Today athletic wear reigns as both a workout apparel trend and a fashion trend. Likewise, the past decades of exercise outfits reflected the culture and trends of the time — even though they may seem a little silly now.
Looking back through time, the styles might seem uncomfortable or formal to us. However, men and women of days past were actually imagining a looser, easier look for the clothes of the time, according to Hazel Clark, Ph.D., Research Chair of Fashion at The New School.
“It’s interesting when we go back to the futuristic predictions of the early 20th century. Images show us that men and women would be dressing more similar, in a more functional sort of way,” Clark says.
In case you’ve never checked out old styles, let’s take a peek back into past centuries. These images may not be a completely accurate representation of trends in gym clothing, but they sure are a whole lot of fun.
Back in the 1890s, women couldn’t vote — but they could box! While that sounds very cool and modern, the huge flowing skirt this female boxer is wearing does not. Is it just us, or does it seem like all that fabric would have hindered her right hook?
Even back in the early 1900s, women were lifting dumbbells to keep their arms shapely. However, they didn’t shimmy around in sleek sweatpants and blast those biceps in front of “The Bachelorette” like you do. They wore floor-length skirts.
You’ve got to give women of the 1920s points for their athletic accessorizing. Not only is this female tennis player sporting a chic hair tie, but she’s also rocking a pretty statement belt and some serious knee-high socks. What’s more impressive: how she’s managing not to roast in the thick fabric of her skirt (we assume, at least).
Suit-and-tie getups aren’t exactly the most comfortable outfits. However, maybe it’s just easier to wear your work clothes to the gym after a long day at the office. In the 1930s, it seems the trade-off was comfort for convenience. We hope they washed those suits pronto!
In the 1940s, women begin to look more like we do at the gym today. We sport sweatpants in the winter, we work the weight machines and we stare off into space when we’re supposed to be doing core exercises.
We’re seriously impressed by this female weightlifter in 1956. Not just because she’s holding an insane amount of weight over her head like it’s a feather pillow, but because she’s doing it in a cardigan, socks and sandals. #Props.
Compared to earlier decades, elements of athletic wear got extremely dainty in the 1960s. Notice the thin white dress, cute little shoes and the adorable pigtails this tennis player is sporting for her match. (Even the footwork on her return is as delicate as her outfit, yes?)
Workout wear from the 1970s screams “styled” in a different way than it might today. Women worked fierce hair (like the Farrah flip) and jogged in crop tops, while men sported trendy tight jean shorts. And they all look very happy with their outfit selections.
This decade was when it became mainstream to put as much effort into your workout outfit as your regular getup. What would the ’80s workout scene be without Spandex and Jane Fonda? The woman worked it in her exercise videos way before YouTube and Snapchat were things — and she set the trends.
Everyone wanted a physique like Cindy Crawford’s in the 1990s — the woman brought the “athletic supermodel” body back into style. We question how easy it would be to lift (or do anything) in this strapless swimsuit, but we seriously admire her toned arms regardless. Even Crawford herself laughs at the concept today: She recently posted a throwback photo on Instagram with the caption, “When a chair just magically appears on the beach so [you] can get a workout in. #FitnessFriday.”
Enter the current era, where we mix style and ease for a completely modern workout look. We still slide into Spandex and funky colors, same as they did in the ’70s and ’80s, and we can tone down our outfits with balancing neutrals for daily wear. We’re glad “athleisure” is a fad, because it’s cute, comfy and a nod to fashion’s fitness evolution.