Evolution of Fitness Wear

Evolution of Fitness Wear

You know those yoga pants you feel like you could live in? Or the sneakers you wish you could wear to the office every day?

You aren’t the only one. The modern athleisure industry is worth $97 billion and for a good reason. Athletic gear has evolved from clothes we only wear to the gym into our everyday wardrobe (if we can get away with it), and just about every major clothing retailer is trying to earn a slice of the pie.

To get an idea of how we got here, we went back over the last 50 years and looked at trends in men’s and women’s fitness wear to see what was popular in the ’70s and ’80s and how the evolution of the ’90s and ’00s brought us to where we are today. Want to see what your active gear would have looked like back then? Continue reading to find out.

Popular Bottoms in Sports Wear

evolve workout clothes
For women, athletic wear is always evolving. Like the various forms of exercise that have grown in popularity over the years, performance wear like shorts, leotards, and leggings have changed to match the need of the activity.

You’ve seen the 70s gym shorts, right? In the 70s, short, high-waisted shorts were the fashion-forward choice in athletic wear. This was mirrored in the overall trend at that time when hot pants and the famous actresses and characters, like Daisy Duke, who wore them ruled the day.

Hot pants didn’t last forever, though. Leotards, tights, and leg warmers ruled the ’80s workout clothes scene. As workouts transitioned to aerobics and group fitness, workout attire got a makeover of its own. From bright colors and standout prints, the athletic wear of the 80s was just as vivacious as every other fashion trend of the decade.

The 90s workout clothes, however, brought on a new wave of fashion and exercise trends that kept leotards and spandex tights relevant but also secured tracksuits and the famous Adidas three-stripe pants as a staple of the era. Like the grunge music that defined this decade, tracksuits were an alternative to popular, preppy workout gear found in Jazzercise classes and Richard Simmons’ workout shows.

The new millennium saw a sleeker, fashion-forward trend in athletic wear that still rules. Personifying the 2000s and just as popular today are women’s yoga pants. Available in various lengths and patterns, yoga pants have evolved into a fashion trend of their own and can be spotted just about anywhere (yoga not necessarily required).

The Evolution of the Sports Bra

evolve workout clothes
The ’70s not only had its sports bra trend but also introduced the first sports bra into commercial production. Referred to as the Free-Swing Tennis Bra, the base garment of a woman’s workout attire during this time wasn’t nearly as supportive as we’re used to today, but it offered better comfort and fit than standard bras at the time. The first modern interpretation of today’s sports bra – introduced as the “jockbra” – was designed by women who cut two jock straps apart to create the form and support necessary.

The ’80s saw something more fitting for activities like running and working out, and the ’90s built on that trend by adding design and variation to the look and taking the sports bra mainstream, perhaps made iconic by the British phenomenon Mel C from the Spice Girls. Mel, known as Sporty Spice, regularly wore her sports bra so it was visible over her clothing or with nothing else at all.

The 2000s, however, saw sports bras return to their basic form and solid colors with maximum support. In the 2010s, sports bras continue to provide support and lift to give women the function they need without sacrificing looks.

Shirts and Shirt-Type Things

evolve workout clothes
Shirts and tops of the last five decades have evolved as much as pants and sports bras.

In the ’70s, simple, form-fitting shirts were paired with hot pants and the first sports bra to complete the athletic look of the day – perfect for popular activities like tennis, sailing, and golf. For women looking for more flexibility, basic, loose tops complimented their looks with added breathability over the fitted Lacoste V-necks found on the tennis court.

In the ’80s and ’90s, leotards rode all the way up providing a one-piece look perfect for step aerobics classes and “Buns of Steel” videos. The ’90s also saw baggy track jackets take hold for women who preferred a less obnoxious look or weren’t as fashion-conscious in their workout gear.

By the 2000s, fashion trends rolled back to form-fitted looks like sports bras, short tanks, and velour track jackets. Velour caught on over the decade and introduced the concept of active wear as loungewear that wasn’t exclusive to the gym or workout classes. In 2010, fashion rolled onto loose-fitting racerback tanks and popular zip-up jackets like those from Lululemon that continue to be popular as everyday wear, regardless of the day’s activities like doing this plank challenge.

Sneakers for Every Workout

evolve workout clothes
Footwear, in general, has seen its fair share of changes, and sneakers are no exception.

In the ’70s, simple shoes with minimal support were fashionable. With a commonly rounded toe box, brands like Nike, Adidas, and Tiger made simple shoes for women that matched the somewhat simple workouts and activities of the day.

