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Tracksuits: from statement to decay and all the way back in trend

No matter the perspective you have upon such an apparel piece as the tracksuit, a thing is certain; this is an item with a fussy contemporary history, that aimed to make a statement, starting the moment it surpassed its purely utilitarian purpose.

Actually, looking back at the past at least four decades, we can even consider the tracksuit as a revitalised vintage piece and the only arguments against this judgement are linked to its nature as being a sportswear. In fact, due to the past heavy use of tracksuits as fashionable items, they are no longer perceived in the top of people’s minds purely as clothing for sportsmen or even active people. Whenever a cultural shift was born, especially when we talk about the subcultures at the time, the tracksuit was there, handy, comfy, borderline decent looking and disruptive enough to inspire and connect people who wanted to be different.

Obviously, during its first decades of existence, the tracksuit varied depending on the cause it served for the people who wore it, being followed by its latter reinterpretations as an attempt of nostalgia or an innovative trend setting, if we regard some kinds you can find on the market nowadays. Basically, these mentioned causes are derived from probably the most notable characteristic of this clothing piece; its versatility. You can add or take colours or elements out and change the whole look of the same item. Actually, concerning their early days, the difference of context, in terms of decade and subculture, was made through the material the tracksuits were made of, from polyester, to velour and then nylon, as well as the colours, from all black and plain colours to neons and pastels.

Brief contextual history for tracksuits as fashionable items

Tracksuits during the mainstream disco fever

Tracksuits lost their utilitarian purpose as sole function of usage when the whole fitness craze got propositions and along with it, people became more interested in their body sculptures. Basically, the tracksuit, once dedicated only to athletes and sports people, left the fields, stadiums and rings and entered the neighbourhood gyms, fitness or aerobic studios, where it met and intertwined with the pop culture at the time. Thus, this just reinvented clothing article borrowed elements of style from this decade of colour and extravagance, giving birth to the “shell suit”, basically the ancestor of the nowadays tracksuit. With new textures, such as nylons and a variety of patterns, the tracksuit made it all the way to commercials, music videos and movies, stepping into the fashion zone and becoming an item in trend.  

Besides the already mentioned advantage of being versatile, tracksuits had another ace in the sleeve, which helped them become popular in the 80s; the ease of putting an outfit together, without actually doing so, because its two pieces were already matched and peculiar. However, if you actually wanted to be more creative, of course the pieces could’ve been used separately, but this wasn’t necessarily the case in the 80s, at least not yet, since the tracksuit was in its early days and worked best for the decade while complete. Also, this ease of getting dressed and looking ready to strike the street style was expressed through some features of the component pieces, such as their loose cut, the zippers up to the sides of the legs or the elastic waists and ankles. Basically, it was possible to put the pants on without taking the sneakers off and jump from the suburban streets right inside the gym in the corner of the block. That’s how handy it was to integrate the tracksuit in your routine. In fact, the article was breathing convenience throughout all of its pores and the most important aspect was that this affordable comfort was in trend and also, in full accordance to this era’s culture of liberation and diversity.

Representing the hood. Tracksuits within hip-hop subculture

Although, as mainstream as the tracksuit was due to the pop culture of the disco fever decade, this didn’t stop the newly revived item to infiltrate itself inside the “real hoods”. Actually, the reason why this decade was so diverse is the birth of several lasting genres of pop art that aimed to express certain communities, one of them being hip-hop. The core determinant that facilitated the move towards this emerging staple was the same as in the case of the mainstream segment: sports. Basically, the genre arose from the neighbourhoods, where casually played sports, such as basketball, were the means people used to entertain themselves and form squads. Once again, the tracksuit played its convenience card, making it easy to step out the basketball field and hang out with your mates or attend some apartment parties where this new music style was played, mixed and MCed on.

Although, as hip-hop was all about standing out in the crowd and representing a vilified community, the trend setters at the time had to be creative and express their cultural background and social context. Namely, this new style combined the extravagance of the decade, with the story the community of origin wanted to share and some exotic influences of the Afro-American cultural pattern. As a result, the tracksuit met big logos, bling-blings and other clothing articles, that helped the hip-hop pioneers to create a new style and convey the message. Probably one of the most relevant example for the tracksuit in its iconic branded state is the endorsement realised by Run-D.M.C. for Adidas.

However, even within the same genre, the tracksuit evolution was noticeable during the decade. As expected, the early days complied with the 80’s vibe, with clothing items being more excessive, colourful and boldly combined. On the other hand, in the late 80s, hip-hop music became more serious, dark, passionate and even savage, and so did the tracksuit, which started to be more relevant and representative for the staple. By this time, the tracksuit jacket had already developed a hood, as a practical way to cover the face of the rebellious rappers, while the pants had become baggier, showing that the members of this community were misfits.

Besides hip-hop, another side subculture that arose along with it in the hoods was breakdance. Developed from the same idea of squad cohesion and passion for music and sports, this athletic style of street dance perfectly integrated the tracksuit in the story, with more accent on its functionality than in the case of hip-hop fashion.

Tracksuits during the pop culture of 90s and early 2000s

As the tracksuit stepped into the 90s, there was no need to justify why it started to be fashionable, as it had already intertwined with the quotidian and was a common apparel item. In comparison to the previous decade, the 90s trends promoted minimalism and a casual-chic approach to everyday street style. In the meantime, hip-hop and breakdance continued to be more and more popular, along with their iconic clothing that aimed to make a statement against conformism. More than that, a notable contribution in putting the tracksuit on the bigger map belonged to the birth and raise of the fast fashion, starting with the late 90s and continuing in the 2000s. For the first time, it was easier than ever to set trends and bring the fashion of the suburbs and edgy communities to the masses that were hungry for inspiration.

