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Fitness Fashion History after 1960

By Pauline Weston Thomas for

Fitness Fashion History after 1960


Sportswear Meets Mainstream Fashion

By the sixties posing in sports clothes began.  The track suit was a phenomenon of the 1960s. Matching bottoms were added to the anorak tops athletes wore and the track suit was born.  Zip fronted boiler suits were a development from space clothes of 1969 and when made up in fabric like stretch velours were exceptionally sexy 1970's party gear.  By the late seventies sportswear and fashion was merging.

Expedition Gear Moves to Mainstream Casual Fashion

After 1975 fabrics that had been used primarily for mountaineering, expeditions and hiking also moved into mainstream fashion.

Chlorofibres were used to make vests and underwear to keep expedition teams warm.  In the UK, Damart gained a huge following as its specially designed thermal underwear allowed people to wear thinner top clothes without feeling cold.  Diana, Princess Of Wales used to wear Damart underwear so that she could wear lighter fashionable top garments for visits in cooler weather. 

Breathable Fabrics - Gore Tex, Activent, Ecolite and Tactel

At about the same time huge advances in breathable fabrics were being made.  Gore Tex was the original product used to make breathable, but water resistant windproof outer garments.  Gore-Tex is not a fabric, but a membrane which is laminated to other fabrics such as polyester or nylon to suit a manufacturer's end use for breathable clothing.

Other fibres like Activent a breathable fabric from Gore, and Ecolite with its ecological breathable coating and Tactel a lightweight nylon which can have an applied waterproof breathable coating, all perform in a similar way.  Throughout the 1980s, Gore-Tex was used primarily in skiwear, golfing and expedition wear.  



Sympatex is an ultra thin membrane about 1/100th of a millimetre which like Gore Tex needs to be laminated to a backing fabric.  The laminated Sympatex seams are sealed to make seams water tight and help create a weather proof system that protects the wearer in adverse wind conditions against hypothermia.  Body perspiration vapour passes out from the fabric, but external vapour cannot penetrate the outer garment fabric working in tandem these feature keep the wearer dry inside

Sympatex was used throughout Europe in the 1990s for outdoor everyday jackets and rainwear as well as for golf wear as protective windproof tops and trousers.  These outdoor garments always have a good range of pockets following in the spirit of Barbour jackets and military wear.

The 80's Fitness Craze

By 1979 exercise had become a routine part of many people's lives.  Yoga was very popular throughout the sixties and seventies.  Some played squash, others tennis, some jogged, others joined health clubs and took on the whole package of aerobic working out and pumping iron. For more detailed description of yoga see here.

Dance studios with jazz tap exercise and step classes mushroomed.  One famous studio was the Pineapple Studio in London.  As the craze grew so did a practical need for sports clothes that were up to the task of being easy care for busy people. 

Synthetic fabrics with their easy care, strong and often stretch properties were the ideal choice for most sports.  Synthetic materials could also be dyed in strong vibrant colours which were the hallmark of the 80s.  Many people liked the comfort of sports clothes and soon clothes designed only for the gym were being worn in the streets. 

The 1980's Shell Suit

The 80s saw the arrival of the shell suit - a lightweight front zippered nylon jogging top matched with loose bottom trousers cuff gathered and with an elasticated waist.  They were either self lined, lined in fine knitted fabric or lightweight fine silky towelling. 

Colours were bright and often combined with a contrast secondary colour and white.  Typical combinations were navy and white or sea green, sea green and purple, purple and pink, purple and mauve, purple and yellow, peach and sea green, sea green and pastel aqua, royal blue and pale blue, black and white, red black and white or multi computer generated prints of all those colours with just about every colour in the design. 

Initially those who bought shell suits first were those actively involved in sports and seeking suitable wear.  Then of course those who took a fitness class once a week began to pose in them wearing them for shopping and picking up children from school.  Until then, the only people walking around in any kind of jogging or shell suit were Physical Education teachers rushing into the supermarket on their way home from a day's work.

So the shell suit moved into mainstream fashion, but as manufacturers began to produce nastier and nastier, ever cheaper looking versions, it became so affordable that it was soon a mass fashion. Suddenly pensioners began to wear them and within a few short months they lost all cachet and almost died an instant death.  A comparative item today is the fleece jacket now worn by grandmothers and great grandmothers. 


