Leg warmers to Lululemon: How workout outfits have changed over the years
The very first workout outfits were actually birthday suits. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word gymnos, which means “naked.” The term made sense at the time: Greeks, as early as the sixth century BCE, trained while completely nude.
A lot’s changed since then.
Fitness fashion has evolved from three-piece suits and full-dresses to engineered sportswear thanks to the advances in science, textiles, and people’s unrelenting desire to be as comfortable as possible while working out. In tennis, for example, we’ve seen women go from wearing lace-up corsets to Serena Williams’ Wakanda-inspired catsuit. And while workout clothes are designed for functionality, that hasn’t stopped them from stealing spotlights and influencing mainstream fashion trends—seriously, who can forget Lycra and leg warmers?
Today, the line between activewear and streetwear is blurred more than ever and the term “athleisure” is the latest buzzword. The international athleisure market in 2018 was estimated to be $300 billion and growing—which market experts chalk up to more athletic participation by the public and changing cultural norms where people wear workout clothes for much more than going to the gym. Workout wear giants like Adidas, Lululemon, Nike, Puma, and Under Armour lead the industry with high-end exercise gear. North America represents the biggest fitness fashion market in the world.
To honor the ever-changing world of workout styles, Stacker curated a gallery of 50 game-changing fitness looks. The gear—from waffle trainers to eco-friendly fabrics—span the last half-century and come from a variety of reputable sources and news articles. Click through the slideshow to take a nostalgic trip through the wide-ranging, sometimes embarrassing, workout outfit trends of the last 50 years.
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Women run the Boston Marathon in men’s sneakers
It wasn’t until 1972 that women were finally allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon. It was a big moment for sports equality, considering the first woman to compete in 1967 had to hide in the bushes before the start of the race. In ‘72, all eight women who started the race finished. Nina Kuscsik (left), a mom of three children under 6, was the first woman to officially win the Boston Marathon.
The women who competed wore simple clothes and men’s running shoes. It wasn’t until 1978 that Nike released the first female-specific running show.
The need for speed has always been the motivation behind the advancements in fitness footwear, from Reebok adding spikes to the bottom of shoes in the 1920s to the founder of Nike, Bill Bowerman, craving lighter and faster shoes for the athletes he was coaching at the University of Oregon.
In 1974, Nike introduced the most iconic evolution of the running shoe: the “waffle trainer.” The lighter traction was created by pouring latex into a waffle iron and, thanks to the rise in popularity of jogging as exercise, runners everywhere started buying the specialized running shoes.
The famous waffle sole is still used today but the waffle iron was retired.
A tracksuit is not only a practical outfit, but it’s also a classic fashion statement. While the tracksuit got its official start on the track when American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith were seen wearing the outfit at the Olympic games in 1968. Now, tracksuits can be seen on everyone from soccer moms to A-list celebrities.
Most suits are comprised of a zip-up jacket and coordinated pants. The classic version, as seen on tennis star Chris Evert in 1974, was made by Adidas in 1967 in collaboration with German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer. As jogging took off in the ‘70s, the tracksuit went mainstream and became the go-to outfit for amateur athletes thanks to its utilitarian qualities.
[Pictured: Tennis legend Chris Evert in an Adidas tracksuit in 1974.]
The tracksuit has gone through many iterations and materials, but none is as recognizable as velour. Velour, which has the look and feel of velvet but is made of cotton, was at the height of popularity in the late 1970s. The advent of the cozy velour didn’t just make the tracksuit a comfortable piece to wear while working out; it was equally good to wear around the house.
Velour tracksuits had their resurgence in the ’90s and 2000s thanks to the likes of Juicy Couture and celebs Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez, and more rocking the look. Thankfully, we haven’t seen the all-velour tracksuit in some time.
Terry cloth was another popular workout outfit material in the ‘70s. It was predominantly seen in sports apparel like the tracksuit thanks to it’s lightweight and moisture-absorbing properties. But it became a staple in the fashion world too, with designers incorporating it into jumpsuits, dresses, and accessories. It’s still used today in sweatshirts and other casual wear.
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Muscle tank top
Also in the ‘70s, America would see the rise of bodybuilding thanks to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and the documentary “Pumping Iron.” The male physique was now something to be celebrated—not hidden under a full tracksuit.
“Pumping Iron” made bodybuilders into celebrities. It also managed to turn unremarkable gym clothes like sweatpants and tank tops into something stylish. The muscle tank top became a gym clothing staple with its loose fit and sleeveless design that didn’t restrict arm movement.
[Pictured: Actress Sally Field being trained by bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger on the rowing machine in 1976.]
Fun fact: Leotards are named after French acrobat Jule Léotard, who designed the tight-fitting outfit to give him unrestricted movement during his daring act. Up until the 1970s, leotards were usually only worn by performers. Eventually, the plain-colored onesies would become popular exercise wear in schools and fitness centers.
A textile fabrication called Lycra, patented by DuPont in 1959, introduced the world to spandex. The fabric was first popularized as sportswear in the 1968 winter Olympics when the French ski team wore bodysuits made of the material. And although leotards in the ‘70s were mostly made of polyester, Lycra was gaining in popularity.
The material was incredibly stretchy and form-fitting, and by the ‘80s it was the go-to workout fabric, from bicycle shorts to unitards. The fabric became so popular by 1987 that DuPont struggled to keep up with demand. While the unitard didn’t last too long, spandex remains the prevailing material in exercise clothing.
[Pictured: Christie Brinkley works out in a pink spandex unitard.]
Fashion inspired by celebrity trainers
If one person has influenced at-home fitness above all others, it’s Jack LaLanne—otherwise known as the Godfather of Modern Fitness. With his hit television exercise program “The Jack LaLanne Show,” which ran on TV from 1951 until 1985, LaLanne became a household name. Over the course of his lengthy career, he changed how America works out and eats. He’s the one who started green juice and those cable machines you still see at the gym.
LaLanne’s flamboyant style (note the all-red spandex unitard) made him the first celebrity trainer.
[Pictured: Jack LaLanne leads a class circa 1982 in New York City.]
Dance aerobics defined the ‘80s. People were obsessed. From Jazzercise to step aerobics, the high-energy classes with a synth-heavy soundtrack were adored by all. And the styles worn to these classes—from spandex tights and leotards to legwarmers—became iconic.
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