History of Activewear

By LeafTV Editor

Activewear has changed quite a bit throughout history. While clothing has changed as people developed new activities, it is only in recent times that fabrics and styles have changed specifically to help people participating in exercise and sports.

Woman in activewear getting ready for a run
credit: Halfpoint/iStock/GettyImages
History Of Activewear


Ancient Times

In ancient times, people exercised in their street clothes. Professional athletes, such as those in the ancient Olympics, competed in the nude, presumably because clothing restricted movement. Those in military training did so in their uniforms to most closely resemble combat positions. It was very rare for women to compete in sports. If they did compete, they wore smaller sized versions of men's clothing.

Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries

It was not until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that a leisure class evolved that could take part in sports for sport's sake. The first modern Olympics in 1896 involved mainly upper class athletes who wore very rudimentary clothing, similar to a union suit or a T-shirt and shorts for track and field events. More formal attire was required for tennis, with "tennis whites" de rigueur. Women wore tennis dresses, while men wore white trousers and a shirt, and even a sweater as conditions demanded.

Modesty was considered an issue for women, who wore a bathing costume that fully covered them when at the shore. It was not designed for competitive swimming. Women also wore full clothing that was too confining for anything more strenuous than badminton and walking.

By 1907, however, times had changed such that women began to take part in swimming. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman sewed stockings into a boy's racing swimsuit to create a bathing suit similar to today's cat-suit. However, most women wore traditional bathing dresses.

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1920s and 1930s

By the mid-1920s, "Vogue magazine was telling its readers that "the newest thing for the sea is a jersey bathing suit as near a maillot as the unwritten law will permit," according to Joanne Haug. In 1930, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to cross the British Channel. She wore a swimsuit she designed herself that was very similar to today's tank style swimsuit.

Fashions changed in other sports as well. In 1922, Suzanne Lenglen competed at Wimbledon in a short tennis skirt. She also wore a headband to keep hair out of her face, rather than the customary hat. Even more shocking: in 1932, Alice Marble wore white tennis shorts.

1940s and 1950s

Developments in science made new fabrics available. For example, nylon, first used by the military, began to be used in running shorts and wind-suits. These synthetic fibers made it easy to mass produce activewear items, and also to create clothing to meet the needs of the particular activity, such as concealed hoods and pockets, removable linings and water- and wind-resistant gear.

1960s and 1970s

Throughout the 20th century, activewear evolved as styles, mores and interests changed. For the most part, activewear was reserved mainly for professional athletes. However, in the 1960s, more casual lifestyles began to prevail. Finally in 1979, in connection with the upcoming 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, Levi Strauss introduced a line of activewear, mainly consisting of a warm-up suit.


Changing mores also resulted in changing styles. Where once it would have been unthinkable for a woman to wear even a maillot, the women's beach volley ball teams at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing mainly competed in bikinis. Likewise, while it was unthinkable to appear on the street in a warm-up suit or shorts for most of the 20th century, today it is a common sight.

Today, activewear fashions continue to evolve. Activewear has become casual wear for many people, even for senior citizens who like the ease and comfort of warm-up suits and sweatshirts. New fabrics and styles continue to evolve for athletic wear.

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