Also, as the 90s were all about expressing yourself and looking like you didn’t put any effort in the outfit, the tracksuit designs started to have a looser cut, letting convenience and comfort intervene one more time. However, the versatility advantage played a much bigger role in this decade. The tracksuit’s component pieces started to be worn separately in the mainstream fashion and combined with other popular items at the time, such as crop tops and baggy jeans, especially since hoodies were already a big thing and they could get paired up with a wide range of skirts and trousers.

Another new trend that came with this casual vibe of the 90s was the combination of styles. As the popularity of grunge and alternative rock increased during the decade of hip-hop and b-boying, the fashion of these two genres borrowed elements from each other and the tracksuit met either gothic colours and elements or was simply introduced among electric guitars and drums. After all, it was about comfortability and versatility, wasn’t it? More than that, the tracksuit pants could’ve been seen with bolder pieces, such as satin, metallic, or microfiber tops, while the jackets were fine alongside any A-shaped skirts or culottes. Actually, it was the beginning of the tracksuit becoming glossy and potentially a club wear, if blended with the right items.

By the early 2000s, the tracksuits were more than ever in the mainstream zone, being part of the media culture at the time. Pop bands and R&B singers introduced them in their videos, events outfits and street style and, as a result, the tracksuit was right in the middle of the paparazzi craze and on popular magazine covers.

The decay of tracksuits: falling out of fashion

The whole being mainstream period was a peak for the tracksuit as a fashionable piece of clothing and basically, the beginning of this era’s end. The tracksuit was officially decaying, as the loose clothing trend started to fade and be substituted by tight and more provocative kind of items. Soon, there wasn’t enough space for the old, savourless and flared tracksuit of the 90s. Although some 80s influences, such as bright colours and extravagant patterns, were back in trend, the memory of the funky shell suit was long gone. In fact, all that was left in people’s minds regarding the tracksuit was this clothing item made of too much fabric, completely not sexy enough for the new millennia.

However, probably the most powerful contribution to tracksuits’ falling out of fashion belonged to a new subculture that arose during the 2000s, namely the chavs. This British subculture, which represented the lower class, spread rapidly on an international level and damaged tracksuits’ reputation, due to their association with this community’s style. Specifically, the chav fashion consisted of branded clothes, imitation designer items, black culture adopted elements and an overall kitsch look and feel. Additionally, due to the fact that this fashion was considered typical for a less educated social class, the prejudices were transferred from people to clothing and as a consequence, to the recently ‘not so cool anymore’ tracksuit. This aspect was consistently highlighted through the internet, which was gaining territory and helped the spread of irony concerning chavs wearing trackies. A relevant example regards the jokes related to Eastern European immigrants in the Western countries, who were stereotypically representative for this fashion.

Actually, as a result, the tracksuit stepped back in its utilitarian zone, being regarded proper solely for athletic activities, and fell out of fashion for the rest of the decade.

The comeback of tracksuits

Starting the second decade of the new millennia, 80s fashion was strongly recycled, going back in trend once again. Specifically, athleisure became the new black and this new wave of liberation and non-conformism gave fashionistas the possibility to mix trends and make more use of convenience. Basically, this decade is reclaiming so many past trends, that there is currently no context we cannot integrate the tracksuit in, meaning it has no boundaries as a clothing item. We can say that it achieved its maturity stage, going from utilitarianism as its sole purpose of usage, to the infantile phase of a trending piece, to expressing subcultures, to its latter decay and finally to being revitalised. Basically, the tracksuit could be seen as a vintage item, a fact which gives it the potential to be worn in any kind of its previous form, going from being minimalist to eccentrical. Moreover, the combinations are endless and this infinity of choices proves how far the tracksuit got from the days when it was simply dedicated to athletes and professional sportsmen.

Tracksuits’ versatility in the modern context

Continuing on the idea of infinite possibilities for matching this clothing article, we cannot underestimate the current trend of wearing tracksuits alongside a pair of heels, or even a fancy top. Celebs use to make and match outfits that once could have seen at least as odd, if not scandalous, in terms of fashion recipes, making a statement about non-conformism. In fact, the tracksuit is once again where it used to be in its early days; in a place where it can express a philosophy, a mind-set of living life. And the nowadays cultural truth to be expressed is that we have so much choice, it would be a pity not to explore and exploit it fully. To dig dipper and explain that this match between athleisure and elegance is not simply a trend, but a form of liberation from society’s norms and boundaries, we have to analyse what it truly means. Heels are a symbol for sophistication, gentility and femininity, while sportswear stand for ambition, determination and even masculinity, especially if we regard the hip-hop era. They also indicate rebellion and outstandingness, while being misfit. Together, they are an encouragement for women to disregard society’s stereotypes and labels and be who they really are. Putting together a tracksuit and a pair of heels tells the world that even if two pieces weren’t designed to go together, they can still be astonishing and impactful.

Take for example Bella Hadid, which is officially the master of styling sporty clothes. When most people would wear a tracksuit while heading to the gym of laying on the couch, she managed to turn them into a major street style looks.

Celebs are loving the high-heel and jogging bottoms combo – and there are various takes on the look.

Stars such as Jenna Dewan have paired brightly coloured tracksuit bottoms with the poppers undone to give a peep of their towering heels.

Other takes on the look include heeled boots with cropped retro-style joggers – a la Emily Ratajkowski.

So, how do you feel about this trend? Would you wear it – and more importantly, to which ocasion?

Love, Navitique.