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Form, function, and fashion in athletic wear

The Juventus soccer team and the Stad Francais rugby team


A tennis court is not a red carpet. A golf course is not a red carpet. Yet with every Open, every Olympics, the buzz begins: “Who is she wearing?” “What was he thinking?”


Usually, the buzz gets it wrong, but to err is understandable. I had to move to another continent and be exposed to nonstop billion-euro soccer programming before I noticed the missing piece in sports fashion play-by-play: function.


An Oscar night outfit should encourage fans to applaud, but nothing about a Tom Ford tux or Christian Dior gown is going to put that award in a star’s hand. The hard work has already been done, and the outfit is pure icing. Sports apparel, on the other hand, must be designed in a way that helps the athlete succeed, and this is a factor way beyond positive body image and crowd control. Sportswear should provide a performance edge through visibility, comfort, compression, buoyancy, injury protection, climate awareness, and heat and moisture control. (Somebody should mention this to Stella McCartney, but I will get back to that.)  


The first time I walked into a sports bar in Europe, I saw a soccer match on the screen and stopped cold. Why so many refs? I wondered. But they were not refs. They were members of the Italian team Juventus, which hails from the city where Fiat cars are built, and for once I did not like the Italian look. Vertical black and white striped jerseys reminded me of American football referees, and no amount of hair product or muscle tone could reconfigure the disconnect. It was as if someone asked me to drive on the left side of the road.


“It’s not right,” I said to my husband.  “They started out in pink,” was all he said, not taking his eyes off the match. Pink I understand. We hear about color psychology, with its I’m-in-charge black and blazing-hot-excited red. I knew that pink was for boys long before it got repurposed for girls, and that a French rugby team, Stad Francais, suits up in bright pink—even today—to send one message: it can. Widespread use of stripes, on the other hand, I had to learn about.


Soccer teams took to using durable but cheap striped mattress material to distinguish themselves from teams dressed universally in white. But there was something else about the stripe. In 1920, Lloyd Olds was refereeing an American football match, when the white-jerseyed quarterback mistakenly threw the football to the white-shirted Olds. “This is stupid,” Olds said, or something along those lines, and showed up for the next game in a loud black-and-white-striped shirt. The crowds hated the look. They even booed him, but Olds did not care. The design worked and the look stuck.


Smart athletes have long understood the importance of color, contrast, and pattern. Buffalo Bills equipment manager Dave Hojnowski will tell you that in 1984, his team switched from white helmets to red to help the quarterback spot his receivers amidst a sea of white-helmeted Colts, Dolphins, and Patriots. In fact, some athletes understand visibility enough to design invisibility into their playbook. The Boise State University Blue Broncos wear blue pants and jerseys on a blue turf, surrounded by blue padded barriers and blue-jerseyed fans. Eastern Washington University looks like a cherry slushy exploded all over the stadium. This tromp l’oeil chicanery may work (the Broncos have only lost four home games since 1999), but at a lower level of play—like seven-year-old team sports and anything I do—it is best to play it safe and work with contrast. Put your t-ballers and soccer kids in stripes. If stripes aren’t an option, choose red. If no red, then pick pink because pink-shirted teammates are easier for the eye to grab than those in navy or green, and if anyone objects to pink as being sissy, whip out a wallet-sized photo of Stad Francais and pass it around.


Anyone who has ever seen an opponent in highlighter-yellow tennis shoes knows how confusing it is for tired eyes to look across a net into a ping-pongy lottery ball machine of competing bouncy things. Chris Evert and Tail have just launched a new line of tennis wear, and she serves up bright yellow in a way that could help prove my color hypothesis: color matters, and in sports, it matters beyond Pantone’s color of the year or a “look how it sets off her eyes” kind of way. I was more drawn to Maria Sharapova’s US Open outfit than any other outfit worn in that tournament. Her outfit was blend-in blue, but it stood out plenty when it came to freedom of movement, built-in support, clean lines, and a longer-legged ball short.


The trick with tennis wear is to find an outfit that falls between ice dancer and beach volleyball player. A player needs freedom of movement, moisture control, ball carrying ability, and body part support, packaged in a way that says “I’m in control but without distraction or excess.” This is a lot to demand, but Nike regularly hits this do-everything mark, and, fortunately for all of us, other companies are catching on. Monreal of London’s tennis playing owner sells a hard to find non-tank dress that covers the over-sunned décolleté and shoulders without looking like a man’s golf shirt. Fila’s 2015 collection includes knee covering tights with ball pockets. Ralph Lauren is building health monitoring devices into its T-shirt lines. I am not sure what they monitor, but the guys in the ads seems to be doing well by them.


Not even the professionals should risk delegating apparel decisions to sponsors. Nike once asked Tiger Woods to wear a dark green shirt at a PGA Championship. Woods looked at the rep and said, “The PGA is in Oklahoma in August. There’s no way. I’m not wearing that dark shirt in that heat.” Right. You would think someone before Tiger would have spotted the issue.


Golf has had its own battles with function over form, but, in golf, function has a long history of winning. As early as the 1700s, Scots wore colorful jackets to help ward off flying golf balls. Victorian-age drab tried to push performance into the shadows, but it failed. Men began showing up in plus fours (knickers cropped four inches below the knee), while ladies played in skirts with adjustable hems so that they, too, could walk into the longer grasses and keep clothes dry. In the 1920s and thirties, men would come from work and tuck suit pants into knee socks when they hit the course.


