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Athleisure Fashion Trend: Then & Now

Today, athleisure is an everyday favorite style of clothing for people everywhere. Its comfort and versatility make it a go-to not only for use in gyms and yoga studios but in casual and even workplace settings.


Its universal appeal is so common in our culture today that it has become second nature; nobody thinks twice about wearing joggers to a coffee shop or yoga pants to the grocery store. 

Taking a look at the history leading up to athleisure as we know it today shows that it’s not merely a trend in fashion, but a shift in the way that people dress as a whole. This shift in the way people dress has roots in several aspects of society including technology, media, and personal health and fitness. The arc of athleisure from its origins suggests that it’s here to stay.

The Origins of Modern Sports and Athletic Attire

Part of the rise of athleisure and incorporation into our everyday clothing is due to a shift in how sports and fitness have become ingrained into society over time. This includes participation in sports as well as the pastime of watching sports. 

Sports and fitness were not always common and available to society the way they are today. In the late 17th century, upper-class members of society were the majority of people who had the means to engage in leisure activities like athletics. At this time they would wear versions of their proper, tailored, upper-class clothing to participate in sports like croquet, tennis, and golf. 

To play tennis, for example, men would wear blazers and flannel trousers, and women wore corsets and long skirts. Not exactly what people would call activewear today. Part of the reasoning for this was the context the sport was played in.

Sports were often played through club associations that included dress codes or club colors. These clubs were just as much a context for upper-class social interaction as they were about athletic development or competition. 

People were concerned with maintaining their appearance to match the high-class activities they were engaging in. There was also a different idea of modesty, especially for women, than society has today. The emphasis of dress for sports activities during these times was on form, not function. 

As athletics continued to progress, the need for functional attire began to take precedence over keeping up a traditional understanding of what was proper. In 1933, Rene Lacoste introduced the short sleeve polo to the sporting world. At the time it was a forward-thinking advancement from the long sleeve shirts that his tennis contemporaries were wearing at the time.

As the sports themselves continued to progress, so did the clothing that was worn while playing. Eventually, professional sports of all kinds became more formalized, publicized, and the fanbase for sporting events took off. 

Sports Broadcasting and Sports Attire

With the introduction of widespread sports radio and television broadcasts in the 1920s and 1940s respectively, professional sporting events eventually became money-making machines for athletes and networks alike. Television especially had an impact on sports attire, because it showed to the masses what the best players in the world were wearing. 

The popularity of sports among the general public created a specific target market. This led to the emergence of sports marketing as an entire sector of marketing, and performance sportswear a sector in the marketplace. 

Athletes started becoming brand ambassadors for food and drink companies, and, of course, athletic footwear and apparel. Brand names then became synonymous with the athletes that wore them. This would eventually influence people to wear athletic wear in a casual setting. 

New Textiles for Comfort and Performance

Up until the 1980s, even the best athletes in the world were limited to clothing made from natural materials. Cotton, wool, silk, and linen were the most common and available fabrics. However, in the ’80s new synthetic materials were developed that would change the landscape of athletic clothing forever. Nylon and spandex quickly became the standard for athletic performance apparel. 

These developments in fabric technology were the beginning of the lightweight, stretchy, breathable materials that make up athleisure today. At the time, however, clothing made from these materials was not typically worn outside an athletic setting.

Workout Craze of the 80’s

In the same era of these breakout new materials, health and fitness for the common individual became popular for the first time. Before the 1980s, gyms were used by high-performance athletes and bodybuilders. However, fitness became marketed and acknowledged as a path to self-improvement and a way to combat health issues and aging, and a fitness craze swept over the globe. 

The new popularity of fitness clubs, group aerobics, and fitness tv programs encouraged a healthy and fit lifestyle. Part of that healthy and fit lifestyle included wearing the clothing to match the part. Brightly colored spandex and nylon were the fitness clothing of choice for many, but it didn’t see much use outside the gym.

