It’s hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when sportswear was actually worn for sport. No, really. We’re not making this up.
Long before high-end sweats and technical sneakers lined the front rows of fashion week, they were the uniform of every Tom (Haas), Dick (Butkus) and Harry (Redknapp) in the locker room.
“It was only in the 1960s, when pieces like the sweatshirt began to appear on university campuses and later throughout hip-hop culture in hooded form, that it kicked off,” explains Nick Paulson-Ellis, founder of athletic e-tailer The Sports Edit.
By ‘it’, Paulson-Ellis is referring to the sportification of men’s style, which today means you needn’t know your arse from your Arsenal FC to slot a track top under a tailored jacket.
To prove it, here are seven of the coolest wardrobe staples to come from sport, and how to wear them. On your marks, get set…
Gum and footwear go together like hot sauce and genitals, unless of course you’re talking about rubber soles.
The earliest use of this handsome, traction-packed textile came about in 1917 (created by The United States Rubber Company – later known as Keds), but took several decades to catch on. “The popularity of gum soles in the UK rose when football supporters travelled across Europe in the late 1970s and 1980s,” says Robert Stewart, founder of professional sneaker cleaning service and brand Sneakers ER.
Football Casuals, as they were known, brought home models that weren’t available in the UK at the time such as the Adidas Athen and sneakerheads have gone made for the contrast sole ever since with designs like the Samba, Gazelle and Reebok Workout.
It wasn’t long ago that being seen in a baseball cap outside the diamond would have been considered a style strikeout. But since returning in a more premium guise, the headgear has been an indispensable part of every man’s wardrobe.
“In recent seasons the baseball cap has re-emerged as the perfect weekend staple,” according to the design team at Gant. The preppy brand established its own sportswear line since 1974, more than a century after the Brooklyn Excelsiors first wore caps to shield their eyes from the sun during play.
“Whether it’s made from a sporty cotton twill or more modern Melton wool will decide whether it dresses up or down an outfit,” the Gant team add. “But either way it looks good worn with a classic half-zip sweater as a nod to its campus heritage.”
Put simply, an Oxford shirt is one of the most versatile staples a man can own; capable of hitting the smart-casual sweet spot with mallet-like force. So it stands to reason that such a royally helpful piece of kit would come from the sport of kings.
“From what began as a shirt associated with aristocratic British polo players is now a bread and butter style shirt that’s timeless and can be worn for any number of formal or casual occasions,” says Mr Porter style director Olie Arnold.
Though Scotland’s greatest sartorial invention may no longer come with detachable collars and cuffs, it’s no less versatile. “Wear one under a blazer for work (you can choose to wear with or without a tie) or with a pair of rolled-up jeans, chinos and white sneakers for a considered casual look,” adds Arnold.
Fans of the polo shirt (AKA any man that’s ever needed something smarter than a T-shirt but less formal than a shirt) have not one, but two, sports to thank.
Despite the name, it didn’t start out as a piece of on-court attire. “Chunkier long-sleeve versions date back to the polo fields of Manipur in late 19th-century India,” says Paulson-Ellis. “However, it was René Lacoste who invented the short-sleeved pique cotton type we know today in the 1930s.”
Though smarter than a T-shirt, the standard polo is still a casual piece and so looks best styled as such. “Ideally with slim jeans and sneakers,” says Paulson-Ellis. For an ace look with tailoring, show love to logo-free styles cut from premium materials like merino wool or cotton-cashmere blends. Just don’t double-fault by popping the collar.
The fashion world loves to turn the uncool into something guys lose their menswear-y minds over. Take the cricket-inspired V-neck: after being burnt to the ashes by bros in navel-plunging necklines the style is back for another swing at it.
“For proof the V-neck is back, you only need to look at the resurgence in cricket sweatshirts, driven by David Beckham and his involvement with Kent & Curwen,” says Chris Gove, creative director of British menswear brand Percival. “The heritage brand pioneered the thick ribbed knit in the 1930s, which was made from wool to absorb perspiration.”
If wondering how to wear these striped-collar designs leaves you stumped, try going beyond the usual whites by layering darker versions over a shirt.
If there’s one lesson to learn from the current state of menswear, it’s that you don’t have to play a sport to siphon off its most stylish pieces. Nor do those pieces have to look like they’ve ever seen the inside of a huddle.
The unstructured blazer, known historically as a sports jacket, is a prime example. Shorter in length, and with a neater fit than a suit jacket, it’s been particularly popular in rowing since 1829 when different colours were used to distinguish between teams.
These days relaxed tailoring is just at home on the bank. “Despite being a slightly more casual piece of tailoring, it can suit all seasons and occasions,” says the Gant design team. “A neatly cut navy example worn with an Oxford shirt and cable knit jumper offers true preppy American style with European sophistication.”
Looking good while wearing any piece of clothing that starts with the word ‘sweat’ sounds equal parts impossible and undesirable. But however unfortunately named, the sweatshirt has made light work of the task since the 1920s.
A stalwart of the modern wardrobe, the loopback-cotton pullover has its origins in American football. “It was created by Benjamin Russell Jr, a player frustrated with the chafing of conventional wool-based jerseys,” says Paulson-Ellis. “It took off pretty quickly, adopted by track and field, and baseball.”
Today the best examples are faithful reproductions of classic collegiate styles, finished with raglan sleeves and a subtle ‘V’ stitching at the collar. “Sweatshirts are so versatile, they can look great worn casually with track pants or under a coat with jeans.”