​the international ubiquity of the tracksuit

From French Racailles to Russian Gopniks, Serbian Dizelasi to British “Chavs” -- we look into the history of the tracksuit as a symbol of working class aggression that transcends national borders.

by Aleks Eror
12 February 2016, 4:15pm

I was at some Berlin Fashion Week party bankrolled by a major sports brand a couple of weeks ago. Standing on the dancefloor, amongst a small sea of tracksuits, Ralph Lauren caps and Stone Island pieces, I began to wonder if the Berlin it-crowd were slowly switching Rick Owens tunics for a look that's more closely associated with aggressive ennui of suburban Britain.

But this wasn't an isolated incident. Throughout the past year or two, trackies and sneakers have become an increasingly common fixture in fashion editorials and on runways. If you were to log onto British Facebook fashion marketplace, Wavy Garms, you would've found that the group's hottest commodities were "scally wear -- like full tracksuits, Lacoste with TN trainers, TN caps" or so its founder, Andres Branco, told me in an interview late last year, in which his sister and business partner, Rhiannon interjected "looking like a chav, basically" (with no snobbery nor malice in her voice, might I add).

We often think of "chavs" (to begrudgingly use such problematic terms for their efficacy as shorthand) as a distinctly UK phenomenon, when in reality they're the local manifestations of a global one. Every country in Europe has its own colloquialism for this subsegment of working class youth: in France they're called "racaille." In Russia it's "gopnik." "Dizelaši" in Serbia. They exist under various monikers all across the old Eastern bloc, and are even found way down in Australia in the form of "lads" or "eshays."

But regardless of what they're called, their appearance is so standardized that it almost amounts to a uniform: tracksuits tucked into white socks, jogging shoes, those ubiquitous Nike caps. The only differences between them are minor cosmetic ones, usually centered around models and brands. Racaille, for example, tend to wear Lacoste. In Russia, adidas is king. Down under, it's striped Nautica polo shirts and Nike TNs. Serbia's dizelaši used to wear Nike Air Max BW's or Reebok Graphite Pump's paired with Kappa shellsuits, once upon a time, before budget-friendly no-brand wares, the sort typically found at SportsDirect, became more commonplace.

This might seem unremarkable in an age of Instagram-driven hemogeny, where Korean hypebeasts dress head-to-toe in Supreme, but this is a phenomenon that predates the web. Being from Belgrade, I can say that dizelaši were a clearly defined "thing" on the streets of my hometown by 1992, and probably emerged sometime in the late 80s. When I first watched Mathieu Kassowitz's 1995 banileu classic, La Haine, one of the things that stuck out in my mind was how similar kids from the Parisian projects dressed to their Serbian counterparts of the era (or vice versa). This is part of the reason why the movie became, and remains, such a hit with that particular subset of youth.

But if it isn't a byproduct of the internet, how did a singular look gain traction in so many disparate countries within a demographic that isn't exactly renowned for being welcoming to outsiders -- people, ideas or otherwise?

In a paper titled From Revolting to Revolting: Masculinity, the politics and body politic of the tracksuit, Jo Turney, a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University, traces the transition of sportswear from training apparel to everyday casual wear back to the late 70s, when Jim Fixx wrote The Complete Guide to Running. This autobiographical self-help book became a sort of joggers manifesto, and helped transform thousands of sedentary middle Americans into a legion of running enthusiasts. Since its emergence in the 60s the tracksuit had, up until that point, largely been the preserve of athletes. But the with rise of casual jogging, it became an increasingly common fixture in everyday life.

How and when exactly this trend crossed over to Europe isn't clear, nor why it took root among disenfranchised working class youth, rather than the middle-aged well-to-do as it did in America. But at some point between 1980 and 2006, when David Cameron gave his infamous "hug-a-hoodie" speech, tracksuits had become so strongly equated with the antisocial that, to illustrate widespread sentiment, Dave Cam declared "we -- the people in suits -- often see hoodies as aggressive, the uniform of a rebel army of young gangsters."

Tracksuits gained popularity in Europe at a time when widespread deindustrialisation decimated traditional working class communities, jobs, and lifestyles, particularly across Britain. There's some grim irony in "leisure wear" becoming the de facto uniform of the people the post-industrial revolution dumped out of jobs; trapped in a relentless cycle of full time, enforced, leisure. These garments became associated with petty criminality at a time when the people wearing them were forced into taking drastic measures to get by.

It might've also had something to do with the physical qualities of the tracksuit itself, as Turney points out in her aforementioned paper: "the bagginess of the suit, combined with its elasticated waistband/zip jacket (and possible front hand-pouch) offers the potential to conceal goods and thus act as a foil for theft. Likewise, the baggy trouser, combined with the gait with which they are worn, have frequently been associated with the concealment of weapons."

The latter observation certainly rings true in Serbia, where, in the 90s, dizelaši made a habit of tucking their track jackets into their trackie bottoms, which were in turn tucked into their socks. This local peculiarity was popularized by a legendary gangster of the era, Aleksandar "Knele" Knežević, who was said to have adopted the tactic as way of ensuring that his gun, which he concealed in his waistband, would slide into his socks rather than drop out onto the pavement should he ever be forced to run from police.

These criminal undertones exist in Russia too, where it's said that tracksuits are typically associated with mob henchmen from the 90s. They were usually former pro bodybuilders recruited directly from local gyms, hence the affinity for workout apparel.

But to understand the enduring universal appeal of the tracksuit, I think we have to look at its symbolic connotations. After all, this isn't a mere trend, as trends don't last this long, nor is it the consciously-curated uniform of a subculture with an articulated set of values that explicitly draw people in, as is the case with punk or goth, for example. There are few things that are more widely equated with masculinity than sports or physical prowess. In his book, The History of Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel wrote "sports were cast as a central element in the fight against feminization; sports made boys into men." Sport is so bound to traditional notions of masculinity, that excessively sporty girls are tarred as 'tomboys' to punish them their perceived lack of femininity.

These connotations imbue sportswear with a certain masculine quality and feelings of physical power. In her aforementioned paper, Turney writes: "for all the diametrically opposed semantics, 'track' and 'suit', both embrace and promote traditional notions of masculinity, i.e. power, rationality, single-mindedness, focus, direction, competition, and ultimately fighting and winning."

Sportswear speaks to something that lies deep in our collective psyche, a menace of deprivation around the corner, a symbol of degradation of society, the tracksuit-clad lout is simply the physical manifestation of an archetype that stretches beyond national borders.



Text Aleks Eror

Aleks Eror