Jersey in the Ballroom: Geoffrey Beene’s Sportif Evening Wear

Geoffrey Beene was in his fourth year of designing experimental, but massively wearable, womenswear under his own label when he landed the September 1967 Harper’s Bazaar cover. The featured look is now an unforgettable, much-referenced icon of 20th century American fashion: Geoffrey Beene’s football jersey evening dresses, “spangled for nighttime play” in the words of Harper’s editors. While this native of Louisiana was reportedly inspired by his love of football, it was the material – jersey knit – that continued to define many of his designs.

Beene felt that evening wear had become too structured, incompatible with modern taste for freedom. Beene himself was known to be turned away from high-end restaurants, for his refusal to wear a tailored jacket. As early as 1970, Beene used sweatshirt knits and denim in evening wear, a pioneer of a high-low sensibility still influential in design today.

Beene told Vogue in 1994: “One of my greatest pleasures has been to take jersey and men’s fabrics into the ballroom. I could work in nothing but wool jersey and be perfectly’s always had that sportif quality – after all, it was originally used for men’s swimwear.”

Many observers connect Beene’s early medical training to his masterful cutting of cloth, engineered to spiral around the body’s contours. That inventive piecing and seaming elevated his collections’ sportswear fabrics, liberating and flattering a woman’s body. Unexpected elements lifted from athletic apparel, such as inset panels of cotton mesh, punctuated Beene’s award-winning collections through the 1990s.

Beene wanted consumers to be able to put on his designs and forget about them, moving freely and feeling empowered. He observed, “I am very concerned about the modernity of clothes.” Observing today’s athletic influences in all categories of design, there’s little doubt that Geoffrey Beene’s resolutely modern aesthetic continued to inspire.