Fashion and Sport: An interview with Martin Polley

Martin Polley is a Sports Historian and Senior Lecturer in Sport at the University of Southampton. He is the author of The British Olympics: Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612-2012 and lives in Winchester.

WFW: The new team GB kit was launched recently, and opinions seem to be split on whether designer Stella McCartney has done a good job or not. What do you think of the new kit?

MP: I’m generally impressed with the design, as McCartney has used the Union flag in imaginative ways, creating a clear identity without it being too uniform. Like the controversial 2012 logo, which can appear in any colour you like, the kit is playful with the traditional colours, and not too reverential. McCartney and her team have obviously worked with competitors and their scientific support teams to make sure that each kit is highly functional for each sport. However, I’m less impressed with the news that manufacturers Adidas are apparently using sweatshop labour in Asia to make the kit, particularly as 2012 was supposed to be the ethical Olympics.

WFW: How does the sportswear of today differ from what was worn during the London Olympics in 1908 and 1948?

MP: The differences are massive, but in each case you have to remember that the kits were as good as they could be with the available technology and knowledge of how the sporting body moved. To our eyes, though, they seem clumsy and inefficient.

In 1908, for example, swimmers were still wearing knitted woollen costumes, which became heavy the second they were immersed in water: imagine swimming 1500 metres in an unheated pool in a woollen swimsuit, and you’ll realise how fit the competitors must have been. Runners wore shorts that are much baggier than we would choose. In some sports, notably archery and shooting, people just wore normal clothing, although we should spare a thought for the women who competed in archery and lawn tennis while wearing corsets – this had everything to do with stereotypical norms of how middle class women should look, and nothing to do with sporting efficiency. There was one great controversy caused by clothing. In the tug-of-war, competitors were meant to take part in normal shoes. All of the British competitors were policemen, and they turned out in the normal work boots, which had nailed soles. The Americans complained that this gave them better grip and an unfair advantage, but no-one listened – bear in mind that this was the last Olympic Games at which the host country appointed all the officials!

In 1948, clothing was still on the ration books, so British competitors had to make do as best they could, with some simply making their own kits. Swimsuit design had improved since 1948, but kits in athletics and cycling were less aerodynamic than it is now. But by then there were also formal parades with blazer-based suits for all competitors, whereas in 1908 they had marched in the usual clothing, so there was a growing formality around sportswear, too.

WFW: Today, sporting styles seem to have entered the mainstream fashion sense. Status trainers, casual hoodies and trackie bottoms are all worn fairly commonly. Is this a new trend, or has the world of sport of always influenced fashion?

MP: There has always been a fascinating interplay between sport and fashion. Think of how the growth of horse riding in the 18th century influenced the designs of jackets, trousers, and dresses, or of the impact of mass cycling in the late 19th century on women’s clothing – that certainly had an impact on skirt lengths, corsetry, and the gradual acceptability of trousers. In the 1920s and 1930s, high status sports like golf influenced fashion at every social level, with mass produced knitting patterns for golfing sweaters like those worn by the Prince of Wales suggesting that many people were dressing like that. Winchester School of Art has got some fantastic resources on this in its library, with thousands of knitting patterns from throughout the 20th Century.  And think of tennis stars Fred Perry and René Lacoste, both of whom launched sports-themed clothing brands to cash in on their fame – Lacoste started his firm in 1933, and Perry in 1952. When mods and skinheads took Fred Perry shirts as something of a uniform in the 1960s, there was a clear separation of the style from its sporting roots. The 1980s saw a huge boom in this, particularly as football fans started adopting the casual style, wearing jackets and trousers by Fila, Pringle, and Ellesse, and high status trainers. Things have obviously gone global here, with Nike superstores in every major city, but I think that the current interplay between sports cloths and streetwear is a development of a much longer trend.

WFW: Sometimes it can feel like with sportswear, it’s a choice between comfort and style. Do you believe that this is really the case, or can both be achieved in the same garment?

MP: For high performance elite sport, comfort and functionality have to come ahead of style. The functionality varies from sport to sport, so might be about aerodynamics, aquadynamics, sweat absorption, weight, or durability, but they have to come ahead of style. What we have seen with Stella McCartney is an attempt to inject some fun and style back in without compromising the clothing’s efficiency. At mass participation level, you can see an interesting split between those who go for style and those who go for comfort. You can probably see this most clearly at the gym, where some people wear high status brands, some wear the most efficient clothing for their workout, and others wear any old t-shirt.

WFW: What are you most looking forward to about Winchester Fashion Week?

MP: A number of things. The chance for small local businesses to get noticed; the chance for young people working in fashion, marketing, and journalism to get some useful experience of a local event that can set them up for future careers; the chance for people with no fashion background to get hands-on experience; and the chance for a debate about clothing and ethics.

words and first image alys key @FashionMoriarty

other images via

One Response to “Fashion and Sport: An interview with Martin Polley”
  1. Lala says:

    Some years back Country Life published a terrific article about the Prince of Wales and his sporting wardrobe, predominant amongst which were his bespoke tartan golfing trousers and plus-fours. I kept the article as I was doing a lot of research at the time on the elite between the wars. If I can dig it out, would you like me to send you a photocopy? The colours are fantastic. He was certainly a fashion leader, shame one couldn’t say the same about his politics.

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