Athleisure is one of the latest fashion trends that breaks down traditional barriers surrounding fashion lines. Athleisure is a category all on its own. It combines the worlds of workout clothes and casual clothing. In the case of some designers, this trend even enters the world of high fashion. When asking to define athleisure, it is important to understand that it's the latest evolution in an athletic apparel trend.
Early Athletic Wear
Current athleisure wear has its origins in athletic wear. Athletics and the history of sport go back throughout human history, but true athletic apparel is a fairly recent invention. Much of today’s sportswear wardrobe was first developed in the early and mid-20th centuries. The rise of the Olympics and codified athletics led to the introduction of athletic uniforms suited for workouts and sessions at the gym.
These pieces were athletic uniforms exclusively. Wearing tennis or football apparel as regular attire off the court or field in the early 1900s would garner strange looks. The following decades saw developments in swimwear and the introduction of such modern stand-bys as sweat-wicking sweatpants and sports bras.
Nylon was first invented in the 1930s, but this new synthetic material was largely reserved for military use. After WWII ended, the 1940s and 50s saw the introduction of nylon to apparel.
Nylon and other synthetic fibers like spandex and lycra were remarkable new fabrics for their ability to wick moisture and stretch while retaining their shape. As a result of their specialized performance, they became mainstream in standard in heavy-duty athletic apparel.
The late 70s saw the first use of mass-marketed athletic apparel released just in time for the 1980 Summer Olympics. This marked the rise of athleisure as an iconic look and lifestyle staple.
Athletic Apparel Goes Casual
The line defining the beginning of athleisure is drawn based on the purpose behind people's athletic apparel. When people wear athletic gear for practical, sport-specific performance enhancement, the gear is considered sportswear. When the gear is prepared for casual, everyday use, it is considered an athleisure look, even if it is still highly functional.
In this sense, the 1980s can be seen as the beginning of athleisure apparel. Run-D.M.C. became known for their signature Adidas sneakers and footwear, and many other musical acts added athletic apparel to their outfits. This led to the start of clothing traditionally used purely for athletic purposes entering daily use. Adidas, then and now a major brand, became one of many groups to garner lasting popularity.
The new clothes worn by these figures offered greater freedom of movement (especially compared to jeans), whether for dancing or pure comfort purposes. Despite the practical and casual applications, these were still sportswear pieces that became popular for casual use.
The 90s and 2000s saw the introduction of the athleisure staple yoga pants. These decades of growth culminate in the present athleisure trend, which is pervasive across all sectors of life.
What Is Athleisure?
Athleisure can be separated from sportswear in a variety of ways. Both types of fashion include versatile pieces that can be worn casually or for sport, but the balance is different. Athleisure outfits are more comfort-oriented and fashion-minded than pure sportswear. High-grade cottons and aesthetically-minded fabric blends both see enhanced usage in athleisure.
Sportswear is broadly defined and can even include team uniforms and sport-specific equipment like helmets. Athleisure is more elusive to pin down, including everyday athletic-inspired attire like hoodies, baseball caps, and shorts.
Pure sportswear may look unusual outside of the gym, whereas athleisure apparel is specifically designed to straddle the definition of strict function and relaxed leisure. Athleisure excels for comfort and general athletic design.
Streetwear history can be used to highlight a difference between these two types of apparel. One of the most essential garments to modern streetwear is the graphic tee, which originated in surfer culture. The original graphic tee was invented when a surfboard manufacturer decided to sell t-shirts featuring his company logo.
Graphic tees look great, but a logo by itself won’t necessarily make someone better in any sport. Athleisure apparel and accessories often feature design elements chosen for visual appeal or ease of wearing that don’t translate to athletic performance. When these elements are present, they are usually presented to enhance style without sacrificing overall performance.
Modern Athleisure Attire
From a financial perspective, athleisure is often categorized with sportswear for analytical purposes. The U.S. sportswear industry alone was estimated to be worth $105.1 billion in 2020. It is currently estimated that by 2024 the value of the activewear industry worldwide will be close to $547 billion. In such a major global market, it is easy to analyze trends to see what values matter most in modern athleisure.
Sustainability is crucial to modern athleisure brands. The rise of fast fashion has led to more clothing offerings than ever before, but also more pollution. By shopping sustainably or engaging in “slow fashion,” one is able to support fashions trends for environmental and social accountability.
Versatility is also essential. Athleisure pieces are designed with a comfort that makes well-made pieces ideal to use as loungewear. Design choices befitting high-fashion garments make it so that athleisure apparel can be worn on the street in everyday life. The notion of apparel as being applicable in most situations is a core element of what makes athleisure so popular.
Quality matters in athleisure wear. These garments, depending on the individual, may still see the heavy use that athletic apparel does. A well-made garment has both performance and style in mind and is built with durable materials for longevity. This leads to a reduced need to replace clothes, which also ties into the sustainability values of the movement.
We can define athleisure through the lens of innovation it brings both to the sportswear industry individually and the fashion industry as a whole. It redefines the style of sportswear and the practicality of high fashion.
Athleisure can be seen everywhere, for a good reason. Many brands, from retail giants to fashion houses to individual designers, have made their own forays into the movement. This trend for easily worn, multi-context clothing showcases a trending desire for the practical. With the involvement of designers who see the beauty in this, aesthetics and function will always come together.