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Fashion for fitness
Feature: 3/11/2002

In the last couple of decades, we have witnessed changing fashions from torn jeans and big hair to the resurrection of hip-huggers. We've seen wireless replace cordless, CD players out-blast ghetto blasters and tight tanks and ankle socks unravel the g-string leotards and leg warmers of the '80s.

Since the middle of the 20th Century, everything from computer technology to the science of exercise wear has evolved drastically. Runners buy shoes scientifically designed to compensate for a high arch or no arch at all, and everyone from hard-core athletes to once-a-week walkers sport tops in the latest breathable fabrics, proven to keep you dry and cool.

Exercise wear hasn't always been so functional or scientific. The '80s marked the beginning of a fitness boom with distinctive leotards and high-top sneakers, followed by a more moderate and comfortable '90s characterised by warm-ups. Today, popular labels have launched lines that provide fashionable - and functional - gym clothes for all levels of activity.

Aerobic eighties

The famous '80s - the decade of aerobics and the neon leotard. This original era was the beginning of modern fitness - often coined 'the fitness boom' - and hence the genesis of exercise wear today. Gyms were just beginning to pop up across the country, and the rise of aerobics and Jane Fonda's "Go for the Burn" exercise video are the decade's trademarks.

Hard core athletics took off. Triathlons were initiated all over the world, and the first women's weight lifting category was introduced in the Olympics in 1987. Whatever the mode, fitness was promoted everywhere. And dynamic style was as important as an intense exercise.

This decade began a budding fitness fashion for all classes of athletes that would bloom in the next 20 years, partially due to the growing interest in fitness itself. Bright pink leotards and turquoise leggings were the most practical apparel for jumping jacks and other high-impact moves, while cotton sweatbands held feathered bangs off the forehead to prevent unsightly breakouts.

The 'shell suit' became extremely popular - that lightweight, front zippered nylon jogging top matched with loose bottom trousers complete with elasticised waist, gathered at the cuff. Every eighties exercise fanatic owned at least one of these.

The first shell suit-seekers were those actively involved in serious sports just looking for something suitable to wear. But as the suit caught on, even those who took a fitness class once a week began to sport them, wearing the suit for a trip to the pub or while out shopping.

The eighties encouraged hard-core training for the seriously fit, and injuries mounted. Exercisers became burnt out, promoting the more laid-back fitness style of the 90's.

Easy-going nineties

The '90s proved to be a mellow and easy-going version of the '80s and marked a break in the fitness boom. Burnt-out leotard-wearers sought more moderate training as well as fashion.

According to health statistics, only 10 percent of the population worked out during this decade, and a more balanced approach, both in fitness and its apparel, began to unfold. Activities like gardening and washing the car were recognised as being inherently healthy, and exercise apparel reflected this conservative approach to fitness.

As everyday life became more hectic, comfort and convenience replaced trendy styles in exercise wear. People took their exercise home in the form of treadmills, stationary bikes and a surplus of 'as seen on TV' products like the Ab-flex, Ab-roller, Bow-flex and, the 'Thigh Master'.

Since everyone liked the comfort of sports clothes, soon warm-ups and other clothes designed only for the gym were being worn in the streets - a trend still visible today.

The '90s introduced innovative materials that have since grown popular. Fleece and breathable fabrics, for example, revolutionised fitness clothes. People were too preoccupied to colour co-ordinate leg warmers and sweatbands anymore, and fleece became an instant trend in a wide range of casual tops worn by all age groups.

When sprinter Linford Christie appeared at the 1992 Olympics in a one piece running suit, everyday runners bought the trend. Not only did his outfit look good, but it also was technologically designed to keep a runner both dry and cool.

Christie's one-piece suit became standard wear for sprinters. To keep athletes even cooler in hot climates, women cut the midriff for a stylish cropped top.

The secret was a membrane called GoreTex - the original product used to make breathable, water resistant windproof outer garments. GoreTex is not a fabric, but a membrane laminated to other fabrics such as polyester or nylon to create breathable clothing.

Similar products like Activent, a breathable fabric from Gore, Ecolite with its ecological breathable coating, Sympatex, another breathable membrane, and Tactel, a lightweight nylon which can have an applied waterproof breathable coating, have been introduced to make exercise wear more practical.

Those who were serious about toning the muscles of their body wanted clothes to show their hard work. A puffy shell suit just didn't show off a toned body. The answer was aerodynamic Lycra. This and other hi-tech fibres would bring us into the functional fashions of the twenty-first century.

Today and beyond

Today fitness is a multi-billion pound, worldwide industry. Exercise clothing, like all other apparel, continues to follow style and trend. But the fashion of fitness has become activity-specific and people dress now for what they do.

Yoga aficionados wear loose clothes that let them move, weight lifters wear tight clothes - and less of them - so they can watch the muscles they're working in the mirror, and for aerobic classes participants wear urban-style outfits.

Developments in fibres and fabrics also offer more functional clothing, as Nike, adidas, JJB Sports and other large athletic companies endorse breathable fabrics, embracing technology in clothing development.

These companies spend huge sums of money forging links with athletes and sports personalities to ensure that fans will spend cash on their very own branded sports goods from footwear to gym-bags.

As new fitness trends like yoga, tai bo, pilates and tai chi sweep the world, they encourage the continuing evolution of gym clothes. Yoga pants and tight spaghetti-strap tanks are common, and fit wear has become more functional, while remaining trendy and fashionable with the times.

And putting designer labels on exercise wear adds the final touch - allowing individual style to shine while keeping up the right image even while you sweat.
Author: John Gibbon
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