Track tops are relevant again, and we couldn’t be happier. Here, we chart the evolution of one of sportswear’s most iconic pieces of apparel from athletic basic to luxury staple.
Fashion has had a long but turbulent relationship with track tops and tracksuits since the 1970s when they first became acceptable apparel outside of the gym. Adidas had created its OG three-stripe trackie in 1967, designed to be worn over competition and training kit to keep athletes warm. Running headfirst into the 1970s, a rise in amateur sportsmanship meant that tracksuits were regularly worn by your average Joe (not just the pros). Of course, this was the ‘70s, and the birth of disco created a cultural shift that meant looking OTT was not only acceptable but actively encouraged – it was the time of ABBA, Saturday Night Fever and the jumpsuit, after all. Looking back, some of the interpretations of the suits, which involved terry cloth and velour, must have been pretty radical in their time. Long before the term “athleisure” became every tenth word in the glossies, the tracksuit’s appearance in the everyday wardrobes of stylish folk was indicative of the incorporation proper of sportswear into fashion.
Closely related and also in the throes of a style renaissance is the tracksuits close relation, the shell suit. Made of nylon (far superior to terry, of course) shells arrived in the ‘80s and were quickly adopted by the hip hop and breakdancing scenes, resulting in lifetime status as an emblem of cool whether they’re in “fashion” or not. Run-DMC were one of the most visible pioneers of the ‘80s tracksuit, wearing three-stripe full Adidas looks with shell toes to match. We’ll skip the part about celebrity aerobics videos (fitness craze + Sympatex + Jane Fonda = woah.) This side of the pond, track tops in more luxurious iterations and brands than the standard sports brands were being worn by Casuals. The Casuals started out as football fans who opted for luxury European brands over their team’s shirts – it became a badge of honour to be in the stands wearing labels like Moncler and Stone Island as it meant you had travelled abroad with your team. You were quite literally wearing the winnings on your back. So, they gave it the big one through clothing that had more status attached to it than just a jersey.
Cue the 1990s and rave culture, B-boys from the Bronx and everyone from the Spice Girls to Damon Albarn and Jay Z are repping trackies. Later, the noughts gave birth to velour once again – think Beverly Hills, Paris Hilton and the inimitable Juicy Couture, whilst their more “street” counterparts from Nike and Mackenzie were the uniform of British youths the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. It was around this time that high fashion shunned the trackie, and it wasn’t to be seen again for almost a decade. The track top died a death, particularly amongst the fashion cognoscenti for whom they became a marker of poor taste. Whilst significant pockets of people continued to wear them and their sartorial significance never wavered, they were out of the high fashion circuit, seemingly forever. Until now. The last few years have seen trackies rise through the style ranks and they’re now largely as acceptable at the office as they are at the pub and are a regular on the front rows of fashion weeks. Not that we’re complaining, but why is this?
It seems that people have re-discovered an appreciation for the cultural significance of the tracksuit. And for its practicality and style, of course. In our view, training gear is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Its working-class associations and deep historical affiliation with youth and subcultural movements from London to New York make a track top and track pants a truly iconic pairing in many spheres. Trackies are more than just a trend – to some they’re a way of life. The track top has existed on the street for generations and is a staple of streetwear – fashion is guilty of many things, and one of them is the fetishisation and appropriation of cultural codes that do not belong to it. It repackages trends that have existed on the streets for decades and will cherry-pick the visual elements of something meaningful and authentic like a subculture, without investing in its more authentic parts. Having said that, all trends are cyclical, and now it feels like the fashpack are seeing the error of their ways – they’re sitting up and taking note of the true value of sportswear. Fashion loves nostalgia, and whilst a tracksuit has been one of the most polarising pieces of apparel over the decades, a signifier of class divisions and cultural alliances alike, it seems people might be finally embracing it for what it is – a piece of versatile clothing that happens to occupy a rich cultural seam and is more than the sum of its parts. And a really great alternative to a jumper.
The advent of Grime in the mainstream has contributed to the track top’s rebirth. The (no-longer) underground music scene’s icons are some of the coolest and most visible in the British media, and everyone from Skepta to Stormzy has been seen rocking a two piece. The term “cosy boy” too indicated to us that the sportswear trend had real legs in circles other than just the street or top tier of fashion – seemingly coined by A$AP Rocky (or introduced to popular culture by his song “Gotham City”), it quite literally means someone who wears comfortable clothing – be that sneakers, puffa coats of track tops.
The track top and its partner have permeated the global style conscious at every level. At Gucci, Alessandro Michele started sending track tops down the runway, indicating a new dawn for sportswear in luxury fashion. The designer is famous for having an appreciation of the cultural meaning behind clothes, so it really felt like an appreciation rather than an appropriation. Everyone has followed suit. From Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi to Demna Gvasalia’s new-age Balenciaga, track tops and pants are firmly in the style lexicon again. Not only that, but genuine sportswear brands – Nike, Champion, Adidas – are also once again the height of cool. It feels like the sportswear trend is a democratising one and has levelled the style playing field a bit. The old-timers with a wardrobe full of vintage Fila must be laughing.
Now the track top is acceptable attire in almost every scenario, the question is how to wear it. The track top is, of course, one half of a pair, and it wouldn’t do to address it without addressing its south-of-the-border brother, the tracksuit bottom. A track top paired with bottoms – AKA the full look – is the classic and is a common sight amongst the street style set at New York, London, Paris and Milan. For more formal occasions, pairing a track top with a smartly tailored overcoat or smart, wool, pleat-front trousers is a contemporary alternative to a shirt or knitwear. Whilst this is technically sportswear, this is not the sort of sportswear you’d ever do exercise in. Track tops, you may never have really left, but welcome back.