The Real Fitness Fashions Of Athletes

Those who were really keen to tone and hone the muscles of their body wanted clothes to show their hard work.  A shell suit would never do that as its whole effect was blouson. The answer was aerodynamic Lycra as used in cycling shorts.

Ballroom Dancing

Ballroom dancing remained popular with some groups and became a cult with specific dress and hair styles that marked each era of its popularity. 

The New Look inspired puffball net petticoat and tulle dresses of the 1950s gave way to longer above ankle dresses of chiffon and floating semi sheer fabrics with feathered hems all ideal for Quick Steps, Waltzes and Foxtrots.

Latin dances such as the Rumba, Cha Cha and Samba required exotic dramatic Brazilian style performance garments with flesh toned areas of stretch Lycra enhanced sheer fabric, amid strategically placed appliquéd sequin pieces with the whole hugging the body like a decorative glove.


PolarFleece fabrics were developed to provide lightweight warm garments for hill walking, hiking and expeditions.  Garment manufacturers like Berghaus produced quality fleece outdoor garments that kept a good appearance long term.  Windbloc or Microfleece or Polartec Thermal Stretch are still the types of fleece to look out for as they offer better wind protection than ordinary fleece.

Initially the fleece garments were made from the highest quality fleece, but as time has gone on the grades of fleece produced included lower grades of polyester with the resulting unattractive pilling. As there are well over 100 types of fleece the consumer needs to pay special attention that they really are getting the quality end.  Marks & Spencer sell a wide range of average priced value for money fleeces.

In the 1990s, fleece was used to produce a wide range of simply cut, easy care casual tops worn by all age groups.  Fleeces are likely to go the way of the shell suit as a fashion item if inferior grades continue to be made up into garments as the better quality garments become tarnished by association with lower grade goods. This really would be a shame as the lightweight, practical fleece has its place in fashion and is cosy in specific situations. 

1992 Olympic Fashion Influence

It was not only physical excellence that interested viewers of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but also cutaway track sportswear.  By 1992 sportswear was very serious commercial business.  Manufacturers insisted that the skin tight materials used in 1992 sportswear gave competitors a technical edge that would help athletes achieve record breaking results. 

Linford Christie's one piece running suit was made of a double layer of fabrics. The outer layer was hydrophobic - water hating and it rejected perspiration sending it into the atmosphere.  The layer beneath next to Christie's skin was hydrophilic - water loving which absorbed moisture.  The combination was ideal to keep the runner dry and also cool. Christie's one piece suit has become standard wear for sprinters.  To keep athletes even cooler in hot climates the garment midriff has often been cut out. Women did their own version of this with a cropped top and second skin shorts.  See more about the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.

Speedo's S2000 Range of Swimwear

Back in 1992 the Australian brand Speedo produced an innovative range of swimwear called S2000 using a fabric designed by Pentland Industries intended to improve a swimmer's speed.  S2000 was a fabric made from polyester microfibres and Lycra elastomeric fibres and then given a special finish.  It was more water resistant than skin because it had a low drag coefficient so all in one up to the neck swim suits became a fashion for men as it improved performance by 15%. 

In 1992 Speedo wearers took 7 gold medals and 4 world records. By 1996 some 77% of swimmers wearing Speedo swimwear won medals. 

Sports Names

Today the main sports manufacturing names are dominated by names like Nike, Reebok and Adidas. They spend huge sums of money forging links with athletes and sports personalities.  Their aim is to ensure that fans will spend cash on their very own branded sports goods from footwear trainers to head and wrist bands to bag carry hold alls. 

To be fair to them they do a great deal of research into producing performance enhancing products. In the 1990s they were all hugely successful as sports and casual wear were favoured as daywear in a dress down society.

Whilst we are a long way from the restrictions of the 1920s once thought so liberating, even today arms go up in horror if it is suggested that a new fabric or sports shoe gives a sports competitor unfair advantage by improving technical performance with wind, grip or water resistance.  The 21st century promises new fabric technology that will enhance sports performance and will ultimately benefit ordinary consumers.

For up to date information follow sports magazines with articles on all the latest products and know how to achieve excellence in sports.

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