Jock Couture: The History of Luxury Athleisure
Starting in the 1970s there was a slow encroachment of athletic styles into high fashion as both the concept of exercising and the clothes associated with it started to go mainstream. Prior to then working out (particularly weightlifting and running/jogging) were niche activities and the most common sporting activities joined in by adults were those most commonly associated with country clubs, business meetings, and the wealthy (golf, tennis, skiing, and squash). Classic American sportswear throughout the 1940s through 1960s exemplified a certain sporty (and quite WASPy aesthetic) though rarely patterned itself on actual athletic wear. Until the mid-to-late-1970s garments for playing sports, running, and working out were functional, simple and boring, yet it was that same very minimal simplicity and functionality that acted as spurs of inspiration for a new generation of designers at that time and continuing to today.
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Young and part of a generation rushing toward healthy living, fashion designers like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein understood how active pieces like sweatshirts, tracksuits, and sneakers were encoded with messages about vitality, youthfulness, and wellness—and that by remaking these garments they could sell some of these concepts on to their clients. While many designers began to launch their own secondary sportswear and sport-focused secondary lines (both Lauren and Klein produced specific tennis lines, while Lauren’s Polo line started as actual polo-playing pieces), luxurious versions of athletic clothes also began to appear in their main collections. The forerunner for this new “sportive-luxe” was Geoffrey Beene’s football jersey evening dresses from Fall/Winter 1967—floor length and encrusted with sequins, they were more a reflection of contemporary Pop Art with Beene appropriating popular culture and elevating it through opulent embellishments. Beene enjoyed wittily toying with conventions, and was continually energized by the play between high (couture and luxury fabrics) and low (activewear and sports fabrics). Lauren and Klein took a more straightforward approach—slipping navy-striped white terry pull-on jogging pants and matching sweatshirts (Ralph Lauren, spring/summer 1975) and velvet tuxedo-style jogging suits (Calvin Klein, 1979) in amongst their more classic pieces.
Former Vogue editor Blair Sabol wrote of the Seventies fitness fashion: “Movement was the American woman’s life, so let Paris and Yves go choke on their satin and ruffles. In fact, jock couture was probably the first time the American designers became an honest fashion force. We had the handle on sweat and lifestyle, while Europe continued to runway sleek and fantasy. Less a division between the United States and Europe, and more so just two opposing camps of fashion designers, and one clearly seen in the 1976 collections, when fashion dictates could clearly be split into two groups—the Baltimore Sun remarked that “the athletic look appears in everything from football jerseys, sweatshirts and baseball jackets to jodhpurs” while the other major trend was “the fantasy look…it’s most prevalent manifestation is Russian peasant garb.” For that Fall/Winter season Bill Blass debuted a plum panne velvet sweatshirt, while Halston introduced an Ultrasuede baseball jacket. As the sole American showing in Milan in 1979, Geoffrey Beene sent models down the catwalk in classic cashmere sweatshirts coupled with elegant dirndl skirts.
While “jock couture” and sportswear were American inventions, they were not something that European designers were completely opposed to. Catching on to the nouveau passion for runway sportswear, as early as 1973 Parisian designer Georges Rech showed a black panne velvet sweatshirt that he described as “Style Americaine. Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche collection for Fall/Winter 1977 featured ankle-cuffed jogger’s pants, “repeated in everything from sweater knits to corduroy to wool jersey to sunburst-pleated panne velvet to chiffon to lame,” according to Marylou Luther in March of 1997 for the Los Angeles Times, while Sonia Rykiel paired striped jogging pants with silk camisoles and beaded tennis rackets in her Spring/Summer 1982 collection. That same season Marc Bohan broke with tradition and included gold and silver lame sweatsuits in Christian Dior’s prêt-à-porter runway show; for Fall/Winter 1982 his fuchsia leather sweatsuit was cuffed in dark-rose knit. Even Valentino put sweatshirts on the catwalk—though those in his fall 1983 couture collection were made of velvet and shown with pleated silk cocktail skirts.
