It started with Jane Fonda. Earlier this year, on a whim and cruising a wave of slight boredom with my at-home fitness options, I searched for and very quickly found an online video of the iconic "Jane Fonda’s Original Workout," first released in 1982. YouTube is a trove of videos like these — VHS tapes from the '80s, '90s and early 2000s, many of which are out of circulation, lovingly uploaded by original copy owners. There, you can find selections from the "Buns and Abs of Steel" collections, along with "Winsor Pilates" and "Tae-Bo." There's even a program from the New York City Ballet, complete with classical music, and, weirdly, an intro from Sarah-Jessica Parker. As I watched this succession of fitness ideals through the decades, what struck me more than the elaborate stage sets and impractical hairstyles was an uncalculated element: sweat.
Sweat, once prized as a mark of physical activity well-endured, has disappeared from the armpits and nether regions of athletes and casual gym-goers. In the past few decades, moisture-wicking performance fabrics have become the norm in athleticwear, displacing sweatshirts, cotton-Spandex bras and nylon running shorts in favor of high-tech, dry-touch options.
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It wasn't always this way. When moisture-wicking apparel first appeared in the late 1980s, "it was very expensive, and people didn't really see the value in it," says Matt Powell, senior sports industry advisor at The NPD Group. By the early aughts, every major athletic apparel brand had their own variation on this theme: Nike had Dri-Fit, Adidas had ClimaLite and Reebok had PlayDry. But it was Under Armour, Powell says, with its singular focus and branding, that was able to turn moisture-wicking sports apparel into "a massive business."
The brand launched in 1996, trademarking the slogan "cotton is the enemy" all while selling its skin-tight apparel to professional athletes. In time, the concept trickled down to casual athletes in a big way. By the late 1990s, brands targeted at women, such as Athleta and Lululemon, entered the market — both were founded in 1998 — and helped make synthetic, moisture-wicking materials standard in athleticwear.
Sportswear's slow adoption of performance fabric is typical of the way consumers tend to react to new materials. Cultural historian Deirdre Clemente tells Fashionista that manufacturers of new materials have always had to convince consumers that their materials are "worthy to be bought, and as good, if not better, than whatever natural fiber they’re replacing."
It's hard to get people to pay more for something they don't really understand. That shift occurred about a decade after options first started to appear, and with it, performance fabrics made their way into affordable corners of the market. Once consumer acceptance of the idea took hold, the need for brand differentiation kicked in.
Today, many athletic performance fabrics are branded, and they're legally protected in a number of ways. Some of them are registered trademarks. Some are patented. Many of the most high-tech options are made by major textile companies, like Drirelease®, which licenses its technology — involving "wicking, drying, cooling and freshening," according to its website — to a wide range of clients. The Sweatee line from Outdoor Voices, for example, uses Drirelease® technology. (Other brands that use Drirelease® include Nike, Adidas, Lands' End, Brooks Running and Patagonia.) Lululemon has a surprisingly large array of branded, but unpatented in-house materials, most of which sound like they could also be prescription drugs — Nulux™, Everlux™, Luxtreme® and Luon®.
"There are two kinds of patents a company in the fashion industry may want to file: a utility patent or a design patent," says Loni Morrow, an attorney who focuses on intellectual property. "A utility patent," she explains, "protects a useful invention that's new and not obvious. A design patent protects the new and not obvious aesthetic or ornamental features of a useful object." Utility patents are not as common as design patents in the fashion industry, but they do exist, and many of them relate to textiles. As a field (like performance fabric) becomes more crowded, it becomes harder to obtain a patent.
Perhaps for this reason, most innovation in performance fabric has involved novel applications of existing technology. Today, "engineered" materials can be found in a wide range of lifestyle products. You can now buy moisture-wicking sheets for your bed and odor-resistant jeans, and you can also buy water-repellant performance cotton, known as TransDry®, which comes from Cotton Inc. (Under Armour, once diametrically opposed to natural fibers, sells TransDry® technology under the Charged Cotton® label.) In recent years, Merino wool blends have become a popular base layer for athletic tops — Outdoor Voices and Tracksmith both have lines, targeted mainly at runners.
As performance fabric has gone mainstream and rebranded itself from functional to flattering, originators who focus on practicality have fallen out of favor. Despite its position change on cotton as "the enemy," Under Armour has been struggling for the past few years, reportedly limited by the technical, training-oriented branding that helped make it a success when it first launched.
A counterpoint like Outdoor Voices owes much of its success to its ability to create playful, supportive exercise clothes in colorful options, a feat made possible by Textured Compression. It’s no accident that founder Tyler Haney's background studying textiles at Parsons is an oft-touted bona fide in the company's origin story. Fabric has become far more important to the average consumer, especially when it comes to athletic clothes.
Despite all of the engineered options currently available in workout gear, prior to the late 20th century, the distinction between fitness clothes and normal clothes had more to do with cut than fabric. People exercised in the same kinds of fabrics they wore in other parts of their lives. Think terry cloth polos, satin boxing shorts, cotton leotards. Athletic clothing existed, but its ability to extend into leisure was limited by modesty, norms and, yes, sweat.
It being 2019, poly-blend leggings can be now worn in places where schlubby sweatpants aren't quite as welcome, from seated restaurants to high-end boutiques. Without performance fabric, athleisure wouldn't exist. The versatility of garments that fall into that classification — leggings, crop tops, polyester shorts — comes from the materials of which they're made.
Physical activity has become more visible in daily life, as well, but it's also become more formalized. Most people are more likely to schedule a hike or a barre class than to simply go for a walk. The ritual of working out, and its ability to change our mood and our lives, is more valued now than ever before. It explains why performance fabric, which makes everything look and feel easier, has become so popular. It hides sweat — and the effort — away.
Homepage image: Calvin Klein Performance + Daybreak Morning Fitness Experience In Hong Kong. Photo: Xaume Olleros/Getty Images