WORCESTER — With the Worcester Red Sox debuting at the brand new Polar Park, the Worcester Art Museum wanted to step up to the plate.
Its new exhibition, “The Iconic Jersey: Baseball x Fashion,” which opens June 12 and runs through Sept. 12, is inspired by the Worcester Red Sox coming to town, said the exhibition’s curator, Erin R. Corrales-Diaz, who is also the museum’s assistant curator of American art.
“Absolutely. As one of the cultural leaders in the city, WAM really wanted to celebrate this monumental occasion,” she said.
But the exhibition is more than just a walk in the park. “The Iconic Jersey” is being described as the first museum exhibition to focus specifically on the design evolution of baseball jerseys and their impact on wider national culture.
“The Iconic Jersey” has 37 garments that include historic and contemporary baseball jerseys. There are also 50 other works such as baseball cards and baseball guides that help “put into context what we’re looking at,” Corrales-Diaz said.
A baseball jersey worn by Jesse Tannehill of the Boston Red Sox that is featured in “The Iconic Jersey” seems to have a modern looking design. The top right front of the jersey has an image of a red sock with the heel and foot extending to the left side. The sock has the lettering “BOSTON.”
Actually, the year is 1908, and the team has just changed its name from Boston Americans to Boston Red Sox.
However, the new design change was a bit too much for some observers, Corrales-Diaz noted. “It’s really beautiful garment. But this new branding was not seen very favorably by the press in Boston. It was seen as garish and it was abandoned the following year.”
Logos take shape
From baseball’s onset in the mid to late 1840s, early teams did not have much visual identification but the situation would change over time.
The New York Knickerbockers adopted the first baseball uniform in 1849. Seeking to professionalize and add credibility to the sport, other teams followed in developing uniform and dress parameters for their ball teams.
A team’s name and city were markers, along with stipes in some instances (the New York Yankees, for example, in 1915), and colors.
Great care was taken with graphic elements such as the lettering. The Boston Red Sox started wearing uniform numbers on the back of their jerseys in 1931. Teams had different uniforms for home games and games played on the road.
Logos “slowly creeped in around the mid-20th century,” Corrales-Diaz said. There was more Identifiable visual branding or interaction with cartoon mascots.
“Of course it changed. It constantly evolved,” she said.
The Baltimore Orioles, formerly the St. Louis Browns before moving to Baltimore in 1954, are a case in point, she said.
Jerseys have had the lettering “Orioles,” which would get changed to “Baltimore” and then back to “Orioles.” The jerseys some years have had a shoulder patch bird, and the bird itself, also seen on the team’s baseball cap, has alternated from realistic to cartoon, Corrales-Diaz said.
Baseball jerseys have moved in a definite direction when it comes to being wearable.
“That’s a major shift. Design moves to players comfort and the way it can enhance players’ performance,” Corrales-Diaz said. Early uniforms included wool flannel and ties or bow ties, “things that in hot summer nights are not quite ideal.”
Rise of polyester
The traditional baseball jersey is collarless, button down and short sleeve. However, the jersey went from wool to a polyester meant to be “super stretchy and breathable” for the players. And “from there it’s moved from polyester to high tech fabrics,” she said.
If jerseys became easier for the players to wear, they were also a garment that fans were starting to adopt for themselves.
Team replica jerseys begin to “creep in to fan culture in the 1970s,” Corrales-Diaz said.
Wearing a replica team jersey is a way for fans to express their identity and also their belonging to a communal entity.
“To show they belong to the community you actually have fans making their own jerseys,” Corrales-Diaz said. An interesting find she made for the exhibition was a father who made his own jerseys for himself and his children that they wore to games.
“It really takes off from there. The ’80s are really a kind of free for all,” in terms of different companies manufacturing team replica baseball jerseys, she said.
“Then Major League Baseball catches on and realizes, ‘Hey, this is really marketable and should be regulated,’ ” Corrales-Diaz said.
Meanwhile, does the jersey have your name on the back? Do you show the world you have such knowledge that you put on the wool flannel jersey of a team that no longer exists? For fans “there’s a lot of decision making that goes on in which jersey to wear,” Corrales-Diaz said.