For the ’80s, though, things got a little more interesting. High tops came into fashion, with Nike introducing Air Jordan to the world in 1984. Jordan – not just a staple for fashion or aesthetics – introduced the idea of technology in our shoes that helped revolutionize the sneaker game.

In the ’90s, sneakers caught fire in a new and colorful way. The rising popularity of Jordan (and the introduction of the first pair for women in 1997) helped influence fashion trends across all brands and played a part in modernizing today’s kicks. From the 2000s to 2010, sneakers got more advanced in design and functionality. Today, there’s a type of sneaker for every activity you can think of. From walking and hiking to running and CrossFit, there’s something for everyone.   

Men’s Active Tops

evolve workout clothes
Like women, men’s sports in the ’70s weren’t always as physically demanding as what would become popular in the ’80s and beyond, and their workout attire reflected their causal activity. Simple, loose-fitting tees and track jackets with basic logos defined the decade for activewear.

The 80s and 90s workout clothes kept things even simpler with solid-colored tops and jackets, which introduced the idea of performance wear and functionality in workout shirts to meet the rising popularity of a new fitness fad – weightlifting. Tank tops became even more popular as weightlifting evolved into bodybuilding. Showing off the results of their hard work seemed to be a top priority for men in the ’80s.

The 2000s and 2010s saw activewear tops for men become even more fitted as well as more varied in style and color. Screen-printed tanks and patterned shirts have increased the offerings for men today to don at the gym or while working out.

Shorts – Long and Short

evolve workout clothes
We discovered that the evolution of men’s workout shorts turned out to be a bit more dramatic than their shirts.

Mens’ 70s gym shorts were generally short and loose in a range of bright colors, but in the ’80s, managed to get even shorter still and a bit tighter. Still, they remained vibrant and colorful across both decades.

The ’90s, however, saw the introduction of longer and free-flowing shorts. With a rise in popularity of basketball sneakers like Air Jordan in the ’80s and ’90s, basketball shorts also rose in popularity for men’s activewear. In the 2000s, these shorts became slightly more refined in both fit and style, offering a tighter fit and various lengths.

Today, men’s workout shorts can range from extremely form-fitting for activities like running and cycling to breathable and light for active use and wear.

Fashion and Function

evolve workout clothes
Trends in men’s activewear pants have always offered a range of selections in fit and style.

In the ’70s, well-structured pants that were both form-fitting and straight-legged came in the same bold colors as shorts at the time. However, the simple design did not last into the 80s workout clothes when pants became either extremely form-fitting (like leggings), or wide, loose, and flowing. Parachute pants were popular in the ’80s and made their way into the activewear genre in all their audacious splendor.

As with women’s pants in the ’90s, the Adidas three-stripe pants were popular for men in a range of colors, while baggy, loose-fitting pants (though, nothing quite as dramatic as “hammer pants”) remained popular through the 2000s.

Today, though, loose-fitting pants have developed tighter hems at the waist and ankle creating a popular jogger style. Like women’s yoga pants, joggers have become as much an element of casual style today as they are for sports and active use.  

Sneakers Throughout the Years

evolve workout clothes
Sneakers over the last 50 years for men have expanded from basic designs and colors to deeply sophisticated technology and craftsmanship.

Like women’s sneakers, basic design ruled the ’70s in the shoe department for men. Minimal support and uncomplicated but bold color schemes matched the overall aesthetic of the decade’s attire.

These simple sneakers evolved into high tops and leather designs in the ’80s that helped push the sneaker game forward in comfortability and functionality as well as collectability. Designs and color choices became even more unique, even into the 2000s and today, where design and form rule. Today’s athletic sneakers look good and perform even better.

Your #FitnessGoals Are Our #FitnessGoals

What goes around always seems to come back around. Like the harem pants of the ’80s and ’90s that morphed into joggers of today, fashion trends have a history of being cyclical in one way or another. For other elements of activewear, we’ve come a long way with necessities like sports bras and sneakers. Today, they don’t just up your game – they help you feel confident no matter where the day might take you in your yoga pants.

If you want to stay current on the latest trends and gear in the fitness world, Fitnessgoals.com is your one-stop shop for every aspect of your fitness routine. From nutrition and wellness to weight loss and exercise, we have all the information you need to make sure your form and gear are in top shape. For more stories like this, visit us online today or follow us on Facebook for all the latest news and trends.  


We researched popular fashion trends for each category of clothing from each decade and compiled images to represent those trends over the years.

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You are free to use any of the assets found on the page for noncommercial uses. If you decide to do so, we ask that you link back to the original source, which allows readers to learn more about the additional research as well as the methodology used for this project.