Vintage-inspired sportswear back on track

Vintage-inspired cotton sportswear – some even made on the original machines – is muscling its way back into style. Mansel Fletcher reports

Steve McQueen in the gym at Paramount Studios, 1963
Steve McQueen in the gym at Paramount Studios, 1963 | Image: John Dominis/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

CrossFit, HIIT, SoulCycle – these and other buzzwords of the fitness industry are often associated with similarly cutting-edge workoutwear: the latest hi-tech compression tights or “wickable” fabrics. But under the radar, there’s also a growing reappraisal of traditional sportswear that looks to the styles, materials and production techniques pioneered in the golden age of athletic kit – the 1920s to the 1950s. Principal among this vintage-style gear is the loopback cotton sweatshirt, invented in Alabama in 1920 as an alternative to the woollen jumpers worn by athletes, and whose fabric is comprised of tiny loops of cotton.

The Real McCoy’s cotton loopwheel sweatshirt, £155. National Athletic Goods cotton gym pants, £125
The Real McCoy’s cotton loopwheel sweatshirt, £155. National Athletic Goods cotton gym pants, £125 | Image: Perfect Aperture – Commercial
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Classic kit offers a real alternative to ubiquitous nylon gymwear. Of its many virtues, the first is that the cut and fabric make it flattering, unlike running leggings and skintight T-shirts that only really flatter lean bodies. The second is quality. If the clothes a man wears day to day are cut from fine fabrics by skilled craftspeople, then why settle for sportswear that’s anything less? It’s a point made by Max Sardi, store manager for Japanese brand The Real McCoy’s, which faithfully reproduces midcentury American sportswear. “The quality is what hooks people,” he says. Of the loopwheel sweatshirt (£155), he explains, “I see it as the Rolls-Royce of sweatshirts. The Real McCoy’s makes all its own fabrics, and this is made on original loopwheel machines from the 1940s. The feel is heavy and luxurious, and as you wear and wash them they look better and feel softer. This is clothing for life.” The Joe McCoy sweat shorts (£135) are also a revelation, thanks to details like cotton-lined pockets, comfortable drawstring waistband and the reassuring weight of the 280gsm (grams per sq m) fabric.

National Athletic Goods cotton pullover parka, £140. ELMC cotton US Army tank top, £35
National Athletic Goods cotton pullover parka, £140. ELMC cotton US Army tank top, £35
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, 1976
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, 1976 | Image: TCD/VP/LMKMedia

British designer Nigel Cabourn offers a range of workoutwear (T-shirt, £85, and gym pants, £180) under his Army Gym sub-brand. His inspiration? “Military sportswear used for physical training during the second world war, which focused on functional fitness” – in other words, recruits using their own body weight as resistance to improve strength, mobility and endurance, rather than handheld weights to build muscle. Cabourn’s appreciation for these clothes isn’t merely theoretical. “I train every morning,” he says. “And often it’s cold in the gym I go to, so I created this retro sportswear partly as something I could wear every day – whether I’m training with my vintage medicine balls, boxing or playing table tennis.” He says of his crewneck black navy sweatshirt (£149): “The fabric we use is a specially developed 350gsm loopbacked cotton jersey, manufactured in Portugal. The quality and weight are second to none.”

Nigel Cabourn The Army Gym cotton T-shirt, £85, and cotton gym pants, £180
Nigel Cabourn The Army Gym cotton T-shirt, £85, and cotton gym pants, £180 | Image: Ben Benoliel
National Athletic Goods cotton quarter-zip campus sweat, £130. The Real McCoy’s cotton Joe McCoy sweat shorts, £135
National Athletic Goods cotton quarter-zip campus sweat, £130. The Real McCoy’s cotton Joe McCoy sweat shorts, £135 | Image: Perfect Aperture – Commercial

The image of Cabourn dressed in thick cotton sweats, pounding away at a leather-covered medicine ball, has the retro appeal of Sylvester Stallone’s character in the 1976 film Rocky. Stallone wears a grey sweat suit as he runs through the streets of Philadelphia and up the 72 steps of the city’s Museum of Art. National Athletic Goods’ dark grey pullover parka (£140) and gym pants (£125) create a similar look. The brand produces 1930s to 1960s American-inspired sportswear in Canada; guys less keen on a hood may want to try the indigo quarter-zip campus sweat (£130), which can be opened at the neck. But for Michael Hamilton, who stocks National Athletic Goods at his Belfast shop The Bureau, it’s the gusset crew trainer sweatshirt that stands out because of “the heavyweight terrycloth and how the body of the top is cut against the grain of the fabric”. He also flags up the “vintage detailing, from the extra-long hems and cuffs to the V-inserts at the neckline and the rayon labelling”.

