The Role of Fashion in Sport - From Self-Expression to Greater Performance By Clarisse Fullerton

As both sport and fashion have increased in popularity in the mainstream over the past few years, the two industries have united, with athleisure becoming one of the most in-demand styles amongst models, fashion moguls and your everyday running-errands-but-put-together street style look. Despite this modern depiction, sports' fashion has a complicated history rooted in elitism and class privilege.

Political implications of class, race and status can be traced back through history to the ancient Greek Olympics. Whilst competitors took part in the games mostly nude, winners were dressed in a crown of olive leaves to mimic that of the ruling class as a way of expressing their superiority. This developed over time into more distinct signs of wealth as only certain classes had access to sports, let alone the specific clothing needed to take part. For instance, when Wimbledon first commenced during the Victorian era, players were expected to wear crisp white clothing - a luxury only the aristocracy could afford. This limited the sport to an upper-class activity and became unanimous with the bourgeoisie.

Since then, access to popular sports such as tennis, football and rugby has largely opened up, almost erasing these societal barriers and consequently shifting the role of fashion within the field. While the class divide remains prevalent in sports deemed more extreme, such as equestrian or skiing where expensive equipment or travel is required, the use of clothing as an expression of class status has overall become less common.

Fashion in sport now appears to take the form of both mental empowerment and great physical performance. In such a competitive industry, athletes choose their clothing principally as a means of gaining a physical advantage over their competitors. Footwear in particular can greatly impact an athlete's ability, with many different designs engineered for specific sporting needs.

This was showcased in 1984 when basketball player Michael Jordan joined Nike to create his own signature basketball trainer. Air Jordans were designed with Nike's newest running shoe technology at the time - Air soles and was one of the first shoes to come in varying designs that kept up with fashion trends. The shoes became such a prominent part of his career that Jordan symbolically wore his original pair of Air Jordans at his last game as Madison Square Garden in 1998. Before Air Jordans, sneakers weren't really worn off the court, with Converse as the official shoe of the NBA. However, MJ's personal style was a cultural reset, not only within the sport but in the world of fashion, and is still prevalent to this day, as seen by recent Air Jordan collaborations with Dior, Travis Scott and Comme des Gar├žons.

Similarly, track runner Michael Johnson's infamous golden running shoes contributed to his winning mentality. Although he was known as the fastest man in the world in the 90s, he had yet to win his own individual Olympic gold medal. In 1996 he was the first to double in two races, entering into both the 200m and 400m. As a runner in the Olympics, shoe choice is the only autonomy athletes have over their appearance; for Johnson, this resulted in a reflective gold pair to distinguish him from the other runners. The base of the design centred on stability and weightlessness to give him an advantage on the track. Nike then focused on design with the idea of creating a silver mirrored shoe, but after looking at the prototype they decided it wasn't eye-catching enough; that's when Johnson decided to make it gold. The gold shoes laid a precedent for Johnson in the finals, signalling to himself, and everyone watching, that he envisioned himself winning - and that's exactly what he did (even setting a new world record for the 200m at the same time). For Johnson, the gold shoes promised success and undoubtedly added to his motivation to win two individual gold medals.

"The gold shoes laid a precedent for Johnson in the finals, signalling to himself, and everyone watching, that he envisioned himself winning"

For tennis champion Serena Williams it was her striking black catsuit at the 2018 French Open which garnered a lot of controversy. In her first match post-pregnancy, Williams' Nike catsuit was greatly contested by the President of the French Tennis Federation who subsequently introduced a new dress code, stating that "One must respect the game and the place." Despite this, the public showed their support for Williams - who later revealed that the catsuit was designed with medical reasons in mind, after experiencing complication related to pulmonary embolism, a sever complication during pregnancy in which a blood clot blocks an artery in the lung. Not only did the catsuit aim to reduce blood clots and provide comfort, it also instilled a "warrior princess" mindset. Williams went on to win the game over competitor Pliskova and dedicated the match to new mothers, adding another layer of significance to her achievement.

Williams' catsuit design was readily likened to those in the action film Black Panther, with Williams agreeing that it made her feel like a superhero on court. Clothing clearly plays an essential role in how an athlete feels whilst competing, and consequently can transform a player's headspace. Williams returned the following year wearing an outfit designed by Virgil Abloh (founder and designer of Off-White) which featured a detachable hero-like cape. The design was adorned with words such as 'mother', 'champion', 'queen' and 'goddess' in French. These empowering words were a way of expressing who Williams was, not just as a player but as a person, and acted as a "positive reinforcement" for the champion.

Whilst there remain many regulations surrounding the clothing permitted to be worn during competitions - such as the predominantly white outfits at Wimbledon, a ban on excessive patterns and disapproval of logos, as well as the obligation for female figure skaters to wear skirts - fashion continues to play a crucial part in sport. Not only does it allow athletes to perform at their best, it also acts as a statement of self-expression.

Both fashion and sport are perpetually intertwining as is being reflected in pop culture and the athleisure trend, allowing people to combine functionality and style in their own personalised manner. Hopefully this originality and freedom with fashion will become something that is represented and celebrated in the future of sport, with athletes being encouraged to express themselves through their choice of sport apparel, as opposed to being penalised.


Created with an image by Renith R