Beyond team identity, the baseball jersey became a pop culture art form or a way of wearing and making social comments. “The Iconic Jersey” exhibition has a a Black Lives Matter jersey by MIZIZI, a streetwear brand representing the African diaspora that has been worn by protesters across the globe. “Mizizi” is Swahili for “roots,” Corrales-Diaz said.
“The Iconic Jersey” is divided into three sections, she said.
Team identity key
“The Modern Jersey” pays attention to both major changes in fit and fabric brought on by technological advances to the small shifts in graphic elements, logos and colors, highlighting the importance of these developments to capturing team identity.
Among the highlights in this section are never before exhibited items from the R. J. Liebe Athletic Lettering Company, which began creating its elaborate, circular chain stitched lettering in 1923, and continues to provide lettering and other materials for major manufacturers’ uniforms.
Corrales-Diaz said one of her biggest surprises in researching and putting the exhibition together was “The sheer number of hands that go into manufacturing one of the garments. There so many different folks involved.”
Lettering can be drawn by hand and sent to a company to be stitched primarily by hand, she said. “The making of garments. There are just so many layers.”
The “Experimental Design” section of the exhibition looks at when designers experimented with ideas such as zippers and vibrant colors, Corrales-Diaz said. This was particularly true in the 1970s and ’80s. One iconic design from this period is the Houston Astros’ “rainbow” pullover.
“Off the Field” goes “beyond the ballpark to the street,” she said, and looks at how baseball jerseys permeate through popular culture, and how fashion designers pick it up and use it as a source of inspiration for runway designs.
The section also shows the role hip-hop artists of the 1990s such as Ice Cube, Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast played in bringing the jersey to streetwear styles, opening the door to the jersey’s incorporation in mainstream fashion, as well as to significant collaborations between designers, artists and activists within wider political and social movements.
“ ‘The Iconic Jersey’ takes the ‘formal’ language and concepts that we typically apply to individual works of art and, by applying it to baseball jerseys, makes it possible to bring forward new ideas and ways of looking at an article of clothing many people take for granted,” Corrales-Diaz said.
“All of these jerseys, whether made for players or for fans, reveal an extensive design process in which a designer considers fabrics, fit, shape, colors, markings and logos. When we choose to put one on, we do more than just affiliate ourselves with our chosen team. We are also embracing design, a set of aesthetic choices that help to define who we are and how we look at the world,” she said.
A two-year process
Corrales-Diaz added that the exhibition took just over two years to put together, which is pretty good going considering a pandemic occurred just as the ball was getting rolling.
All the time, “We were definitely thinking about different audiences,” she said.
“One of the challenges was making it accessible to die-hard baseball fans and those who had never been to a baseball exhibition before.”
“The Iconic Jersey” could be a fit for both.
Does “The Iconic Jersey” include a Worcester Red Sox jersey?
“You betcha,” Corrales-Diaz said.
“When I talk about the exhibition, I use the Worcester Red Sox as a good example.” From an artistic viewpoint you can “immediately see its affiliation,” she said of telling that the Worcester Red Sox is a Boston Red Sox affiliate by looking at the jersey.
“You can can read that jersey the way you can read a painting canvass and see a strong connection.”
From what visitors at the exhibition pick up, they will hopefully be able to see the connection as well. “It makes you look at these everyday objects in a new way and makes the art museum seem less of a scary place,” Corrales-Diaz said.
The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly catalogue written by Corrales-Diaz that is available from the Museum Shop for $34.95 and can be ordered by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related programing in conjunction with “The Iconic Jersey” includes a talk by graphic designer and author Todd Radom as part of the museum’s monthly Master Series Third Thursday program titled “Baseball by Design: Looking at the Rich Visual History of Our National Pastime” at 6 p.m. June 17.
WAM will also present a screening of “The Other Boys of Summer,” a documentary about racism, segregation and civil rights in America, told through the lives of the Negro League baseball players, at 6 p.m. July 15.
The Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $18 for adults, $14 for seniors 65+ and for college students with ID. Admission is free for museum members and children ages 0-17.
On the first Sunday of each month, admission is free for everyone. Museum parking is free. Admission is by timed ticket only, which must be purchased in advance at worcesterart.org.
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