NEW YORK -- "Come on ladies, feel the burn!" The year was 1982 and America was jumping on the fitness bandwagon thanks to role models like Jane Fonda, Jennifer Beals in "Flashdance" and Olivia Newton-John in the video for her song "Physical." Though the term "aerobics" was coined back in 1968 by Air Force physician Dr. Kenneth Cooper in his eponymous book, the concept of aerobic dance didn't come along until the early Eighties, and for many, it was a welcome change from the jogging-obsessed Seventies. Naturally, this new wave of physical activity called for something beyond the standard-issue gray fleece sweatsuit or Danskin nylon leotard. Sporting goods companies such as Nike introduced lightweight nylon tanks and shorts for all the runners out there, but these looks were more about function than fashion. Was it even possible to combine the two?
Norma Kamali gave it a try when she introduced a 35-piece collection of snappy sportswear made entirely from gray sweatshirt fleece in 1980. In fact, when the line debuted, WWD put the look on page one, dubbing it "Locker Room Chic." While the clothes weren't really meant for working out, the sporty look was a hit with customers, and the concept won Kamali a Coty Award in 1981.
Though Kamali often incorporated fitness wear into her collections -- remember her NYCG (New York City Girl) pieces during the late Seventies? -- it wasn't until 1993 that she launched a bona fide activewear group for wholesale -- her OMO Gym line. "In the late Seventies, the activewear market really didn't exist but there was a growing need for it as a result of the disco trend," Kamali says. "Today it is a staple department that transcends age limits and fashion influences."
As for Jane Fonda, besides becoming America's fitness guru, she also proved to be a savvy business woman. Her corporation, Workout, Inc., whose profits helped fund then-husband Tom Hayden's "Campaign for Economic Democracy," began with workout studios, books, tapes and videos. Later on, she launched a line of fitness wear, following in the footsteps of her exercise teacher Gilda Marx, who had the largest exercise apparel company in the U.S. in 1983. Designed by Theoni Aldrege, a costumer for Broadway musicals, Fonda's workout wear was produced by the "politically correct" Capri Beachwear Corp. But, even though people couldn't get enough of her exercise videos, the workout wear was too little too late, and fell short of expectations.As aerobics classes took off, so did the stores selling workout gear -- especially in Southern California. Among them were "No Sweat," a store owned by Dance France designer Francois Geiss, and Stevi Brooks exercise apparel. Dance France, known for its signature black sleeveless boatneck leotard in cotton and Lycra spandex, became a household name after Jennifer Beals wore one under that infamous slouchy gray sweatshirt in "Flashdance."
The aerobics trend reached its peak right about the time the film "Perfect" opened in 1985. The movie, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and John Travolta, not only pushed the legwarmer-leotard-headband look, it also exposed the cult of body obsession in Southern California. Perhaps it was the sheer embarrassment of the real-life gym bunnies seeing themselves portrayed as rather vain creatures in the film, but whatever the reason, shortly after that, workout wear became a little more low-key: Simple black leggings and a white T-shirt became the new uniform.
This spring, however, junior and denim designers are resurrecting the glory days of the Eighties fitness craze with looks that blur the line between streetwear and gymwear. Tiny gym shorts, satin warm-up jackets, fitted zip-front sweatshirts and slouchy knit tops can do equal time in the gym or on the street. Whether you work out or not, doesn't that sound, well, perfect?
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