The Enduring Appeal of the Tracksuit
The Enduring Appeal of the Tracksuit
- Words Rocky Li
- Date August 18, 2017
Like many items in sportswear, the tracksuit has superseded its’ athletic origins and entered the mainstream imagination. Straight off the rack, the tracksuit is a ready made, universally adored style statement. A factor in the personal style of everyone from politicians to rap stars, the track suit has recently become a fashion commodity courtesy of high-end renditions from Gucci’s Alessandro Michele to Gosha Rubchinskiy. In order to understand the historical and cultural relevance of the iconic two-piece get-up, we took a deep dive understand the enduring appeal of the tracksuit
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Athletic Beginnings and Mainstream Adoption
The track suit emerged in the 1960s and, as the name implies, was popular amongst track and field athletes. Used for warm-ups, the original variations often came in cotton, polyester, or terry cloth—materials designed to insulate and keep athletes warm before competition.
Their early appeal among elite athletes filtered down towards the general population. By the 1970s joggers began to adopt the style due to their comfort and ease of wear. One of the style’s most iconic early proponents was Bruce Lee. He was often seen wearing a red striped version on the 1971 ABC TV show Longstreet. Of course his most iconic outfit was the yellow and black jumpsuit featured in the 1972 kung-fu classic Game of Death. The memorable ensemble has been referenced throughout popular culture but perhaps most famously in Kill Bill: Volume 1. In Quentin Tarantino’s ode to samurai films, Uma Thurman's “Bride” wears a similar yellow tracksuit for her massive club brawl scene in Tokyo.
Our modern idea of track suits, though, dates back to the 1980s. Initially called “shell suits,” the new iterations represented a transition to synthetic materials. Tracksuits switched to using nylon layers that could wick away moisture and keep the wearer cool.
A Staple in Music
Alongside the burgeoning popularity of hip-hop in the 1980s came an unspoken style code. The tracksuit had emerged as a cultural signifier for B-Boys, MCs and breakdancers. Celebrated in films such as Beat Street and the landmark graffiti documentary Wild Style, the tracksuit was a staple across the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.
In particular, the three-striped adidas version became synonymous with Run-D.M.C. Considered rap’s first supergroup, the trio was vaulted to mainstream success off the strength of records such as “It’s Tricky”, “King of Rock” and “Walk This Way”. Throughout the decade, their allegiance to adidas never wavered, even releasing “My Adidas”—an anthem professing their collective love for shelltoes. Other heavy proponents of the tracksuit in the ‘80s included The Beastie Boys and LL Cool J. The connection between tracksuits in hip-hop continued through the 1990s. The style was a favorite for rappers on both coasts, with everyone from Nas to Snoop Dogg adorning the style in videos and on album covers.
Rap wasn’t the only music genre that had picked up on tracksuits. Across the pond, the style began to pick up steam throughout the UK music scene. For British rock groups like Oasis, Blur and The Stone Roses, the tracksuit was as much a symbolic choice as a stylistic one, showcasing these bands’ working class roots. The tracksuit also became a favorite for regulars in Europe’s underground rave scene. Everyone from gabber kids in Amsterdam to clubgoers in London’s jungle scene embraced the tracksuit as a versatile balance between comfort and self-expression.
The UK garage and jungle scenes of the 1990s were pivotal in paving the way for the now prolific grime genre. Grime was a unique mixture of musical influences that resulted in a harsh, high-BPM sound that rose to prominence in the early 2000s in London’s East End. It originally spread through UK pirate radio stations such as Rise FM and Freeze 92.7. The harsh syncopated breakbeats were mixed with MCs rapping about the harsh realities of inner city life in London. With the music came a style that embraced sportswear to the fullest. The scene at the time gave birth to stars like Dizzee Rascal and groups like Roll Deep and Skepta’s BBK (Boy Better Know).
The grime uniform came out of utility, with tracksuits or sweatsuits being one of the focal points. Paired with trainers from adidas or Nike, the style eschewed flash for baggy monochromatic fits. The mentality behind the grime uniform was explored in a short video by Grace Ladoja in a 2014 video “Air Max - The Uniform”. The 2011 British TV show Top Boy similarly explored grime and some of the seedier elements of London's council estates.