Today, fitness is obviously still an important part of the individual daily and weekly routine. One difference between the fitness culture of today and the workout craze of the 1980s is that it is more ingrained into our society now, as opposed to the exciting new trend that it was in the ’80s.

Athleisure clothing developed out of this emergence of health and fitness as an entire lifestyle, as opposed to the activity or subscription that it was when it first gained popularity. The ’80s were still premature for athleisure because although working out became popular, health and fitness were still relatively young and not yet instilled as a universal value in society. Gym clothes and street clothes were still separate and didn’t crossover. 

Sportswear Hits The Streets

During the 1990s, athletic attire had well established itself into casual fashion. The popularity of athletes like Michael Jordan sold sneakers and clothing to fans everywhere. Musicians had a similar influence, particularly hip-hop artists, who reimagined athletic attire for casual wearing and created streetwear.

The introduction of athletic wear into contemporary fashion during the ’90s led to a change in how people would perceive status, and how brands would market it. Until the middle part of the 20th century, athletic attire still clung to its roots as part of the upper echelon of society. Even after performance and function became the focus of athletic clothing, traditional tailored clothing was still a symbol of wealth and status outside of an athletic setting. 

Athletic Attire as High Fashion

Over the first two decades of the 21st century, fashion brands have fully embraced athletic-based designs and marketed items like hoodies and sweatpants as luxury wear. Athletic designs have even found their way to red carpet events and fashion runways. 

This shows a complete change from the beginning of athletic attire when people wore blazers to play tennis in so as not to compromise their high-status appearance. Today’s fashion brands, designers, and consumers no longer perceive a separation between athletic attire and luxury fashion or high-class status.

Athleisure: Clothing for a Modern Lifestyle

Today, athleisure is a $300 billion industry. On the surface, it seems like it happened quite rapidly. The style is still on the rise; the athleisure market is expected to grow another 8.6% between now and 2028.  However, considering its origins in traditional sportswear, it has come a long way. 

The emergence of athleisure clothing as an everyday style choice for millions is a result of technological advancements and shifting societal values spanning hundreds of years. Athleisure, as we know it today, is a natural progression in fashion that is perfectly suited to the modern day lifestyle.

Where there used to be a tension between form and function in athletic clothing, athleisure executes the best of both sides of the coin. Athleisure is sleek and flattering while remaining comfortable and maintaining freedom of movement. It’s performance-oriented but versatile enough to wear in a number of different styles and occasions. 

Athleisure is the clothing style of choice for millions around the world, including some of the world's richest and most influential people. As such, it provides insight, on some level or another, as to the kind of society we make up today. Society today values health and fitness more than ever before in history, and athleisure caters to the fitness lifestyle. 

Athleisure clothing is a culmination of society’s value upon health and fitness, technology, comfort, and our collective striving for a holistic lifestyle in which we can represent all of our values at any given moment. As people continue to evolve and develop around the latest technology and scientific discoveries, every aspect of society is continually moving forward.

Take compression wear, for example, a technology that has become widely studied and used in athletic garments over the past two decades; this technology is now used in various forms for everyday athleisure garments. This is just one example of technological developments and scientific study impacting the fundamentals of our everyday lives, such as the clothes we wear. 

The popularity of athleisure is also due to the change in the way people view what is fashionable or represents virtue. It used to be that traditional tailored clothing was the way you presented yourself as virtuous and affluent. Wearing workout clothes in a casual setting was looked down upon.

Now, people like to wear clothing that matches their value for health and fitness, because society values health and fitness as something important and fashionable. Athleisure represents this shift in culture, a shift for the better. 

Athleisure Is Here To Stay

While there’s no telling the future and what changes in fashion may ensue, it’s a safe bet to assume that athleisure is here to stay for a long time. It’s the sector of modern fashion that most embodies the modern lifestyle. It is a precise execution of both form and function. 

The versatility of athleisure assures that it can handle any situation with both style and comfort. It’s the clothing of choice for so many because it allows people to be the fit, flexible, adaptable people they strive to be.