Did Boomers Pave the Way for Athleisure?

Have you noticed that more people are wearing what most boomers would consider gym wear in all sorts of public venues, from shopping and casual evenings out, to heading in to the office for a day’s work? Evidently, it’s not your imagination, but a nationwide trend that is shaking up the world of fashion. As you might suspect, Millennials — you know, that demographic that is now overtaking boomers to become the most influential spenders for retailers — have taken to the trend like comics on Silly Putty. This new blend of what used to be called sportswear and active wear is now called athleisure. Merriam-Webster dictionary has included the term in its latest edition, defining it as “casual clothing meant to be worn both for exercising and for general use.” What? How can clothing be used for both exercising and general use? Well, maybe we only have ourselves to blame.

At the start of the Boomer Generation, Americans had a post-war dress code that was split between more formal attire and casual wear. Both were upended, first by the Beatniks and then into the sixties, where boomers replaced “sensible” with eccentric combinations of fabrics and patterns, more often than not paired with blue jeans. It was the Boomer Generation that started us on the path to what Mister Boomer has called the Casualization of America. Mister Boomer has written about this trend as he watched the first blue jeans make their way into his church. In just a couple of short years, horrified parishioners who once wore only dresses and suits to church were accepting kids walking in wearing jeans. “Anything to get them into the pews,” was one of the rationales you’d hear. Other than military academies and parochial schools, the lack of stricter dress codes allowed the boomer casual look into the schools to the point where jeans and, ultimately, t-shirts, became the new norm.

When the Boomer Generation began, there wasn’t much need for gym-style exercise for a lot of people. Instead, physical labor supplied all the muscle tone most people needed, or so they thought. Technology was changing the workplace, and television tempted people to sit more than they used to. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, having experienced the need for a fit fighting force in World War II, established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness in July of 1956. Unfortunately, people weren’t sure what exactly constituted “fitness,” so the program floundered.

By the time John F. Kennedy became President in 1960, the government was running ads to make people aware of widening waistlines and sedentary tendencies. Only a month after his inauguration, Kennedy reorganized the President’s Council on Youth Fitness to promote and improve fitness. It was more than likely through this program that a good many boomers were introduced to gym clothes as more schools made Phys Ed mandatory.

What did boomers wear to gym class? In Mister Boomer’s experience, both boys and girls wore the same practical outfit: t-shirt with the school’s name printed on it, cotton shorts, tube socks and gym shoes, otherwise known as sneakers. However, other than taking the clothes home from school for washing, gym class was the only place this clothing was worn. It was the sneakers that first made their way into the summer wardrobes of boomers, which turned out to be a welcome addition to more than one style of boomer fashion.

Fast forward to the times when most boomers were raising families themselves and you’ll see the slow but steady acceptance of more casual attire in the workplace. Factory workers had always taken the lead in casual comfort, wearing overalls or jeans more often than not, for durability as well as mobility on the job. Into the 1970s and ’80s, as office jobs were more prevalent than factory jobs, the question of “proper” attire was a battlefield for some employees, while a place of freedom for others. By the 1980s, the trend was given a name, and it was called “business casual.” Boomers took to it like screaming fans to the Beatles. By the 2000s, business casual was the norm in many industries.

And that brings us back to athleisure. Mister Boomer supposes it comes down to this: have you ever worn sweatpants to shop at WalMart? Did the clothing you wore to play football with the kids become OK to wear while visiting Aunt Martha? Did you ever buy a running suit, but never took up running? If so, then athleisure is your baby. Mister Boomer prefers his jeans.

How about it, boomers? Will you embrace your kids and grandkids coming to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner wearing athleisure clothing at the end of this year?

Boomers Chose Their Summer Footwear Carefully

For a good many boomers, their choice of summer footwear fell into two categories: casual or dress, and generally speaking for boomer boys, at least, there would be one pair for each. Some boomer girls might have more than one pair of summer sandals, depending on a range of factors that included their families’ economic class.

