Ever since rapper Gunna called the pandemic a “panoramic”, lockdown life hasn’t been the same. In the midst of all the memes and constant change however, one thing has prevailed – the lockdown uniform AKA the unassuming tracksuit AKA the outfit you wear every single day now.
For those who could work from home last March, the tracksuit quickly became a staple of “the new normal”. From the rise of Fear of God’s Essentials range to kicking back in multi-coloured Nike NRG sweats in front of Tiger King, the pandemic-proof tracksuit immediately asserted itself as a garment of the people. Yes, Vogue powerhouse Anna Wintour copped one – but so did your housemate, your lockdown crush and your best friend.
None of us could have predicted that the next chapter in the tracksuit biography would be due to a panoramic, but – in the same way companies reported a surge in demand for hand sanitizer – companies began telling the world how many tracksuits they were selling.
By April 2020, marketing firm Edited announced that sales of tracksuits had increased by 36 percent compared to the same period in 2019. In October, fast fashion giant ASOS even declared that the fashion industry was suffering from a shortage of sportswear due to the rise in demand.
So how did the tracksuit become the fashion staple we know it to be today?
First, some facts: The tracksuit (or the sweatsuit) is – officially – a loose-fitting set of garments consisting of a sweatshirt or hoodie and bottoms with an elasticated or drawstring waist. Casually known as “trackies” in the UK, the tracksuit’s creation in the late 1930s was rooted in practicality, made to keep the body warm before and after physical activity. But 80 or so years after its invention, the tracksuit’s tale has become rooted in subcultures, resistance, re-appropriation and a whole lot of string.
“[It] is a great example of anti-establishment clothing,” says Dr Joanna Turney, Design Historian and associate professor of Fashion at Winchester School of Art. “Its casualness and flexibility snubs the formality and the rules of mainstream masculinity.”
THE BEGINNING OF THE TRACKSUIT
The invention of the tracksuit is understood to have happened in 1939 when French sports company Le Coq Sportif created what was then called “the Sunday suit”. The tracksuit’s big break however came in the late 60s when a little company called Adidas created their first piece of apparel – a tracksuit released in collaboration with German football star Franz Beckenbaur. If you don’t recognise the name, you’ll recognise the look: three iconic white stripes on tracksuit material. The first tracksuit endorsement of its kind; it’s one the most iconic bits of sportswear ever created and remains worn today by everyone from rockstars to Jonah Hill and Erasmus students.
Like Beckenbaur’s Adidas collaboration, part of the intrigue of the tracksuit as a cultural phenomenon are its many phases and faces. In the 70s, Bruce Lee donned a red two-piece tracksuit on TV show Longstreet – the first time the style showed up on primetime US television. Later that decade he wore a distinctive yellow one-piece tracksuit lined with black stripes in the film Game of Death, which not only went on to become Lee’s trademark but also inspired Uma Thurman’s yellow number in Kill Bill: Volume 1 and, presumably, countless Halloween costumes.
In the 80s, the tracksuit brought about a moment that reverberated for years to come, permanently altering the direction between the music and sports industry. Run-DMC released their infamous track “My Adidas” in 1986 and while the song was, strictly speaking, about trainers, the rap crew’s constant wearing of the Adidas tracksuit helped make the garment synonymous with hip-hop.
There was no official contract between Adidas and Run-DMC at the time of the song’s release, but the group’s influence was impossible to ignore. In one of the smartest ever examples of product placement, Adidas eventually came knocking. They offered the group a $1.5m dollar endorsement deal, officially solidifying the link between street culture and hip-hop. That deal today is widely seen as the start of hip-hop’s official financial relationship with sports companies – a phenomenon that has become an industry in and of itself.
THE UK HISTORY OF THE TRACKSUIT
Here in the UK, the tracksuit had its own trajectory similarly marked by class, global and domestic music.
“The tracksuit developed primarily as a sub-cultural item in the UK in response to two things; the Smith and Carlos Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics [in] 1968 and Bob Marley's Jamaican tracksuit,” says Dr Turney.
In the 80s, the presence of the tracksuit went through another peak, this time thanks to young white working-class men turning up to football matches in sweatsuits by brands like Ellesse, Lacoste and Fred Perry. Due to the surge in football hooliganism at the time, the Thatcher-era tracksuit would become unfairly associated with violence, and this period would be immortalised in films like The Football Factory, The Firm and Green Street.
To outsiders, the tracksuit was symbolic of the disenfranchised and often the subject of society’s contempt for the working class. This sentiment continued through the 80s and had a resurgence in the mid-2000s, when caricatures of white working-class men and women in shows like Little Britain beamed across televisions throughout the UK. Nevertheless, the carefree youthfulness of 80s football stadium swag led to the tracksuit aesthetic quickly becoming a powerful fashion statement.
“I see the tracksuit as the garment of the 'resting competitor' – someone who is waiting in the wings and could be ready to perform at any moment,” Dr Turney explains. “This is also one of the reasons why tracksuits are scapegoated so much – they are seen worn by people 'hanging around' and 'waiting' and this imbrues them with possibility.” The othering of the white working class, in this case, meant their fashion was also othered before then being re-appropriated by the mainstream fashion industry.
THE TRACKSUIT IN THE PRESENT DAY
Mark Agyakwa, founder of clothing company Y-fit Wear, says that “street and youth culture play a big role in the continued relevance of the tracksuit” as we move into the present day.
The success of grime in the mid-2000s and onwards led to a continued reimagining of the relationship between culture and sportswear, as the young Black working-class donned the genre’s uniform of the tracksuit all throughout the inner cities, the tracksuit would be seen as a clash against the status quo.
Writer and social commentator Franklyn Addo explains the tracksuit became “a symbol of rebellion for young people like myself growing up in London”. Once again, the garment fell victim to extreme politicisation and was often associated with violence and crime. But despite British society’s resistance to the genre, grime prevailed and spread into all corners of the UK. As a result, “tracksuits are worn even by young people from suburbia whose experiences differ substantially from the inner-city mania that led to the genre’s inception,” Addo explains.
Eighty-two years since the advent of Le Coq Sportif’s “Sunday Suit”, tracksuits have become the norm across class, age, race and gender. Always keen to grab a bag, the last few years have seen high-end fashion brands reach for their slice of the sweatsuit pie. “Moschino, Louis Vuitton and Dior collaborating with Supreme, Stüssy and Palace show how streetwear’s influence in high fashion will continue to make its mark,” says Ciesay, co-founder of lifestyle brand Places + Faces.
THE TRACKSUIT OF THE FUTURE
So, will the fashion legacy of the pandemic be the tracksuit? Most likely (contending perhaps only with pyjamas). “The fact that tracksuits were only seen as lazy loungewear, to now being modelled and showcased on runway shows, show the power of the tracksuit,” Ciesay explains. The tracksuit has transcended culture to become a culture within itself, and its dominance has peaked with lockdown. “As long as people want to feel nice and not too dressed up, the tracksuit will live,” he states.
The tracksuit reached new heights this year – it is now practically impossible to find a clothing brand that doesn't have a sportswear line with a signature pair of trackies. Many things have triumphed during lockdown – reusable face masks, chaotic Reddit traders, Clubhouse – but it’s the continued rise of the tracksuit that proves that, even when the world is flipped upside down and nothing is certain, some things can still remain constant.