Thursday, February 3, 2011

Part I: We've Come a Long Way Baby

Or so Virginia Slims claimed quite some time ago…and now we really have.


Well, I’m currently reading Gail Collins new book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present, an in-depth look at the history of feminism. The book is a reminder of what we fought so hard for. I was struck, for example, by an anecdote of a woman who was kicked out of court (traffic court, no less, where she had gone to pay her boss’s traffic ticket, to add insult to injury) for wearing slacks (I love that word—it’s the one Collins’ uses in the book) instead of a skirt. The incident happened in 1960. Fast forward thirty years…I worked for a law firm in the early nineties that would not allow the women lawyers (i.e. me) to wear pants to work. The day I quit that job, I started wearing pants almost every day, until the day I left. Nice pants. Slacks even. Pants that went with my jacket to complete my “suit.” And yet, that act felt thrilling and defiant, even though I had nothing to lose, since I’d already quit.

So for me, skirts, as much as I love (and loved) them, were always a bit of a sign of weakness, or imposed femininity.

Fast forward some more, but not really that much, through a generation of women slightly younger than I who enjoyed the benefits of Title IX and growing up with the feeling that they could be and do anything they wanted, and that being feminine, did not exclude being independent, that running like a girl, in other words, meant being strong. Now, instead of shying away from skirts, as we did from the expression “run like a girl,” it was time to reclaim skirts as part of our power.

We’ve arrived at 2003. Enter Nicole DeBoom, professional triathlete, Title IXer (that's her in the pic, smoking the boys on bikes). She’s out for a run one night in the dead of winter and catches sight of her reflection in a shop window as she passes by.

“I look like a boy,” she thinks.

Then, “Why can’t I look pretty? There’s nothing wrong with looking pretty while running.”

Nicole cuts her run short and goes home, her brain doing PR mile splits. On a piece of paper she writes, “women’s fitness clothing that you look and feel good wearing.”

Now Nicole knew a thing or two about fitness clothing. As a pro athlete she got a lot of free shwag from sponsors and other clothing companies. But mostly what she got were men’s size XS clothing, or women’s clothing that looked, or felt, like it was made by men. Sure there was some cute stuff, but that was all the après workout gear, as if a woman changed her nature once the workout was over. Forget that age-old (and hopefully dead) dichotomy of Madonna-Whore, now it’s Athlete-Feminine, as if those two are an oxymoron.

Nicole’s speeding brain pauses briefly to consider the example set by Juicy Couture, a company that had managed to make sweatpants, the least sexy of all apparel, actually look hot. And she thinks about how busy most women who workout are, how much they’d like versatility in their workout clothes, so they don’t end up doing errands in their running tights or shorts.

Where to begin? Well, with Nicole’s least favourite of all running gear—shorts. The options available, before Nicole mixed in, were spandex shorts, which required physical perfection, which meant they could be worn happily for about a one minute window a year; and regular shorts, which rode up, or looked …well…you know how running shorts look, there’s a good reason why you don’t see that silhouette spilling over into other fashion arenas; and what’s with that strangely baggy underwear?

Nicole moves from dream to reality. She hires some people she can barely afford to help with sewing. She sketches her own designs (and no, you didn’t miss the part where she studied drawing or clothing design). Her first running skirt (likely the first ever running skirt, period) is made with regular lycra from Joanne’s Fabrics, no athletic grade, fancy tech wicking, four-way stretching, or performance compression.

In September 2004, after run-testing a few prototypes, Nicole debuts one of her skirts at Ironman Wisconsin, wins the race; and would have won best outfit on the course, if that had been a category. Not to mention that she blazes a whole new direction in how strong women are going look in the heat of competition.

A week later she places her first order for skirts and Skirt Sports is born, launching in early 2005.


In the meantime, if you're checking out Skirt Sports' website, check it out a little more closely, because you might have a special opportunity to pick out something fun for yourself. Details of a contest and giveaway of a $75 gift certificate to Skirt Sports coming in a blog post shortly!