NEW YORK -- Sportswear dressing, born during the Great Depression -- is with us again. There are new pieces to put together in the separates scheme, which is a key to casual dressing.
The vest is a basic component, worn over a blouse or, new this season, over a jacket. Leather is a major factor, to be mixed with other leather pieces or with silk and wool. The scarf is a significant addition, large enough to serve as a blanket.
Put together matching pieces and you have a suit. Separate the parts and you have separates.
Does today's torpid economic climate have anything to do with the revival? Everything, says Louis Dell'Olio, who designs for Anne Klein and is one of the foremost practitioners of the art of separates dressing. Women are not in the mood to go out and buy complete new wardrobes each season, he said.
But they are not at all averse to buying a piece or two. And if it is the right piece, it will spruce up a lot of other styles. It doesn't have to be a weird piece. The right long skirt will do. So will a pair of clingy pants or even a well-cut jacket.
"The designer's job is to show the way, to offer ideas on how to mix things up," Mr. Dell'Olio said.
This line of reasoning bears a close relationship to the one that gave rise during the 1930s to the kind of clothing known as sportswear, though it had nothing to do with the playing fields. Women who could not afford a dress could buy a sweater and a blouse, which cost less. They could alternate to make their wardrobe look larger than it was, which was especially useful if the woman worked.
During the next decade sportswear blossomed. In this country, cut off from Parisian sources of inspiration during World War II, it emerged as a great creative force, a new, less-formal take on fashion. Designers like Claire McCardell, Tom Brigance and Clare Potter emphasized simple, casual cuts, fresh color combinations (like blue with green, pink with red).
The core of their collections was not the meticulously tailored suit or the elaborately jeweled ball gown, but the simple shirt or blouse, the twin sweater set, a casual jacket and a skirt. These could be rearranged in multiple ways.
A splatter of sequins on a jersey blouse or a floor-length skirt could adapt these clothes for evening. This mode of dressing fell into disrepute in the 1950s, when Paris couture revived itself. In the 1960s, the minidress, born in London, dominated fashion, followed by blue jeans and pants suits.
Not until the late Anne Klein opened her own business, in the 1970s, did sportswear move to center stage. It came to epitomize American style once again, with practitioners like Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan bringing their own visions to casual dressing.
As the fashion free-for-all of the 1980s turns into the more restrained 1990s, separates dressing offers women a chance to dip a toe into a new style without total commitment. Sensing this, sportswear designers have widened their net to include new materials and new components. Separates are more relevant than ever.