The History of the Tracksuit: From Athletes to Athleisure
A look back at the history of the tracksuit, and the collaboration that brought this adidas design classic to life.
Tracksuits have become our go-to daywear over the last few years. With the increase in time spent at home, the tracksuit has become our work uniform, lounging attire, and of course workout clothes. It is hard to imagine a time when the humble sweatpants were not a staple in every wardrobe. But, the history of the tracksuit starts at a time where only athletes wore anything resembling a tracksuit. Then adidas enters the story.
In the early 1960s, adidas was known around the world as a manufacturer of high-quality sports footwear. In fact, the company’s product list was almost entirely composed of sports shoes, with the addition of a few bags. No sports apparel at all. A little hard to imagine, right?
Then in the mid-60s Adolf (Adi) Dassler started to wonder about the potential for sports clothing. His son Horst Dassler was experimenting with some clothing in the French market, and it seemed that there was potential for technical sportswear which athletes could warmup, train and compete in.
New materials bring new possibilities
It’s no coincidence that at this time a new type of fabric had arrived in the clothing industry. A lightweight synthetic fiber that was breathable, and cheap to produce. Nylon was about to revolutionize the sports clothing market, and Adi Dassler saw its potential. The problem was adidas had no clothing production capacity at their company home in Herzogenaurach, Germany. They could make high-quality leather shoes by the thousands, but did not have the capability or expertise to make clothes.
Adi realized the need to collaborate, and so he turned to successful German textile manufacturer Georg Schwahn. Together, they worked on the idea of producing a technical warmup suit made from a nylon/wool mix material that could replace the heavy wool and cotton pullovers currently being worn by athletes. The design featured a top with a central zip, trousers with a heel loop that kept them in place during exercise, and the three stripes of adidas emblazoned down the arms and legs.
Production began at the Schwahn factory in 1966, and by 1967 the first tracksuit models were released. These early models were called things like the ‘Inform’, ‘Super’ and ‘Nylstretch-Baumwolle’.
A translation of marketing material from that year says: “adidas with its 3-Stripes is not only the most successful, but also the most worn sports shoe in the world. Please note our new adidas 3-stripes tracksuits. Due to the excellent quality, the excellent fit and the tasteful 3-stripe decor, our tracksuits are in great demand.”
With the tracksuit out in the market, Adi then apparently decided to employ a marketing strategy that had given him great success with his running spikes and football boots. He looked for a big-name athlete to endorse the product.
The history of the Beckenbauer tracksuit
Enter Franz Beckenbauer. Having just helped Bayern Munich achieve European footballing success in the ‘Cup Winners Cup’, he was one of the hottest footballers in the world, and a household name. Who better to become the new face of the adidas tracksuit range?
Adi Dassler entered into a partnership with Franz and named a style of tracksuit after him, and so the Franz Beckenbauer was born. Its popularity surged amongst consumers and pro-athletes alike. By 1969, even the West German national football team were wearing matching tracksuits for their training and warmups.
The idea started to catch on that tracksuits could also be worn by people off the sportsfield. In France, Adi’s son Horst was creating his own tracksuit designs and began marketing the sportswear to families as something comfortable to wear in their leisure time.
The history of the tracksuit at the Olympics
adidas soon started to produce tracksuits specifically designed for women. The ‘Heide Rosendahl’ was named after one of the German track & field stars of the Munich Olympic Games in 1972.
The Olympics was still the biggest sporting event in the world at this time, and presented a unique opportunity for adidas to display their new tracksuit styles. Along with Heide’s personal training outfits, Adi produced a uniform tracksuit for the West German team. Male and female athletes had their own designs, and the colors were inspired by the official mascots of the Games.
Interestingly, despite the prevalence of nylon based materials at this time, these Olympic outfits were made using 100% virgin-wool. A material of very high-quality which was even machine washable.
A new logo
This moment in the history of the tracksuit also created an important question for Adi Dassler – was the branding of the 3-Stripes visible enough for people to easily identify these new products as adidas?
It was decided that a new logo was needed – something that would really stand out on tracksuit tops, and so the adidas Trefoil came into being. It was launched for the 1972 Munich Olympics, and used as the symbol of sporting excellence (before later becoming the logo for the adidas Originals brand).
History of the (jogging) tracksuit
The global success of the tracksuit was inevitably dependent on how it sold in the US market. adidas was still getting a foothold in America with shoes like the Superstar making waves in the basketball scene.
By fortune, the tracksuit landed in a country where a new trend for outdoor exercise was starting to become popular.
The modern history of the tracksuit
The success of the tracksuit and new nylon material opened the floodgates for adidas, who then began producing sports apparel in all shapes and sizes.
Shorts, t-shirts, and sports socks were produced in Germany and sold worldwide. Georg Schwahn’s clothing production company was eventually bought by adidas and became part of their production hub in Germany.
Since then, the tracksuit has seen many iterations and interpretations, but has often returned to the original influences of the Franz Beckenbauer and the Heide Rosendahl. It became part of the uniform of the hip-hop movement, and is currently seeing a resurgence due to the popularity of the Netflix series ‘Squid Game. In fact, actor HoYeon Jung is now the star of an adidas Originals campaign.
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Much like the sneaker, the tracksuit started life as an innovative piece of sports equipment and is now one of the most widely owned items of clothing in the world.
Take a deep dive into adidas’ background
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