Throughout Popular Culture
One of the most interesting aspects of the tracksuit is its near ubiquitous nature in pop culture. In particular, it has a unique association within the realm of organized crime—the loose fitting sportswear uniform was a favorite for mobsters, including John Angelo “Junior” Gotti. The look was mirrored in fiction most prominently in the landmark HBO TV crime drama The Sopranos. Films such as Goodfellas, Reservoir Dogs, La Haine and The Departed also chose to outfit their on-screen criminals in tracksuits. For a more contemporary take on the tracksuit’s criminal elements, we’d be remiss to ignore Gucci Mane’s cameo in Spring Breakers, adorned in a full adidas kit.
Gangsters, mobsters and criminals aside, any film nerd of course will recall the striking red adidas tracksuits in The Royal Tenenbaums. The Wes Anderson-directed film stars Ben Stiller as Chas Tenenbaum—a neurotic widower whose need to be ready for any form of danger has led him to adorn his entire family in get-up-and-go red adidas tracksuits. Anyone who’s seen the movie will definitely remember the energy of Chas and his kids franticly running through the house in a mock fire drill.
The 2000s were a key time for the tracksuit, as paparazzi photographed the Hiltons and Kardashians of the world, embodying the leisurely Los Angeles lifestyle in their plush, velour Juicy Couture tracksuits. When it comes to defining the style of this era, very few could top the custom Juicy Couture ensembles worn during the whirlwind wedding festivities of Britney Spears and Kevin Federline.
Surprisingly, tracksuits seem to be the de-facto off-duty uniform for several prominent world leaders. Venezuelan revolutionary Hugo Chavez and former Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro were often seen in public sporting full tracksuits. Quartz even published a retrospective on the “revolutionary tracksuit” highligting some of Fidel’s best ‘fits over the years (https://qz.com/847016/fidel-castros-death-a-life-in-tracksuits/).
Not to be outdone, western politicians have also chosen the style on occasion. In the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been photographed countless times in his grey Wilson tracksuit. Meanwhile Barack Obama’s infamous roadman kit drew countless memes and internet coverage.
High Fashion and Streetwear
With all the influence and impact the tracksuit has had in popular culture, it’s no surprise that the fashion industry has fully embraced the style over the years. With its sudden transition into the realm of high-fashion, the tracksuit is now more prolific than ever, providing eager fans an ever-growing list of options. Even the classic sportswear giants—namely Nike and adidas—have caught up with the times, now offering more technical-yet-fashionable variations of the tracksuit by way of Y-3 and Gyakusou.
Streetwear and skate labels have also made the style key to their seasonal lineups. Palace in particular has become known for bringing elements of London street culture into their designs. Considering how often the brand references the many strata of UK style in both lookbooks and product drops, the tracksuit is a natural addition to its seasonal offerings. In addition to their usual collections, Palace’s yearly collaborations with adidas always include several full tracksuit options. Other UK designers such as Nasir Mahar and Cottweiler have also presented a futurist take on the grime look, tapping their inherent sportswear inspirations to direct a more contemporary view on the now-decades old style.
The new face of post-soviet fashion, Gosha Rubchinskiy, has championed the tracksuit throughout his career. Like Palace does with its nods to British subculture, Rubchinskiy injects his collections with the energy of Russian youth culture, while mining disparate influences including Soviet-era olympic uniforms.
On the more expensive side of things, Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, upscales the tracksuit using luxe materials and heavy embellishment. Those who favor a vintage approach can look to velour and cotton variants from (occasionally) bohemian Japanese label Needles. Needles’ approach to the style, particularly its track pant, has been flying off shelves for the past few seasons.
Palm Angels’ Fall/Winter 2017 collection featured a nod to the lazy LA-luxury that revived the tracksuit in the earliest years of the 21st century and Vetements’ Spring/Summer 2017 show offered up a tongue-in-cheek collaboration with Juicy Couture.
While these are hardly the only runway brands that have tackled the tracksuit on the runway, it’s telling that each high fashion iteration always seems to circle back (in one way or another) to the street level styling that’s kept tracksuits trending since the 1970s.
Like many of the garments that find themselves apart of the modern fashion conversation, the tracksuit’s athletic origins were only the beginning. Instead of securing a space exclusively in the locker room, the functionality of the garment has found a home among even the most unlikely of fans.
While the popularity of the tracksuit may wax and wane across decades, it’s shown itself to be incredibly resilient over the years. At this point, it can’t really be called a trend as the style has come to mean something different to each subculture it’s surfaced in. From athletes to gangsters, to celebrities and chavs, the tracksuit has been a cultural icon in its own right for decades; ironically, it's made more than half a century of style relevance look like no sweat.