The Flâneur

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The Flâneur visits 'Fashion V Sport' at the Walker Art Gallery

By Mr. Wainewright February 2009

Shedding his trenchcoat to enter 'Fashion V Sport', the Walker Art Gallery's latest exhibition, Our Man from The Flâneur made his entrance clad in a hacking jacket. Thus pupated, he reflected that sportswear has been treated as the poor relation to officers' field dress in historical writing on matters sartorial. Until perhaps twenty years ago, such representation may have been true. But this exhibition, from London's Victoria & Albert Museum, focuses on our recent and nefarious age of branded plimsols and polyester tracksuits.

The first section deals with technological innovation. What advantage, your correspondent wondered, might a tight fitting vest confer over the oiled skin of the ancient Olympian? Only to the competitive swimmer was there any evidence shown of a competitive edge, with a low-drag bodysuit in muted tones. Its clear utility was thrown into stark relief by some pseudo-scientific nonsense attributed to a thermal undergarment (plain black) for rugger players. Further examples in this section were more catwalk-oriented than sportive, and here a dialogue between those two worlds began to emerge. A particular highlight was a cyclist's suit with reflective "Lumatwill" strips woven into its tweed pattern. . Tailored in three pieces with a simply streamlined waistcoat and knee-length breeches, this elegant and practical item was something worthy of the Tweed Cycling Club themselves. The wit and utility of Lumatwill showed up the laziness of the nearby "Adidas Originals" (thanks, but I'd prefer a biscuit) effort in faux dogtooth.

The next more experimentally creative section increased the stakes in unwearability, blurring the border between streetwear and conceptual art. Dandies the world over might not flock to acquire pairs of moccasins hand-stitched onto the soles of modern training shoes, but we take the point. Particularly noticeable from here on were the remarkably varied contributions of Japanese designers, foremost amongst them Noki's "All New Bullshit" dress, humourously slashed and topped with a recognisably samurai-style helmet constructed from a common baseball cap.

Only towards the end of the exhibition do we encounter sporting accoutrements. The skateboard is conspicuously overlooked as the archetypal urban fashion accessory, but if ever you wondered how the Ottoman Empire might have decorated a snowboard, you will not be disappointed. Finally, the erotic aspect of spectator sports is explored - briefly - in the form of a photographic raree-show (if one is so inclined). Viewed through lensed peep holes, athletic male bodies with smooth chests proved more demure than their ancient predecessors, all either carefully covered or posed; castrated icons of consumer fashion rather than heroes of track or field.

'Fashion V Sport' proved overall a surprisingly likeable and thought-provoking exhibition. It deals well with the trend-driven obsession for endless variety, albeit variety within the straitjacket of global branding. It explores how a matching tracksuit has become the two-piece of recent days, yet it stops short of asking: "Why?". Could it be that in the age of M.A.D. and the I.C.B.M, the man on the street stands less safe from bureaucratic harm than did the royal despot's subject of yore, and so turns not to military cuts but to the stadium instead? The Flâneur belted his trenchcoat, and departed, still wondering.