Back In Time: History of Sportswear

by Karen

Back In Time: History of Sportswear

It’s hard to imagine modern society without sportswear. Our current “athleisure” trend means that wearing tennis shoes, leggings, and athletic apparel in public isn’t just incredibly common - it’s becoming the norm. Although we take it for granted now, the rise of sportswear at the beginning of the 20th century truly changed the fashion landscape forever. Take a look at what athletes wore in the early 1900s and how sportswear lead to a more casual take on women’s fashion.

The Rise of Sportswear in Society

Trains and automobiles allowed everyday people to travel farther from home than they ever had been able to before. This led to more and more families taking weekend trips to the coast and going on other scenic, outdoor vacations. As the economy prospered in the late 1910s and early 1920s, people suddenly found themselves with an abundance of free time - time they filled with tennis, golf, and other leisure activities. Old-fashioned Victorian dresses just wouldn’t do. Instead, women started wearing variations of the “uniforms” worn by their male counterparts. history of sportswear Infographic


Not unlike today, early sportswear was largely influenced by the world’s top athletes. Tennis player Jean René Lacoste, however, was the first sports star to also become a fashion trendsetter. Not unlike his competitors, Lacoste wore a cotton polo shirt when competing in tennis matches. But it was an embroidered crocodile logo on his polos (inspired by his nickname “the crocodile”) that set his apart. Soon, sports fan in the 1920s wanted to get their hands on their very own Lacoste polos - a signature item that is still sold and manufactured. Women paired these polos or sleeveless knit tops with pleated skirts that extended to the knee. On chilly days, they covered up by wearing lightweight button-down cardigans.


Golf was another popular sport that had its own unofficial “uniform.” Men - and eventually women - wore loose fitting pants that gathered at the knee. These knickers were then paired with woolen knee socks featuring an argyle pattern, knit tops, and long sleeved cardigans. Saddle shoes were also a comfortable and stylish option for women when traversing the golf course. This look was quite revolutionary at the time, considering that just a decade earlier women wearing pants in public was unheard of in polite society.


At the turn of the 20th century, women’s bathing costumes weren’t unlike their everyday apparel. Multi-layered, dresses made of thick fabrics were paired with knit stockings and lace-up boots when women wanted to take a dip in the ocean. As swimming became more active, a more comfortable option was required. Once again, athletes at the time were on the cutting-edge of sportswear trends. When Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman stepped out wearing a one-piece swimsuit - which did not include pantaloons of any kind - society was initially shocked. This looks, however, quickly became popular among women not long after.


Yachting or sailing was a sport that the wealthy elite enjoyed. For this leisure time activity, women required outfits that were breezy, comfortable, and fashionable enough to wear while sailing the French Riviera. An up-and-coming designer at the time named Coco Chanel created stylish wide-legged pants for just this occasion. Made of materials like silk, these trousers became a popular option for wealthy women during the 1920s.

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