and Pendleton (all three in Oregon), and dozens of Hawaiian and Floridian makers.

By the 1960s sportswear was no longer a novelty.  Most Americans were dressing in an increasingly casual manner.  Today, the wearer of sportswear from the 1930s – 1950s would seem to be “dressed up” in many communities.  These clothes have stood the test of time and the casual wear from the mid 20th century still has a freshness that makes it a delight to collect and wear.


Filed under Advertisements, Designers, Sportswear

11 responses to “American Sportswear, Part III, The Designers

  1. Oh I love the Tom Brigance and Pendleton ads. Marvellous!


  2. Interesting post! I’m digging the series. I love the Lord & Taylor Tom Brigance 1940 ad. Is there an illustrator credit? Just curious. I’m a Vera Maxwell fan. Recently, I scored one of her signature Speed Suit” in black and brown. It takes me longer than 17 seconds to throw it over my head! T.


  3. Lizzie….I did read your blog…it was really interesting. I did not guess that bloomers were named after a person with that name. I especially enjoyed reading about the AWFUL ugly gym suits with bloomers we hated to wear in the late 40’s for gym class. I will be reading your blogs….I found them very informative. Thanks. Marge Keep in touch.


  4. Great series Lizzie. I’d loved reading more about American Sportswear, thank you!

    And your point that “Today, the wearer of sportswear from the 1930s – 1950s would seem to be “dressed up” in many communities.” is oh so true! 🙂


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  6. I’ve also enjoyed this series. And the Brigance ad is delightful! I’m intrigued by the Catalina ad with the madras sportswear. I sold a man’s preppy madras sports jacket from the early 60s last year and remembered wanting to find out more about the introduction of madras. Then again, I’m interested in all sorts of Indian influences on western fashion.


  7. I’ve also been enjoying your posts here, Lizzy. Another fun coincidence for you; my third daughter (10 year old) had been searching for a pattern for a “middy” or sailor type top when we saw your post here. It was fun for us to see the original sailcloth version by White stag! She likes the red top.


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