How activewear became mainstream fashion

The clothing we know as activewear began its journey in the 2000s. When brands started producing high-performance sportswear for athletic and outdoor activities such as sailing, mountaineering and hiking. The clothing style became popular among city youth in the 1970s. By the 1980s, practical styles such as sleeveless hoodies and sneakers took over the landscape of college campuses in America. Soon a time came when young professionals were wearing sneakers with suits.

Briefcases were discarded; backpacks, anoraks and sweatshirts were paired with deck shoes, khakis and jeans. Soon after the style got adopted by the sport city dwellers and college students, activewear became a popular staple in modern wardrobes. However, the transition of this particular clothing style from the sports field and outdoors to wardrobes and fashion ramps was not that simple. Many initiatives by designers, brands and pop culture have contributed to the evolution of activewear in the past years making activewear a norm in today’s world. Hardly a day goes by when you won’t notice someone incorporating athleisure in their everyday clothes. Whether they are formal or casual. The article will take you through the timeline of how activewear became such a big thing in mainstream fashion.

The initial rise of activewear

Activewear appeared on the vogue covers in the past decade. But the trend goes back to the early 1970s when people started to take a profound interest in fitness regimes. With the increasing popularity of fitness activities, people started looking for clothes to make them comfortable during strenuous exercises. The demand prompted sportswear brands to create clothes collections that were specifically designed to suit athletic activities. Later, sportswear became a booming industry by introducing Lycra, Nylon, Spandex, and other synthetic materials. These materials became popular in the sports field for durability, breathability, comfort and moisture-wicking property. In the later years, the apparel that once was categorized as sportswear completely merged into fashionwear year after year. Comfort and practicality were the primary elements that brought activewear to mainstream fashion.

The progressive era of the 70s and 80s

In the 1960s, manufacturers started introducing color-coordinated nylon and cotton tracksuits. In the 1970s, Bruce Lee brought the iconic tracksuit into mainstream fashion. Suddenly, athletic tracksuits in cotton, polyester and terrycloth became a trend even in settings that were not at all athletic. The next thing that made its way from outdoors to the wardrobes in the 1980s were the bright stirrup skiing pants. The ski jackets of the 80s still hold an underground cult appeal and the youngsters covet them in their fashion collection.

The athleisure footwear

Elite athletes casual sneakers will overtake fashion as the most popular footwear in the United States as the trend for comfortable and utilitarian shoes continues to develop. In the era of the 1970s, when athleisure apparel was booming, active footwear also started taking root in conventional fashion. Adidas created Stan Smith, the iconic tennis shoe named after the top tennis player of that time.

Initially, these sneakers were limited for sports, but members of the fashion community. Particularly Marc Jacobs, a big name of the industry brought them on the ramps and the roads in recent years. Another event that brought iconic Adidas shoes ‘Superstar’ under the spotlight was when Run-DMC began to make his appearances in their tell-tale black and white stripes. The hip-hop group brought an unintentional but impactful shift in American urban fashion with their cool and sporty look. It elevated athleisure fashion to a new level of influence that remains powerful to date.

The 1990s and the contribution of Lululemon in the evolution of activewear

Lululemon revived the athleisure movement in 1998 by creating its Boogie women’s leggings. The garment was first exhibited in the New York Museum of Modern Art. These technical pants were the opposite of something that could be called fashion sportswear. However, their comfort, practicality and cost gave them a push outside the yoga studio and consequently. Other designers and brands upped their game to compete for and get a chunk of the new market. The other factors also came into play to expedite the evolution of sportswear into everyday fashion trends.

The economic downturn in the 2000s and change in official dress code

An unprecedented upsurge came in the sportswear boom when the office wear trends swung away like a pendulum from the formal menswear sartorialism following the economic downturn of 2007. The era of intense competition in the job market coincided with the release of Mad Men in 2007. Once the economic depression was over, the employment opportunities rose and so did the jobs that didn’t require a traditional dress code. Casual activewear was incorporated in the corporate world. The adoption was further fueled by social media’s emphasis on individuality and creativity.

The ultimate transition

Athleisure became an extensively accepted fashion trend when influencers, Rihanna and Beyonce introduced activewear to the mainstream in 2016. The brands like Topshop and Puma backed them up in using Instagram as a ramp to gain commercial success for athleisure. Speaking of Instagram, the platform played an important role in transforming a sporty style into a holistic trend. The social media network promoted selfie-ready looks and kinetic details in celebrities’ off-the-camera lifestyles. Many celebrities and influencers started to show up in the mix and match of sportswear. Such as yoga pants and non-sportswear apparel to look more versatile. The outfits motivated millions of fans and followers to adopt the same laid-back look.


It is debatably the luxury segment that is setting a fast pace of transition of clothing style from activewear to fashionwear. Fashion designers like Demna Gvasalia and Virgil Abloh are running the shows. These, along with many other designers are contributing greatly to elevate the previously utilitarian activewear to the heights of fashion. The athletic clothing items like sneakers, t-shirts and jackets, which have grown by 10%, 25%, and 15%, respectively, were showcased under “standout categories” in Bain Luxury Study 2017.


Conclusive overview

The Allied Market Research presented the Global Athleisure Market Report reflecting that activewear is indeed rising under the combined umbrella of fashion and sports clothing. Activewear has entirely transformed into athleisure, a term derived from the contraction of two complete words, “athletic” and “leisure”.  In 2018, the market size of athleisure was 155.2 billion USD. By 2026, the value is expected to touch 257.1 billion USD. As per the NPD group, the sportswear brands from Nike to Eres and Primark are launching the range of athleisure one after another to have a piece of the market worth 44 billion USD in the US only. The comfort and practicality have turned sports team clothing into casual fashion staples.

If there is ever a swing back to the formal clothes. It can be foreseen that their style will be inseparably intertwined with sportswear. The mix can be in the form of technical fabrics or in terms of designs such as trainers as footwear and drawstrings in the pants. Now when the idea of “high performance” is applied to work and play both, there is hardly any chance that the youth will voluntarily return to formal work clothes. No one would want to adopt a style that never changed in decades and requires monotonous tasks of dry-cleaning and pressing. The stats and the live accounts tell us that activewear is the current fashion trend and will remain like this for a long time.




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