Nigel Cabourn The Army Gym cotton hoodie, £225, and wool pompom hat, £80
Nigel Cabourn The Army Gym cotton hoodie, £225, and wool pompom hat, £80 | Image: Ben Benoliel
Merz B Schwanen cotton sweatshirt, €119, cotton long sleeve henley, €89, and cotton shorts, €169
Merz B Schwanen cotton sweatshirt, €119, cotton long sleeve henley, €89, and cotton shorts, €169 | Image: Anny CK

Hamilton is also passionate about German brand Merz B Schwanen, which produces classic T-shirts and sweats (sweatshirt, €119, and cotton shorts, €169) on “authentic circular knitting machines from the 1920s… in an old factory in Germany’s Swabian Jura” – machines that make seamless tubes of fabric rather than stitching two panels together. While there’s an excellent army T‑shirt (£52) in a variety of colours, for me the standout is an ink blue 347 organic cotton quarter-sleeve sweater (£90) made from soft but substantial 340gsm loopwheeled fabric. “There’s something unique in this type of manufacture that cannot be replicated in mass production,” says Hamilton. Merz B Schwanen’s sweatpants (€189, from the company’s own website) and woollen training socks (€29) complete the look.

Todd Snyder + Champion slub cotton jersey T-shirt, £55
Todd Snyder + Champion slub cotton jersey T-shirt, £55 | Image: Mrporter.com
Todd Snyder + Champion cotton jersey sweatshirt, £115
Todd Snyder + Champion cotton jersey sweatshirt, £115 | Image: Mrporter.com

As a thick cotton sweatshirt undoubtedly wears warmer than a thin nylon top, those worried about overheating could opt for a cotton henley, which has a neck button that can be undone when the body temperature rises. Devon-based ELMC (Eastman Leather Motorcycle Club) has a red henley (£55) that’s inspired, according to the brand’s founder Gary Eastman, by “clothing brought back from the second world war by GIs that was made by US sportswear suppliers with military contracts”. Eastman points out that ELMC T-shirts, although made in Japan today, are knitted on “old American looms from the 1920s”. As at Schwanen, “the looms knit a tube of fabric – there’s no side seam – so you need a different loom for each size.” If the henley still feels too warm, then there’s another option: ELMC’s US Army tank top (£35) in the historically accurate shade of “olive drab”.

ELMC cotton henley, £55. Reigning Champ cotton jersey shorts, £85
ELMC cotton henley, £55. Reigning Champ cotton jersey shorts, £85 | Image: Mrporter.com
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At online retailer Mr Porter, The Todd Snyder + Champion range – which sees American designer Snyder reinterpret pieces from Champion’s archive – has a slub cotton-jersey T-shirt in navy (£55), and a loopback cotton-jersey sweatshirt (£115), both made in Canada. Sam Lobban, Mr Porter’s buying manager, admires the way the range “evokes Americana for the active man, from The New York Yankees’ Babe Ruth to Paul Newman and James Dean” – none of whom worked out in nylon. Another name stocked by Mr Porter is Canadian brand Reigning Champ. Founded in 2007, it doesn’t explicitly emphasise the vintage connection, but there’s a strong visual link in cut and fabric – its black loopback cotton-jersey shorts (£85) have an attractive depth of colour that can’t easily be achieved with artificial fibres.

The technology behind these well-made, good‑ looking and enduring athletic clothes may be old, but the appeal is undiminished. In the words of The Real McCoy’s Sardi: “This is what Steve McQueen wore boxing in the gym. If it was cool for him, it’s still cool today.”

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