Thank heavens for the style police. Fashion offences don't come much more acute than sportswear, both armchair and active: the all-in-one sheesh, just the word makes me shiver lycra downhill ski suit slashed with garish colours; the nylon football shirt that builds up static and crackles as you pull it off; tasselled golf shoes cum brogues; go-faster stripes that snuck off the tracksuit, down the side of the car; shellsuits need I carry on?
Just over a year ago, Prada, a family firm since 1913 which shot to fame in the Eighties with that bag, stormed into the sportswear arena and pulled rank. The concept range Prada Sport was launched and, unsurprisingly, the rules have all changed. Shellsuits but don't use that word are OK; that is, if they are reinvented in semi-transparent or silver nylon piuma (that's quilting to you or me) with details like drawstring bottoms, storm pockets and velcro but don't use that word. Shoes are toggled, not tasselled. Neoprene skirts are for walking. Bum bags are out, and arm bags are in. Pac-a-macs and don't use that word either and even ponchos are OK. That is, red piuma latex, not waxy and for heaven's sake not crochet.
If, to you, the Prada collection sounds like it is just another fashion purge in waiting, then don't get too smug. While the trimmings and accessories will inevitably change, sportswear is clearly the future. If anything, it's a surprise catwalk fashion took so long to get here. Sport has an enduring, indeed escalating appeal, because the further we slope into an Americanised lifestyle of driving everywhere, ogling at TV and sitting at desks working round the clock, the more sport and active, outdoor leisure have become an ideal. To confirm this, we only have to look at mainstream advertising and its images of healthy, happy, sporting people. Sports stars have replaced film stars as our popular heroes and preferred product endorsers. Paradoxically, it is often the very same companies that persuade us health and happiness can be gained through purchasing products and mediated experiences not actually doing anything.
It is here that Prada Sport has jumped in and, indeed, to underline the point, has opened a store in New York that only sells this range. Of course, Prada's models crouch and pout too, but the collection is designed for performance: cycling shorts, a bright red golf bag, and you don't just get ski gear, but Dynastar skis. The clothes use techno fabrics developed for extreme conditions. Take 'Teflon 13v', for instance; originally developed by NASA for the inside of space rockets and later heat-tested as the surface of non-stick frying pans, it now protects your torso in the form of a shirt. With other equally sciencey and tested-to-destruction names such as 'natural tec bw4', 'velo tecnico 107m' and 'techno carta', the message is clear. Do sport. Just do it with style. Even Ivan Lendl should be pulling his half-calf socks up. Certainly the competition has been. Polo Sport, Gap Athletic and DKNY Activewear, among others, were all launched at around the same time.
More visionary than simply making sport glam, it appears that much of the new sport-fashion hybrid is smartly tailored enough to have convincingly become a new kind of clothing for work. For a new generation of workers, it may well prove to be liberating in the way women's trousers were at the beginning of the last century: comfortable, less hierarchical, more gender neutral. For females, the new way of dressing is less body-conscious and, for anyone who's ever tried striding about assertively in heels and a pencil skirt, more pro-active. This is not to say that a new wave of people strutting around in Prada power (pac-a-)macs will radically change relations of power. For now that sports concept clothing has flooded the high street too, the fashion labels will continually be looking for ways of keeping ahead of the game. To pinch a phrase, no one wants to walk around with the same arm bag as the cleaner. Nonetheless, there is cause for celebration for, in their wake, traditional notions of suitable dress and the stereotypes that go with them will be redefined.
If you think about it, the sport/fashion match was inevitable, for the two are essentially about the same thing: the pursuit of physical perfection. It is said that we do this, and look for it in our mates, in order to reproduce the myth being that fitness and beauty give an idea about the quality of a potential partner's genes. Until recently, sport and fashion have belonged to strictly different fields: sport has been about inner poise and tone, noble and largely male, while fashion has been about external appearances, superficial and traditionally female. These myths have been supported by others, such as the one that says sweat is unfeminine 'eau de', if you please, not odour and that a true man can't be race horse and clothes horse. If he is, then the latter is never his primary identity. Yet the boundaries and stereotypes have been blurring for a while. Women are changing the options available to them and at the same time rejecting traditional female representations as objects preened and pruned for 'consumption'. Men no longer need to wear the trousers culottes, clam-diggers, whatever the season calls them, are proof of that. Indeed, taking care of one's appearance is no longer seen as a weakness, for men or women. Ironically, the momentum of consumer capitalism is such that 'le male' is being churned into the image economy at the same rate as some women are trying to get out. Yet once again, in the wake of this change and the sport/fashion fusion, traditional notions of attractiveness are being redefined. We are shifting away from the dogma that female attractiveness connotes passivity, femininity and conventional beauty. The concept of Prada Sport, with its unflowery names such as 'Pants 102027h', bears testimony to this. Indeed, one of the traits which makes Prada distinctive and therefore desirable is that the clothing often looks downright gawky.
When old ideals are overthrown, new ones which are inevitably unattainable, take their place. In this millennial, digital age of cross-over clothing and unisex scents, the models err toward androgyny. This is an echo of the 1920s, the machine age, when the ideal looked beyond human possibilities to the perfect, exactly repeatable shop mannequin. Today, both in sport and beauty, we are no longer simply testing the limits of human perfection, but moving beyond them; enhancing our natural assets with a little help. When the 'help' is technological, the body and its adornments become machines and, soon, clones. Perhaps Prada is hinting at a future when the androgynous ideal is not human at all, but the bar-coded android 'model 109067w'.
Oscar Wilde once mused that 'fashion
is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to change it every six
months'. In this fast-changing world, the sport/fashion hybrid has not
only become mainstream, but has already been subverted. While Prada took
sportswear to task for its lack of je ne sais quoi, boo.com,
troubled the internet sportswear and clothing retailer, makes an ironic
case for sport without fashion: the real thing, not Prada Sportlite. The
real thing, or so the ads tell us, is a few odd blokes lumbering about
with a ball. Ironic because offbeat, offhand, streetstyle is fashion. So,
however rapidly things move on, two things become clear both from Prada
Sport and boo.com. Fashion will not be without sport again, and while fashion
may be a form of ugliness, ugliness albeit aestheticised ugliness
is more than a form of fashion. It's here to stay.