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NORMAL — Sales of sportswear and fitness clothing continue to grow as their design and use continue to evolve.

We've come a long way from wool baseball uniforms, canvas tennis shoes and swimming “tights” for women, once considered so scandalous that a woman was arrested for “public indecency” for wearing them on a Boston beach.

Today's sportswear is more breathable and lightweight, notes Samantha Flory, an Illinois State University senior from Homewood majoring in fashion design and merchandising.

But it's not just the materials that are changing.

“People are wearing it everyday as casual wear,” said ISU senior Megan Hanson, a fashion design and merchandising major from Belvidere.

“It's become a lifestyle,” agrees Dick Smith, who co-owns WildCountry Outfitters in Normal with his wife, Noreen. “It's very functional.”

Total sports apparel retail sales in 2016 were $16.6 billion, a 3 percent increase over 2014, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.

It's not just a U.S. phenomenon. The market worldwide for sports and fitness clothing is projected to grow to $231.7 billion by 2024, according to a research report published by Global Industry Analysts.

“Fitness-related clothing has been the primary driver of growth, generating about $225 million in additional (U.S.) sales since 2014,” said NSGA spokeswoman Katie Bruce.

That includes apparel in the running/jogging, exercise/walking and club-gym-studio workout segments, she said. But the survey did not include whether the clothing is being purchased for running on a trail or for running errands.

Mitchell Hobbs, manager of Often Running in Normal, acknowledges the majority of athletic shoes are not used for athletic purposes.

People like the comfort, support and better fit they get with athletic shoes, he said.

The evolution of sportswear can be seen in an exhibit from the Lois Jett Historic Costume Collection in ISU's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences in Turner Hall. The exhibit, “Not Just Jerseys: Sportswear Through History,” runs through Feb. 2. For more information, call 309-438-5960.

“In the early 20th century, sportswear referred to items of dress worn to participate in active sports, like golf, tennis, swimming and baseball,” explained Jennifer Banning, director of the collection. “As these sports became spectator events, a new category of dress to be worn while watching sports evolved: sportswear.”

Nowhere is that evolution more striking than in women's swimwear.

The swimming tights on display at ISU were designed by Annette Kellerman, a noted Australian swimmer who advocated for easier swimwear rather than the billowy bloomers of her day.

That advocacy got Kellerman arrested for “public indecency,” but the judge accepted her argument that swimming was a healthy activity and required clothing that was easier to swim in. However, he required her to cover up as soon as she was out of the water.

Today's swimwear is even more revealing than the one-piece swim tights of Kellerman's day – and more functional.

Noreen Smith said today's swimwear comes in a few basic fabric types: nylon, nylon/lycra and polyester blends. Each company has its own combination of fabrics and proprietary names. Some, such as Dolfin's “Chloroban,” are designed for use in pools and are chlorine resistant, she said.

The Smiths started their business in 1974.

“Back then, everything we had in the outdoors was wool,” Dick Smith said. “Life was a lot simpler.”

He still has the Mountain Hardware down coat he wore when he climbed Mount Rainier in 1981.

“Down has always been popular,” said Smith, although “the big puffy look comes and goes.”

The main drawback to down has been the loss of effective insulation when it gets wet, but Smith said newer products include waterproof down. An insulation product called ThermoBall from The North Face simulates the positive points of down by being lightweight and compressible, yet still insulates when wet.

“Technology has affected everything,” he said. “Everything has gotten lighter and (there are) better materials.”

Synthetics, from underwear to outerwear, have made a big difference with their ability to wick away moisture and keep wearers warm even when they're wet.

“If you stay dry, you stay warm,” said Hobbs.

“In the old days, dressing on a 20-degree day, you'd wear three or four layers of clothes,” he said, but with today's modern fabrics and designs, one or two layers are enough to be comfortable.

Mizuno has a fabric called Breath Thermo that generates heat as you work out in the cold, said Hobbs.

“There also is tech clothing designed for hot weather that helps people stay cool,” he said.

But high-tech clothing can be more expensive, and not everyone is willing to pay for a lifestyle look.

Hobbs predicts, “The gap between technical and active leisure clothing is going to widen.”

On the other hand, some people are willing to pay more for what's considered popular, whether it's retro pile fleece or a Patagonia trucker's hat.

“It's just a baseball cap, but it's very trendy,” said Smith.

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter @Pg_Sobota


Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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