The concept and idea of activewear has changed dramatically over time. While clothes – and indeed sports – have existed for centuries, it wasn’t until recently that someone struck on the idea of creating clothes made for sports. Until the turn of the 20th century athletes would compete in their street clothes or – as in the case of the ancient Greeks – completely nude. Women who competed in sports would often wear smaller versions of the clothes men would wear when competing. Here’s more on the history of activewear from fashion and apparel experts The Uniform Centre.
Turn of the 20th Century
People didn’t start playing sport for the sake of it until the late 19th century. The first modern Olympics of 1896 involved upper class athletes in rudimentary clothing such as a basic t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Athletes playing tennis were expected to wear tennis whites, with tennis dresses for the women. Athletes would also wear sweaters if the weather required it.
Female athletes would still need to dress modestly. Their bathing costumes would fully cover them when at shore, and they were hardly good for competitive swimming. Women would also wear full clothing that would be too restrictive for strenuous activity.
Times had changed by 1908 however, when women started swimming. Women would traditionally wear bathing dresses while swimming, but Annette Kellerman got the idea to sew stockings onto a male racing swimsuit to create a bathing suit that looked like a catsuit.
1920s and 30s
Vogue magazine was telling their readers in the 20s that the latest fashion for the sea was to wear a jersey bathing suit as close to the maillot as one could get away with. Gertrude Ederle was the first woman to cross the British Channel, achieving the feat in 1930 in a swimsuit she designed herself that looked similar to the tank style swimsuit of today.
Fashion evolved for other sports during this time period, as Suzanne Lenglen competed wearing a short tennis skirt at Wimbledon in 1922, as well as a headband to hold back her hair rather than the traditional hat. Things got practically scandalous in 1932 when Alice Marble wore tennis shorts.
1940s and 50s
The range of fabrics expanded in the 40s and 50s as science and technology advanced. Nylon was taken out of military gear and included in running shorts and windsuits instead. The advancement of synthetic fibers also led to the mass production of activewear designed for particular sports including weather-resistant clothing and concealed pockets and hoods.
1960s and 70s
Activewear continued to evolve as styles and interests evolved. For the most part activewear was still the realm of professional athletes until casual lifestyles became more prevalent in the 1960s. The first line of activewear was introduced in 1979 in conjunction with the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic games by Levi Strauss.
Styles continued to change as social mores changed. Where once the idea of a woman wearing a maillot would be unthinkable, women have been competing in bikinis for years now. Just as warm-up suits and shorts have become a common sight in the 20th century while they were once considered to be something only athletes would wear.
These days everyone is enjoying the comfort of sweatshirts and running suits. Athletic wear continues to evolve and there’s no telling what the future will bring.