The history of the tracksuit

Jenessa Williams 6 September 2021

The tracksuit is ubiquitous nowadays, but where did it come from? Strap on your trainers for a marathon through fashion history...

The 1960s

Although the first origins of the tracksuit properly began with French company Le Coq Sportif’s development of the ‘Sunday suit’ in 1939, tracksuits are broadly attributed to the 1960s, where American sprinters such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith were seen training in matching tops and bottoms, often made of cotton or terry cloth and using buttons instead of zippers.

Coining its name quite literally—a suit designed to be worn on the track—a new practical outfit was born, and solidified in 1967 thanks to ADIDAS’s first foray into clothing, a collaboration design with German footballer Franz Beckenbauser.

German footballer Franz Beckenbauser in 2019

 The 1970s

As America’s penchant for amateur athleticism grew, so did its enthusiasm for an accommodating outfit. From suburban moms looking for something to wear to their kids’ soccer games right through to President Jimmy Carter working out in the white house grounds, a monochrome trouser and jacket set was a versatile, low-maintenance investment, making use of the synthetic nylon that had been popularised in the late 60s.

Whether you were actively participating in sport or not, the tracksuit was beginning to be worn purely for fashion purposes, with brands such as ADIDAS, Puma and Nike all jostling for a piece of the growing profit action. It’s influence was spreading—from Bruce Lee’s legendary yellow suit in 1978’s Game of Death (later aped by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill) or the burgeoning New York disco subculture, designers and fashion houses were learning to put their own spin on the sporting look with tighter tailoring, sharp collars and thicker fabrics such as lycra, velour and polyamide, styled together or as separates. The silhouette was taking over; take a look at the open catsuits and two-pieces seen on the likes of Parliament-Funkadelic or Sly and the Family Stone, and see how readily the shape mimics that of a chic tracksuit.

"Whether you were actively participating in sport or not, the tracksuit was beginning to be worn purely for fashion purposes"

 The 1980s

In the 70s and 80s nylon shell jackets were all the range

By the time the 1980s arrived, the fitness craze was showing no signs of slowing down. Amongst the spandex and leotards, newly developed fabrics such as Gore-tex and Sympatex with moisture-wicking improved the comfort and practicality of a tracksuit, making it something that could be worn during both exercise and warm-up.

Building on ADIDAS’s success as a market leader, the tracksuit was first becoming desirable as an emblem of aspirational cultural wealth, especially in the US. Worn by the emerging tastemakers of the growing hip-hop culture, tracksuits served the dual purpose of being comfortable and breathable enough for breakdancing, but also stylish and colourful enough to make a statement on the street. With the release of Run DMC’s ‘My ADIDAS’ in 1986, a new era of musical-fashion brand crossover had begun, popularising both trainers and tracksuits as the uniform of the cutting-edge.

The 1990s

With every generation now fully signed up to tracksuits as an everyday fashion attire,  sports designers decided to innovate once more, going bigger and more patriotic with their official uniforms. For the 1992 Barcelona summer Olympics, team USA presented the now-iconic image of their ‘Dream Team’ basketball first squad, featuring the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson in tracksuits emblazoned with striking American flags.

By the 2000s, it had become commonplace for fashion designers to create the uniform for their countryin 2012, Stella McCartney became the first designer in Olympic history to create a country uniform that was worn by competitors across all Olympic and Paralympic sports.

Back across the pond Kimora Lee Leissner (then Simmons, wife of noted hip-hop record exec Russell) launched the brand Babyphat in 1999, allowing rap-loving women to embrace a lifestyle of glamorous nonchalance with bedazzled tracksuits and body-hugging fits. Kimora’s marketing strategy would pave the way for the noughties, a time where the tracksuits would be labelled as both high and ‘low’ fashion.

The 2000s

The Australia softball women's team after the Beijing 2008 Olympics

Throughout the noughties, the tracksuit continued to be much less of a ‘Sunday suit’ so much as everyday attire, suitable for both work and play. High-profile rap moguls did their important business in tracksuits, showing that they didn’t need to assimilate to white-centric ideals of the successful businessman in order to get work done. 

Amidst a growing paparazzi culture, young celebrities were photographed doing everything from taking the bins out to signing autographs in their matching two-pieces. Alongside BabyPhat, LA brand Juicy Couture were the go-to brand for the decade’s trending velour, firmly at the top of any aspiring celebrity’s shopping list. 

Britney Spears famously clad her bridal party in velour tracksuits ahead of her first Las Vegas marriage, while young party debutantes Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian could often be spotted attending appointments around Hollywood in theirs. Toeing the line between designer expense and a gaudy, ‘trashy’ fashion, Juicy Couture has become a brand synonymous with the noughties era, an insight into the growing ‘influencer’ elite. 

"Here in the UK, the tracksuit wasn’t seen as quite so affluent"

Here in the UK, the tracksuit wasn’t seen as quite so affluent. ‘Lad bands’ and the European rave culture of the 90s has acclimatised it as a mark of working-class culture, and as 00s austerity introduced us to the scathing concept of the ‘chav’, the tracksuit became something of a demonized uniform. Though many wore their two-pieces with pride, the connotations of the tracksuit had become less about sport, and more about classed and racialized suspicions of anti-social behaviour and societal decline, classified by David Cameron’s much-criticised 2011 ‘hug-a-hoodie’ campaign.

The 2010s

A woman wearing a green tracksuit inside

Though the covetable reputation of the tracksuit still depends heavily on the social capital of its wearer, there is no denying that it has become a core part of many wardrobes, transcending boundaries of geography and culture.

Writing for Ssense in 2019, Ayesha A. Siddiqi coined the phrase “track pant globalism”, explaining their special position in the fashion market: “A track pant is the single article of clothing as likely to be worn in a refugee camp in Calais, or by a south London DJ, an Asian grandfather on a walk, or a supermodel.

Today’s track pants are not a ‘new trend,’ they’re a culture shift. Like denim jeans before them, which were once only strictly for cowboys, we’ve reached full saturation of the tracksuit.”

Certainly during the pandemic, the tracksuit became a staple of many of our wardrobes, with even Vogue editor Anna Wintour posting a picture of herself working from home in a red sporty jacket and trousers.

"Today’s track pants are not a ‘new trend,’ they’re a culture shift"

Within this saturation, class still remains a core point of discussion. With the ever-growing appetite for ‘athleisurewear’ and the rise of both grime and alternative music culture, brands like Palace and Supreme have thrived by fusing skateboarding culture and fashionable design elements, with no end of new independent brands releasing their own interpretations of the modern tracksuit.

High-end brands such as Prada and Givenchy have also wanted a slice of the pie, but have faced criticism for the potential fetishisation of working-class culture, turning many people’s low-income realities into stereotypically stylized shoots or unobtainably-expensive clothes.

An argument that is sure to run and run, it is perhaps fitting that it revolves around garments designed for exactly that; a uniform of quite some endurance, shot through with controversies of respectability and style. Who knows what it’s next century might bring? 

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