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When Did the Athleisure Trend Start?

April 08, 2020

Athleisure. The name itself sounds new and trendy. Picture guys and gals at the local pub in sportswear: sporty pullovers, joggers and zip-up hoodies. Or, picture a Saturday morning parade of leggings, sports bras, windbreakers and crop tops at the farmer’s market. It’s new, it’s fresh  — except that it isn’t all that new. 

Every generation thinks that they’ve invented the wheel. But let’s face it — while new ideas and technology are creating new paradigms for us, we flatter ourselves if we think we’re more clever or innovative than grandpa and grandma were. Yoga pants didn’t appear out of anywhere — they’re part of a larger trend that goes back a lot further than you may think. 

Let’s look into the history of athleisure outfits and see how the athleisure trend came about. 

Step into the Way Back Machine

The world used to be a much more formal place. The well-dressed man of the 1890s would never step out without dressing for the occasion. A day-time blazer for the office, clothes for dining out, an outfit for the theater, the list goes on. So, what started the transition to the informal world we know today? In a word, sports. 

In the late 19th century, organized sports, especially intramural sports on college campuses, exploded in popularity. Sports require clothing that’s specific to the task, and it just so happened that these clothes were comfortable. As an added bonus, wearing sports clothing outside the confines of the tennis court, golf course, or polo grounds gave the wearer a bit of cachet. In other words, an athletic and healthy look was hot.

Need some examples? Consider these.

Sneakers

Rubber-soled shoes first showed up in the 1890s. They provided better grip on grass and other surfaces, so they were a natural for tennis. Ergo, “tennis shoes.” Now think about how many pairs of rubber-soled shoes we’ll find when we open up our closets.   

Polo shirts

Thank Frenchman Rene Lacoste for this one. The tennis champ wanted a better shirt to wear for his matches in the 1920s, so he designed a short-sleeved, collared shirt that was perfect for the courts. Polo players liked it and Rene’s innovation acquired the name we all know. Now they’re a staple of our closets, from cheap corporate giveaways to a high-quality Willy California short or long sleeve athletic polo.

Sweatshirts

How often do we actually sweat in our sweatshirts and sweatpants? It’s easy to forget that once this fieldhouse staple was the go-to workout clothes for athletes looking to sweat off a few pounds during their workout or stay warm between sets in the weight room. But it didn’t take long for college students to realize that the sweatshirt, whether a crew neck or a zip-up hoodie, was the perfect layer to wear for a day of classes and studying or a night of pub crawling. 

The Fabrics Revolution

We can see that the athleisure vibe is much more than just a recent fashion trend. But we’ve got to admit that this historical trend has been really growing in recent years. Why is that? Probably one of the key elements in making athleisure wear more practical and prevalent has been the development of new fabrics. 

Since the development of nylon in the 1930s, there’s been an explosion of synthetic fabrics that have worked their way into clothing and pushed the sportswear market forward. These fabrics offer four advantages when used in well-crafted athleisure products.

  • Performance enhancement. Modern moisture-wicking, four-way stretch, and odor-resistant fabrics make today’s activewear products perfect for everyday wear.
  • Comfort. Unlike older scratchy and stiff synthetics, today’s fabrics offer all-day comfort and a soft, smooth feel.
  • Fit. Stretchy and comfortable fabrics improve the fit of everyday essentials, like Willy California’s The Nicer Pants. Fabric combinations like their poly/spandex blend create clothing that’s attractive and comfortable. A big difference from the shapeless athletic wear of old!
  • Style. Today’s fabrics are easily tailored to create a flattering and stylish fit. Athleisure appeals to those who value fitness as a part of their lifestyle and who realize that true style isn’t something that you put on, but something that reflects who you are. 

Dressed Once and Ready to Go

It’s hard to say which came first, athleisure clothing or the informal lifestyle that makes it possible. Whatever the case, our modern lifestyles demand it. After all, we may be presenting a PowerPoint at 3 PM, and then coaching the kid’s soccer team at 5. Who has time to change? And that’s just one example. Here is some advice on how quality athleisure clothing can fit into our days.

  • Mix it in. Athleisure doesn’t need to be worn from head to toe. Pick a well-cut set of stretch pants and wear them with a normal work shirt. Or mix up those khakis with a short or long sleeve athletic polo shirt. 
  • Ditch the hard soles. Get comfortable with your footwear by investing in some versatile sneakers. There’s a style out there that’s great with almost any look. Your feet will thank you too. 
  • Be multi-purpose. Go ahead and wear tights to that yoga class, guys! Just throw on a pair of sport shorts over them when you’re done and you’ll be ready to hit the coffee shop after class.
  • Layer. Layering is one of the best ways to stay warm, but it’s also a versatile way to dress. When you’re headed out for the day put on a comfy tee and layer it with a quarter-zip or a zip-up hoodie. 

Athleisure Means Clothes That Match Your Lifestyle

The trend towards athleisure clothing isn’t new, but rather part of a long evolution of style and societal norms. While we can trace athleisure back more than a hundred years, the development of new fabrics and our desire to project an image that reflects our healthy lifestyles has only accelerated the process. 

And that’s a good thing. Our modern lifestyles keep us on the go and it only makes sense to wear clothing that lets us move seamlessly from one activity to another while staying comfortable and looking good at the same time.