How the Tracksuit Got So Hip
Once what you wore while you waited to do something important, like compete in a game, the tracksuit has now become the pricey darling of the fashion world.
The brief pause at the end of the runway that a model takes is called the look. At the recent Men’s Fashion Week, which actually ran for three weeks across Paris, London, and New York, there were thousands of looks translating, in gross, to more than an hour of sultry peering and silent emoting.
Though florals, wide-hemmed trousers, and tunics all made appearances, a disproportionate number of models wore tracksuits. For the last season or so, the rise of the tracksuit has been undeniable. Hallowed houses like Burberry and Gucci both showed riffs on tracksuits, in forest green suede and floral silk, respectively. Tommy Hilfiger and Todd Snyder presented red, white, and blue tracksuits, while Perry Ellis opted for cheerier turquoise. But the tracksuit on the catwalk was definitely a thing.
These are not vaguely tracksuit-inspired ensembles we’re talking about. They are actual tracksuits, as in warm-up clothing for athletes. Let’s take a look on our own to consider how improbable it is that warm-up clothing for athletes has made it to the runway. Then we’ll execute a turn and return to the past.
There is no one event, no Big Bang or Air Jordanian cultural moment that spurred the rise of the tracksuit. One of the things that make the garment’s emergence in high fashion so interesting is that the appeal has been felt widely, its significance changed greatly, and its constituency has been as varied as the strands of polyester that make up so many tracksuits. Broadly speaking, there are three distinct histories that have become intertwined to make this the Season of the Tracksuit.
The original application of the garment is, of course, as athletic wear. Champions love tracksuits. Second is the relationship between the tracksuit and violence. Hooligans love tracksuits. And last there is the role tracksuits have played in hip-hop fashion, beginning with Run D.M.C. in the ’80s and not yet ending even now. Rappers love tracksuits.
No other garment comes to mind that means so much in so many different ways to so many people.
In the beginning, of course, the tracksuit bore no greater significance beyond its comfortable utilitarianism. Roomy enough to move around in until the moment of competition demanded the shedding of unnecessary layers, the tracksuit was the natural and necessary companion to the cotton shorts and shirt worn by athletes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Olympics marked the real blossoming of a professional (albeit amateur) athletic class.
As early as the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Olympians were wearing tracksuits. In those days, though, they were simply matching crew-neck sweatshirts and baggy wool sweatpants. In 1948, the tracksuit got a sartorial infusion when an Italian hurdler named Ottavio “Tai” Missoni outfitted the team in his Venjulia suits, a ribbed knitted wool warm-up suit with a quarter zip and collar that he had designed in Trieste, Italy. (Missoni would go on to be, you know, Missoni.)
The first tracksuit in the modern recognizable form—full zip, high collar, slim fit—didn’t appear until 1967 on the back of German footballer Franz “Der Kaiser” Beckenbauer. Adidas, which pioneered athlete endorsements with Jesse Owens in 1936, advertised the red-and-white Adidas tracksuit in its catalog. It was the company’s first foray into non-shoe apparel. Nailed it.
Though popular among athletes, the tracksuit might have remained functional in its usage. But the following year, it received an infusion of cultural capital when the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were captured famously on the Olympic podium in Mexico City by photographer John Dominis. It’s an indelible image and, perhaps, the most iconic image from the Olympics ever taken. Smith’s right fist and Carlos’s left fist are raised in a black power salute. Each fist is clad in a black leather glove, and each body in a dark blue tracksuit.
At this point, the path of the tracksuit diverges. England goes one way; America another. Spurred by the victory of American long-distance runner Frank Shorter in the 1972 Olympics, Americans took to the road, jogging en masse. It was a legit craze. Think SoulCycle but bigger and instead of spandex, American joggers often wore tracksuits (though, of course, miles of pale male thighs were also exposed thanks to running shorts). Everyone jogged. Jimmy Carter jogged. He even wiped out jogging in a tracksuit, famously. So the tracksuit became normalized, suburban, and banal. The stuff of station wagons and settling, Irish setters and bake sales. Until the ’80s, and the rise of hip-hop, the tracksuit lost all of its swagger.
In England, meanwhile, after percolating through ’70s, the tracksuit was eventually incorporated into the wardrobe of the Casuals, a subsect of fashion-obsessed, often violent English soccer fans. It was then that the tracksuit assumed many of the sinister qualities with which it is now associated. Not only were the Casuals and their very real threat of violence feared, but even their attire provoked terror. And it was meant to.
The tracksuit is the sartorial equivalent of cracking your knuckles. It is a precursor to some sort of action. (It is also called a warm-up suit for this reason. That, at least, was kept intact from its origins in Olympic stadia.) But when outside of the sporting context, what that action might be takes on a malevolent valence. As Professor Jo Turney points out in “Battle Dressed,” (PDF) her study of tracksuits in the English working class, “Hanging around and visibly doing ‘nothing’ can be read as a precursor to doing ‘something,’ in particular something anti-social in the near future.” This association has continued to today.
Cut back to the United States to the South Bronx and Run-DMC, modern-day saviors of Adidas, and the birth of hip-hop. Or actually a decade earlier, to the famous Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting in 1971, when more than 40 New York City gang members gathered at a Boys Club in the Bronx and decided to de-escalate the deadly internecine conflict. (This is chronicled in a terrific documentary called Rubble Kings.) The need for mock battles to replace bloody ones led, in part, to the birth of hip-hop, which led in part to the development of breakdancing, which led to the need for comfortable clothing one could move in to replace the denim that hitherto had been common among gang members. When Joseph Simmons, Darryl McDaniels, and Jam Master Jay, already fans of Adidas shoes, began to wear matching three-stripe tracksuits, it was irrevocably incorporated into broad street culture.
But by and large, it doesn’t seem to me that today’s designers are drawing from the richness of hip-hop culture so much as they are flirting with the latent violence of the tracksuit in English culture. The tracksuit in hip-hop is fundamentally nonviolent; it was adopted as the antidote to violence. The tracksuit in lad culture is fundamentally violent.
In the case of the Casuals, the tracksuit, with its implication that he who wears it does not have gainful employment, represents a challenge to the hegemony. Abroad, its associations with disaffected youth cannot be ignored. They are the economically left behind, who seek their livelihood through uncertain and illicit means. The tracksuit in fashion is the antistrophe to the workwear trend. That was about participating in an albeit idealized labor system. The tracksuit is about checking out of the modern-day one.
Which brings us to Fashion Week and the tracksuit as high culture and the runway, and what it means to have a $4,000 tracksuit. In some sense, the very setup of a fashion show is a spectacle of violence. Not to venture into weirdo Julia Kristeva territory, but the very act of strutting down the jutting tumescent runway, as it penetrates a crowd of onlookers, is itself an act of violence. That these are mostly young white—alas, white—men, strong and beautiful, adds to the thrilling ripple of violence promised. And when that model, strutting in a tracksuit, stops for a moment and stares out, we are meant not just to love him but to fear him, too.