Thomas Wolfe tells us that that the golfing elite began wearing loud golf pants in the fifties because, like rugby players in pink, they could, but golfers—especially with pants—have always challenged norms. Companies are now focusing even more on safety and comfort—from moisture control material to traction. But here is the big secret: a mixed reputation stemming from loud patterns and dress code conservatism obscures the reality that golf attire can be the most attractive, multi-functional, weather and body friendly clothing on the market.


The various looks can be confusing. They can range from bright to subtle sophistication, including the “Lily Pulitzer as a big drunk guy who liked to laugh” look. American Rickie Fowler falls into the bright category, whether he is swinging a club in head-to-toe Puma-brand orange or is daring grasses to stain him in his white pants, sixties-styled belt, and pastel striped shirt. English wildsters like Ian Poulter favor vintage modes, showing up in argyles and knickers.


The majority of golf wear in North America and continental Europe, however, fits into the subtle sophistication range, take-no-risk clothing for take-no-risk clientele. These companies sponsor the McElroys, Woods, Spieths, and Stensons of the world, but the lines should not be limited to men and women who golf. Many companies are competing within a limited number of pattern and style options, so the designers work hard for attention. The results of all that hard work pay off. The richly toned colors and clean block, window paned, and striped patterns are made with new materials such as those adding antimicrobial to moisture absorbent protection, from stretchy to  super soft to hyper-everything. It is a wonder we are not all clamoring for a baby line of golf wear, too. Having trouble finding a tennis outfit for early outdoor play? Try a golf line.


There are no limits. You can go sockless in the Biion Oxford Brights because they are antimicrobial. Want socks? Try the Fusion Golf from Stance because they come with traction control. I would go anywhere, even a last-minute business meeting in Nike’s black, long sleeve Victory polo paired with a black and gray printed skort and Ecco hybrid shoes. Alternatively, I would combine a J. Lindeberg technical jacket with its stretchy Aahlaiah polo dress, a dress that allows for free movement without tummy exposure or tucking-in nonsense. The back stripe may not be for all, but I actually wish it were reflective. It aids course visibility, a bit, but also has a slimming effect. (The striping on design darling Stella McCartney’s running pant says only one thing: “Warning! Wide Load.” )


Finally, American sportswear companies are copying their European counterparts for trim, sharp cold and rain protection. When my father started asking me to bring technical sweaters over from Sweden because he liked the no-nonsense look, I knew America was in a slump. Things are better now, but, even today when colder months threaten, I still turn to countries set in mountain ranges or at extreme latitudes. Golf apparel designer Chervo (who sponsors Russian golfer Maria Verchenova) does not disappoint, featuring down-free vests, rich prints, and a sweatshirt for men that is good looking enough to wear anywhere. It also looks like you could wear a tee underneath without it showing.


Although much sportswear can cross over between sports and to non-sports activities, serious cold and snow demands that we shift attention to serious cold and snow apparel companies. Here, performance is critical, and it is not easy to know what or how much to put on, or whether your feet are cold because of circulation or because of an inferior sock or boot. Variation in glove performance can be mindboggling. Plus, materials change rapidly, taking on names we may not know, while less snowy winters make retailers nervous, and apt to reach out to the standard identifiers like Gore-tex. But there are new products, and it would be a shame to miss out on a product that could work for you. One idea is to experiment with another’s gear. Borrow a coat, for example, to see how it feels. It is an odd request, sure, but ski wear needs test driving, so try. The request will be perceived as a compliment.


As for function and form, my favorite find this year is kind of a sleeper, but still I gasped when I spotted the down-like filled anorak by Swedish line Colour Wear. Wind and rain protection is simply not enough for all who venture out, and this cozy pullover is the Reese’s peanut butter discovery of coats. It was no surprise to me that German design wear company Bogner turned to an Italian designer for the first pair of snow pants (Lene) I have ever seen that I might actually want to put on, while NorthFace is doing everything it can with its Tight Ship jacket to trick us into believing we are skiing in Hawaii.


Vintage-look ski wear from Rider, Carrera, and Rudask


At the other end of the spectrum, some of the new gear designed to protect our heads and feet has a distinct North American football feel. Austrian company Carrera offers a foldable ski helmet suggesting the old leather helmets. The Canadian coat from Rudsak follows this motif, while Rider and Butron offer weathered leather snowboard boots. If floral motifs or thirties era football is not your favorite look, try Bonfire’s Fireman Jacket. Maybe no one will ask to see your ticket to ride the lift. Maybe they will think you are on the slopes for official fire fighting business.


Oddly, when it comes to sportswear, the issue I am least concerned with is cost. Unlike office and casual wear, the items last like family pets, the styles are rarely trend victims, the stretch forgives fluctuation in weight, the pieces are flexible enough for crossover use, and their protection allows me to explore places and adventures I might otherwise avoid. The functionality built into a well designed outfit makes it a great value. It just took a bunch of guys who looked like refs to help me realize how great.          





Sweden-based writer Catherine Berlin teaches “Writing Funny, and Other Ways to Persuade,” as well as other courses via video at the University at Buffalo law school.


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