The history of tracksuits: Proof that style is not only an art, but a sport
Getting schooled: The history of the tracksuit
Words— Philip Mak
From A-list celebrities to athletes, tracksuits are an MVP of modern-day fashion — and are a worthwhile investment in every wardrobe. Why? With a history dating back to sporting events during the height of the Cold War, the head-to-toe set has become a hot item in closets around the world. This style is not only flexible — it’s a flex.
Most trackies consist of a zippered jacket with a coordinating pair of pants. Originally, they were made of materials like cotton, terrycloth and polyester though modern incarnations come in variety of synthetic and tech alternatives like nylon, Gore-Tex and Sympatex that look slick and wick away moisture. Oh yeah, and velour — more on that later.
The tracksuit’s utilitarian qualities and ubiquity have allowed it to span hip-hop and high fashion, to UK’s working-class and football fans to world leaders like Fidel Castro. Plus, streetwear has moved from the margins to the mainstream (case in point: Virgil Abloh is designing menswear at Louis Vuitton), which means tracksuits, hoodies and sneakers are here to stay — all day, every day.
Keep reading to see where tracksuits came from and where they’re going.
The track record: A history of tracksuits
The tracksuit got its start on… well, the track. In the 1960s, American star sprinters like Messrs John Carlos and Tommie Smith were spotted warming up in matching top-and-bottom sets — though in a Black Mirror-esque twist, back then the jackets usually featured buttons instead of the zippers. These early editions were also often made of cotton and terrycloth.
In 1967, Adidas got into the apparel game and its inaugural item was a tracksuit in collaboration with German soccer star Franz Beckenbauer. This was the first step in the outfit’s sprint from the sports to the style pages. By the 1970s, jogging (pronounced: yog-ging) had become a craze in the United States and tracksuits became the uniform of amateur athletes — from suburban soccer moms to President Jimmy Carter.
It was also around this time that legendary martial-artist-turned-movie-star Bruce Lee wore an yellow tracksuit in film Game of Death — an iconic look that would be homaged by Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1. The 70s would also see the titular The Six Million Dollar Man wearing a red version that zipped its way into the cultural zeitgeist.
For many, the tracksuit is inextricably linked to a different kind of track — namely, music. Blasting from the outer boroughs of New York City, hip-hop and rap culture began to hit radio stations and MTV in the 1980s — with bands like Run DMC importing urban styles onto stages (they even had a song called “My Adidas”). Additionally, breathable synthetic materials were being innovated and implemented, producing a new kind of “shell suit” that looked and felt more like modern-day tracksuits and became popular among a rising generation of breakdancers.
During the 1990s, trackies truly hit the ground running with celebrities. The 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics saw the United States send its first men’s basketball team with NBA players, aptly titled the Team Dream. The legendary line-up included Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson — famously photographed in tracksuits adorned with oversized American flag motifs. (Extreme nationalism aside, can you think of a bigger mood? We’ll wait.)
Across the Pond, the tracksuit was making waves in the UK. With huge popularity among British football fans, it had become a symbol of the working class and lad culture — and was rocked by anti-establishment bands like Oasis, Blur and The Stone Roses. Tracksuits would also become the de facto uniforms of the country’s Casuals (aggressive football- and fashion-obsessed fanboys) and and bled into its Grime scene.
Meanwhile, hip-hop stars like Jay-Z, Diddy and Russell Simmons were beginning to release their own clothing lines. Simmons’ wife, Kimora Lee Simmons, would go on to release her own ready-to-wear line Baby Phat in 1999 that targeted the look towards women — paving the way for the velour numbers of Juicy Couture.
The velour tracksuit would become one of the most dominant styles of the 2000s, with paparazzi snapping It-girls from Kim Kardashian to Paris Hilton in the look. Britney Spears (in)famously had a custom set made for all her bridesmaids ahead of her marriage to Kevin Federline. Both that marriage and the union of velour and tracksuits would end acrimoniously, unfortunately.
However, during the 2010s, the rise of athleisure, streetwear and so-called “cozyboys” (cue: Urban Dictionary) got the tracksuit back on track. Today, this timelessly trendy item is still worn from the locker room to #lewks on social media. Read on to see whose worn it best.
It (track)suits you
In the half-century since tracksuits launched, they have become a staple of both our closets and culture. Besides Bruce Lee in Game of Death, they have featured majorly in films like The Royal Tenenbaums, with Ben Stiller’s Chas Tenenbaum and his safeguarded scions all sporting stop-sign-red versions. Also, nobody can ever un-see Amy Poehler’s velour-clad turn as “cool mom” Mrs. George in Mean Girls — ever.
Among celebrities, trackies have been a mainstay among hip-hop stars from Snoop Dogg to 50 Cent. And it’s not just chart-toppers like Drake and Young Thug — from musician-turned-mogul Rihanna to model Kendall Jenner, the style is more popular than ever among women. Also, bizarrely, politicians.
Most prominent among them have been the late Latin American leaders Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela, and longstanding Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. To describe this surprisingly casual trend among leftist heavyweights, Spanish editor Antonio (Tono) Fraguas coined the phrase "el chandalismo revolucionario”, or "the revolutionary tracksuit”. (Okay, maybe this is a bigger mood.)
Former POTUS Barack Obama also famously had an “FML” moment with a tracksuit while in office in 2009, becoming a source for endless memes on Twitter. Don’t want to suffer a similar fate? Scroll down for our tips on how to style your tracksuit.
Don’t sweat styling your tracksuit
Effortless is more
A tracksuit styles itself, which is its biggest selling point. Throw yours on with a pair of white sneakers and flex your BTE (Big Tracksuit Energy). Call Me By Your Name star Armie Hammer did for an entire week, bopping from red phone booths in London to pre-revolutionary art in Paris.
West is best
One of the ways Rihanna made the tracksuit look her own is by pairing it with pointy boots. Guys and girls can hop on the Western trend with their trackies. Instead of trainers, opt for cowboy boots for tracksuit look explores new fashion frontiers.
When Cardi B sang, “These expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes” did you say to yourself, “It me”? If so, bust out your best pair of heels with your tracksuit for a look that will inject swagger into any outfit — whether it’s in a staff meeting, a swanky night out or both.
Mix and match
With Millennials relaxing dress codes everywhere, more people are wearing tracksuits for both #OOTDs and the office. Try your trackie as separates. For instance, wear your track pants with a simple white turtle neck and sneakers for a look that’s professional, polished but not pretentious. Or, wear your track jacket instead of a blazer. It can be that easy — in fact, it always is with tracksuits.
Need help finding your style without all the shopping? Try Style Plan, our new clothing subscription box. Answer a few simple questions and we'll send you what you exactly what you're looking for.