In our exploration of citizenship and wearable technology, sport and clothing for exercise are emerging as an important area not only because of the large number of available patents. Sport and citizenship are closely connected.
International professional sporting competitions like world championships or the Olympic Games are not only opportunities for individual athletes to demonstrate their skills to a large audience, but they play an important role in discourses of national excellence and glory as well as patriotism.
Supporting your national team and taking pride in its success can be a way to signal your belonging and national identity. But as sport is all about movement and many clothing inventions engage with questions of freedom of movement, sporting garments are also a generative topic through which to explore who is enabled to move and for what purposes and how this might be tied to perceptions about citizenship, rights and the nation-state.
A group of professional athletes during a sprinting race in a stadium.
Photo Credit: Jonathan Cheng (@jon_chng)
There are lots of clothing inventions related to different sporting activities in the POP patent dataset. A keyword search for ‘sport’ brings up 9,517 patents. Due to the nature of our dataset these results only include patents that actually have the word ‘sport’ in the title or abstract. Consequently, patents that are specific to a particular type of sport such as swimming, cycling or running might not be included in the search results as would be the case for patents that use terms like ‘exercise’ or ‘fitness’ rather than ‘sport’.
A search for ‘fitness’, for example, yields 690 results; ‘cycle’ brings up 2,328 patents and ‘swimsuit’ 1,276. Though while some patents might obviously be duplicates because the title or abstract might include more than one of these keywords, this still speaks to the relatively large volume of sports-related clothing inventions within the dataset.
The meaning of ‘freedom of movement’ is multiple and changes over time.
Many of the inventors in our dataset actively discuss the pros and cons of their clothing inventions in relation to freedom of movement and the respective sporting activity. The meaning of ‘freedom of movement’ is multiple and changes over time. It is political, ideological, physical and material and has a lot to do with being out in public.
Especially in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, inventors tried to make sure that the bodies of sportspeople were sufficiently covered according to common standards of decency while, at the same time, enabling people to move freely.
Appropriate coverage of the body was especially important in relation to women’s sporting dress which, for a long time, consisted primarily of a loose blouse, knickerbockers or bloomers with skirts or practical overalls that could also be worn during everyday activities (Treagus 2005).
As Jack William Viola, the inventor for such a suit, states in his 1925 patent description: ‘the chief object of the invention is to provide an improved skirt, which has the general appearance of an ordinary skirt […] but is so designed as to permit of considerable freedom of movement and still provide an adequate covering during the movements so that it is particularly useful for sports’ (Pat. GB244271A).
A 1925 UK patent for ‘Improvements in or relating to wearing apparel’ (Pat. GB244271A) by Jack William Viola.
For men, concerns about modesty and the public display of active bodies were also relevant, yet, they played out on a very different scale as a rather revealing 1934 ‘Athletic Suit’ for men by Willard A. Crego from the state of New York illustrates.
The suit may be worn either on its own or with a pair of trunks to ‘allow the greatest amount of freedom of movement to the wearer, while at the same time the parts will be held against displacement from their proper position on the body’ (Pat. US1962984A).
A 1934 ‘Athletic Suit’ (Pat. US1962984A) for men by Willard A. Crego from the US.
But sportswear is not only designed so people can move more easily. Many inventors also hope to improve people’s performance through specialist clothing. For instance, a 1991 Japanese multipurpose ‘Sports Wear’ suit is designed to create ‘a low resistance of air or water’ for the body for increased speed in ‘field short-distance races, speed skating, skiing, swimming’ (Pat. JPH03137203A).
Commonly, we probably think of wearable tech primarily in relation to popular smart electronic and digital devices like watches or wristbands that track the wearer’s heart rate, blood pressure or number of calories burned. Yet, performance enhancing clothing like the examples discussed here also show how clothing is a technology in and of itself – one of the key premises of the POP research.
Garments are the creative and innovative result of a maker’s attempt to solve an issue – from making swimmers faster to enabling women to cycle without getting their skirts caught in the wheels while also looking modest and adhering to popular dress codes.
A 1991 Japanese multipurpose ‘Sports Wear’ (Pat. JPH03137203A) suit for different racing sports.
The material used in the construction of modern sports garments is as important as the design. Inventors develop and use synthetic fabrics that are sweat absorbent and stretchable among other things. Contemporary athletic wear is often tightly fitted to the body and the design is optimised to work in conjunction with human physique.
A ’Sports Garment’ invented by Pedro Prat Gonzalez from Spain and patented in the US in 2006 is made from ‘a lightweight, elastic and adaptable fabric’ (Pat. US2006200890A1). The garment includes special inserts in ‘at least one prominent or articulated area of the human body’ where specific muscles are under special duress during a particular activity like swimming or running.
The inserts are created from a special polymer or copolymer material with the hope of basically being able to mould the garment so closely to the human body that no air or water which may have adverse effects on the athlete’s speed may pass between the body and the suit.
It matters what types of bodies are sporting high-performance athletic clothing
However, it clearly matters what types of bodies are sporting high-performance athletic clothing. Black US tennis star Serena Williams was severely criticised and body shamed for wearing a tight full-body athletic suit specifically created to fit her body and to prevent blood clots during the 2002 US Open.
Simone Biles, a Black American gymnast and Olympic gold medallist, has likewise faced much abuse over the look of her body in the types of leotards commonly worn by gymnasts. These athletes’ bodies, their clothing and performance are regularly encapsulated in racist and sexist discourses (Schultz 2005; Aguirre 2020).
During the semi-final against French player Amelie Mauresmo at the same US Open, Williams’ sister Venus also had to endure the audiences’ disdain as the mostly American crowd cheered enthusiastically for her French opponent. This incidence prominently brings the links between athletic excellence, nationalism, gender and race to the fore.
It is important to pay attention to which bodies get equipped to move on sports courts, playing fields, and tracks or to simply go for a run or cycle around the block. As a result, we may gain important insights into the material and discursive creation of active citizens and its links with national identity; insights about who gets to be active in public, in what ways, and for what purpose.
Aguirre, A. 2020. Simone Biles on Overcoming Abuse, the Postponed Olympics, and Training During a Pandemic. Vogue. https://www.vogue.com/article/simone-biles-cover-august-2020
Schultz, J. 2005. Reading the Catsuit: Serena Williams and the Production of Blackness at the 2002 U.S. Open. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 29(3), 338–357. https://doi.org/10.1177/0193723505276230
Treagus, M. 2005. Playing Like Ladies: Basketball, Netball and Feminine Restraint. The International Journal of the History of Sport, 22(1), 88–105. https://doi.org/10.1080/0952336052000314593