For Mister Boomer and all the boomers he grew up with, casual summer shoes were the very pair of canvas sneakers that had been worn the previous school year in gym class. Some boys had high tops, while others preferred the low rise (like Mister B). These shoes served triple duty during the summer, getting wear from everyday walking to playing sports, or going shopping or to drive-in movies with the family, but never to Sunday church. The shoes could often end up torn and tattered by summer’s end, so a new pair would be purchased for the upcoming school year. Many boys chose to wear their sneakers without socks, but Mister B did not; he always wore gym socks with his sneakers.

Boomer girls wore sneakers as well, but often wore sandals of various styles. Usually, they were made of leather with flat bottoms and a strap of some kind that wrapped around the top of the foot, with or without a buckle. There was usually a heel strap and buckle as well. Flip-flops, the ultimate in casual summer footwear, were not worn anywhere but the beach in Mister B’s area — by girls or boys — at least until the late sixties.

Some boomer boys and their fathers wore leather sandals, which often had thick leather straps to distinguish a manly shoe from the thinner-strapped feminine counterparts. Mister Boomer recalls two fathers of his neighborhood boomer friends who wore sandals with socks, the nightmare of every son or daughter. One of the men wore his usual socks with his leather sandals, which could be navy, black or olive green color. The other wore the proverbial knee-high white tube socks with his dark brown sandals. It was not the sartorial preference of boomers. However, some of the boomer boys in Mister B’s neighborhood had leather sandals. They might have simple (but thick) leather straps of a lighter or darker color, or be gussied up with gold-toned metal rivets that harkened back to gladiator days.

Mister Boomer tried a pair of leather sandals once, but found them immensely uncomfortable without socks, the leather digging into multiple locations on his foot. Wearing socks, of course, was not an option, so he abandoned the idea. Then one day one of the neighborhood’s older boys came back from Vietnam, with tales of how the Vietnamese made sandals from old tires. The boys were enthralled with the homemade factor, including Mister B and his brother. The Army vet gave the boys instructions of how tire treads were cut to foot size, then pierced on either side of the toes so strips of rubber inner tube could be slipped through the holes and knotted underneath to create a strap over the top of the foot. The process was repeated for a heal strap. Since the rubber stretched, the homemade sandals could be adjusted to suit the size of every foot. He said the Vietnamese wore them constantly, and they were very durable.

There always seemed to be plenty of junk material in Mister B’s neighborhood for building projects, from underground forts to treehouses, go-karts, to now, tire-tread sandals. As several boys in the neighborhood attempted to make their own Vietnamese-style sandals based on the neighbor’s instructions, Brother Boomer secured a chunk of tire for his pair, and for Mister Boomer as well. He retrieved his father’s hunting knife from the basement and, in the backyard, traced his feet with a pencil on roughly-cut pieces of tire tread. He brandished the hunting knife to trim the tread along the outline, then placed four piercings for the straps. An old tire inner tube — Mister B thinks it might have been from a bicycle tire — was sliced to a close size. Brother Boomer slipped one end through the hole and knotted it on the sole, repeating the process for the other side and heel. By leaving one side unknotted, the rubber strap was adjusted until it provided a snug fit. Then the straps were knotted completely underneath, with excess rubber getting sliced off with the knife.

Wearing his newly-made sandals and looking out for the safety of his younger brother, Brother Boomer cut tire tread for Mister B. After slicing the strap holes, he let Mister B complete the process to make the straps. While the DIY project was great fun, Mister B found them completely impractical and for him, unwearable. Brother Boomer wore his for more than a week before giving up, while one or two of the neighborhood boys continued to wear theirs well into the summer.

Society had structural rules for practically everything in the fifties and early sixties, and that included going barefoot. If boomers weren’t in the backyard kiddie pool or running through the sprinkler, they would be wearing some type of footwear. By the end of the sixties, rules were relaxed or demolished as boomers wore sneakers in places that were unheard of earlier (like to church) and flip-flops were worn in public by both males and females. Mister B had flip-flops for beach and vacation trips, but rarely wore them. He never got used to having that thing stick between the toes.

What memories of summer casual footwear do you have, boomers?