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?