Two huge things happened this weekend: The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk opened at the de Young Museum in San Francisco and The Hunger Games movie entered into the national psyche. After watching The Hunger Games, I found my Halloween costume: Peeta’s training suit that consists of a simple black collared shirt and track pant. With the Games, Gaultier and Halloween garment construction on my mind, all I could think about this weekend was athletic wear, so I thought I’d pull you into my crazy and share some references to athletic wear in art and visual culture.
Gaultier’s memorable costume designs for the futuristic late-1990s film The Fifth Element have become cult favorites. A simple Google search for “Leeloo,” the title character played by Milla Jovovich will reveal a plethora of DIY fan-girl costume constructions. This outfit might not be specifically intended for a sport, but Leeloo kicks some major bad-guy butt, so her clothing better be super comfortable.
Speaking of super comfortable bad-guy butt kicking clothing, Uma Thurman’s tracksuit in the 2003 film Kill Bill Vol. 1 is another iconic costume that isn’t necessarily meant to be athletic wear, but ends up fulfilling that definition during a great fight scene. It’s a complete homage to Bruce Lee’s costume in the 1978 film The Game of Death, and I think this appropriation was a really great costume choice. Both characters are passionate for revenge, so why not do it wearing a sweet tracksuit?
So there’s another blonde lady with an awesome sense of fashion: Cher Horowitz, the Beverly Hills princess of the 1995 film Clueless. Talk about setting a trend: costume designer Mona May brought a whimsical explosion of clean and fitted women’s wear to the screen that countered the male grunge look of that moment. In one famous gym-class scene where “balls fly at my face,” the all-girls class is sporty in black-and-white tanks, spandex and thigh-high socks. If you have to sweat, you might as well look cute doing it.
The Clueless-look is very similar to the comfortable and personal style of ballerinas. In this educational and entertaining video, The Royal Ballet Mistress Ursula Hageli “explores the evolution of Classical Ballet with reference to the royal Academy of Arts exhibition Degas and the Ballet: Picturing Movement.” Scrub over to 3:28 and you’ll see ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson in a kind of similar outfit as Cher Horowitz. What’s cool to think about, though, is that the Degas-dancer, complete with corset and puffy tulle skirt is in athletic wear — that was the necessary outfit to simply dance in a class, like Cher participating in gym.
Since I brought up puffy skirts, it’s a good time to bring up Mark Bradford. The 2009 MacArthur Fellowship recipient and Season 4 Art:21 subject created a 2003 video piece titled “Practice,” where he is decked out in a Lakers uniform with a slight alteration: a gigantic antebellum hoop-skirt. As he dribbles a basketball around a basketball court in this costume, he attempts shoot baskets despite a seemingly ridiculous element.
The master of self-deprecating sportswear in art goes to Matthew Barney. In “Cremaster 3” (2002), Barney wears a peachy-plaid costume as he runs about the interior of the Guggenheim and faces off with American athlete Aimee Mullins decked out in cheetah make-up. I’m not sure how comfortable any of Barney’s costume actually is, but it makes for an entertaining show.
At last year’s Venice Biennale, the American pavilion hosted Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s über-sports-minded show. There’s no real shift in aesthetics when it comes to the costuming for the performers, like the gymnast in the piece “Body in Flight,” so the reference to nationalism through costume design is quickly digested like an appetizer for some kind of bigger entree.
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After all this, I’m actually quite surprised that I gravitated towards examples of women’s athletic wear. I assumed that I would be bombarded with examples of men’s sports stuff, but I’m happy that the art arena (pun!) is pretty even and sees the human body as athlete, regardless of sex. It’s not new to anyone that artists and sports aren’t the best of friends (as evidence by the new cliché idea that artists are Bad at Sports), but I do think that when artists have the chance to play, they definitely have strong opinions on how an athlete should look and feel. With the Summer Olympics right around the corner, we’ll definitely see aesthetic decisions on comfort, style and nationalism. U-S-A!