Of all chronicles of Herculean villainy, Promethean strength, Cerulean eyes, and Tyrolean accents, the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron is the prima inter pares. The film chronicles the 100 days leading up to the Mr. Olympia contest in Pretoria, South Africa. But mostly what it concerns itself with are the bodies and the minds of a cadre of human statues called bodybuilders.
Cast—he now claims self-cast—as the villain is Arnold Schwarzenegger, then a young, handsome Austrian with biceps the size of a small country and an ego the size of a superpower. The underdog hero is played with inchoate dignity by Lou Ferrigno, a Brooklyn kid who works out in his father’s basement. There’s also Mike Katz, heart-breaking as the perpetual loser; Ken Waller, his sallow, dead-eyed tormentor; and Franco Columbu, the small but charismatic Italian.
The film was made before bodybuilders were movie stars. In fact, the film made bodybuilders movie stars. This of course recursively led droves of pigeon-chested citizens to take to the gym en masse to gain mass and this—such is the nature of the free market—led to increasingly specialized fitness wear.
Now, on the eve of the film’s 40th anniversary, we might do well to reflect upon what the garments those men wore then—and what garments men wear today—to the gym says about our bodies, our selves.
Today we live in a world of breathable fabric and technical garments. It isn’t uncommon, as one daubs oneself with a scented eucalyptus towel at an Equinox, to notice one’s fellow workers out wearing obscenely bright compression socks with an ultra-wicking, similarly bright Dri Fit top and shorts made of a fabric so light it seems a light breeze might dissolve them as it would a wisp of smoke.
What a relief it is, therefore, and with what nostalgia do we gaze upon the muscular forms of Messrs. Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and Katz. For these men became gods wearing sweatpants.
Take a random scene from early in the movie. It’s at Gold’s Gym, the original Gold’s Gym in Venice, a room so Spartan it’s just one step above a den. Schwarzenegger is there and a whole bunch of other muscly dudes. Arnold enters wearing an amazing and clearly homemade ringer T-shirt with “ARNOLD IS NUMERO UNO” printed on the front with what looks like iron-on felt letters. Then he gets changed to work out. He’s doing barbell chest flies. He wears a simple yellow Gold’s Gym tank top and 5-inch blue cotton shorts. A quick sartorial survey of the utilitarian room reveals a plethora of cotton. One man wears a pair of yellow sweatpants hoisted well above his navel. Another, a sort-of bulked up Matthew McConaughey-type with a sweet ’stache is wearing red sweatpants with a white stripe, low-cut white sneakers, and a dark blue tank top. Mike Katz, the school teacher, is wearing a tank top with a rip in it. It’s tucked into an old leather power belt. His shorts are very very short shorts. They’re abbreviated shorts: shrts. There’s a dude doing shoulder presses in a full head-to-toe gray sweat suit. He’s not even that ripped and the clothing isn’t very tailored. He’s just a guy working on his delts. By far, however, my favorite outfit doesn’t belong to a body builder but the guy at the front desk: white denim overalls, ochre ribbed turtleneck, and glasses.
But the charm and the takeaway from Pumping Iron isn’t simply, primarily, or even vaguely about laughing at how dated the street fashions were in 1977. The resonant aspect is how small the variance is between the street fashion and the gym wear. Now, this isn’t athleisure, that rightfully derided portmanteau which seeks to ameliorate sloth by cloaking it in the functionality of performance wear. Just because one wears a breathable fabric doesn’t mean one is an athlete.
No, the costumes, if one can call them that, of Pumping Iron instead point to a world of possibility. Here are men who look like Supermen but who wear Clark Kent on Saturday ensembles. There is nothing specialized or technical about their fashion. There’s nothing high tech or exclusionary about their fitness regimes. Sweatpants render the cult of the body nontheistic. Arnold and his fellow Olympians are just on the far side of a continuum whose path is also open to us. And one way that is communicated is by their pedestrian fabric. Guys like Ferrigno actually did just work out in their dad’s basement, wearing old sweatshirts, and sweating on pile carpeting. And if he could turn himself into the Incredible Hulk wearing nothing special, perhaps we could, too.