An intriguing development in the evolution of luxe athletic styles was the use of see-through fabrics to shift their focus from the playing field to playing the field. In 1981 Sonia Rykiel introduced black lace sweatsuits with knitted belts spelling out “FATALE” in rhinestones, while New York-based John Anthony’s black lace sweatshirts had strategically placed mauve flowers for a sultry peepshow. Ronald Shamask continued the idea of sheer luxe sportswear with chiffon t-shirt tops with sweatshirt ribbed-banding—shown to good effect on a young Linda Evangelista in his Spring/Summer 1988 show. Katherine Hamnett's Spring/Summer 1994 chiffon tracksuit pants were described by Iain R. Webb of The Times as [“simply the quintessential equation for sensational summer evening-wear, 1994 style: provocative yet relaxed”]—twenty-five years later they appear just as fashion-forward today.
Key to the continuing luxe evolution of athletic styles has been Michael Kors. Always enamored with activewear, since his earliest days as a designer he has been actively investigating ways to remake classic training pieces in luxury fabrics. At just 23 he designed a collection exclusively for Bergdorf’s that featured V-neck sweatshirts layered over a black charmeuse top and pants. Seven years later he reproduced the archetypal hooded sweatshirt in white silk crepe double georgette, while Kors redid sweatshirts in herringbone-patterned wool, lamb suede, and even a bride in a white satin one (the hood standing in for a veil). Fittingly, almost twenty years later he dressed up Joan Smalls as his groom-like bride for Fall/Winter 2018 in a simple ringer-tee with a sequined black tux. He’s tie-dyed cashmere and sewn it up into mini sweatshirt dresses (Spring/Summer 2018), slenderly-cut puffer vests (Fall/Winter 2003) and even sent louche cashmere sweatpants down the Celine runway (Spring/Summer 2001).
The simple and unchanging forms of activewear have provided fashion designers a stable canvas on which they’ve been able to play out their personal visions of femininity—from playful (Beene), femme fatale (Rykiel) to minimalist (Klein). Karl Lagerfeld returned to active-inspired luxury many times at Chanel, reinforcing new messages each time. For Fall/Winter 1991 he sent an immaculately simple gray cashmere sweatshirt down the catwalk, loaded up with tons of beads, chains and camellias (a very “Coco Chanel in the 1990s” look), while for Spring/Summer 1996 hiphugger sweatsuits and matching bikini tops were made from brightly colored velour imprinted with the double C’s—a collection that was unceremoniously dubbed “trashy” by most critics. Echoing that collection, Chanel’s “supermarket” Fall/Winter 2014 show included neon ripped neon and purple Lurex midriff-exposing workout sets. In a later return to simplicity, he opened Chanel’s resort 2019 collection with three white cashmere sweatshirts.
The mass appeal in the early 2000s of Juicy Couture’s velour tracksuits (not that dissimilar from Chanel’s earlier ones) and Yohji Yamamoto’s crossover YS range for Adidas had high fashion designers again looking to athletic-wear to bring a casual edge to more elegant attire—for Fall/Winter 2003, Ruth La Ferla of the New York Times noted that “designers as disparate as Michael Kors and Jean Paul Gaultier complemented trench coats, tailored suits and satin flight jackets with fleecy separates.” While athletic luxury initially confused critics, it is now accepted—particularly as designers have increasingly turned to athletic styles, fabrics, and techniques to play with conventions (the chic puffer jackets in Givenchy Fall/Winter 2019) or to show a connection to streetwear. At times this comes from designers with a true connection to hip-hop culture and the street (as in Off-White's Spring/Summer 2019 collection) as well as designers seeking to capitalize on the popularity of that world (Marc Jacobs Fall/Winter 2017). Think Gucci's tracksuits, Dior's cycling shorts, and Louis Vuitton's sky-blue satin boxing shorts. Far-reaching beyond Lauren’s original velour sweatsuit runway look, in 2014 an embellished Mary Katrantzou velvet sweatshirt cost $7,850. With every designer today designing multiple ranges for every varied price point, the play between high and low is both more pronounced (in terms of price differences) and less (as the crossover between styles is constant)—and with athleisure now normal daywear for many women, it is likely that luxury takes on athletic styles will only become more common.