What did men wear to the gym to workout or play sports in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s or 1950s? From the turn of the century to the 1950s (and most of the 60s), men’s vintage workout clothes took inspiration from underwear in designing cool, loose, comfortable clothes for active sports and exercise routines. It was one of the only times a man could wear shorts or a sleeveless shirt and not be inappropriately dressed.
Workout clothes started with shorts and a tank top then moved to shorts and a T-shirt. The warm fleece sweatshirt and sweatpants was worn as warm up clothes or for more mild sports. The sweatshirt alone was trendy off the courts too.
While gym clothes changes were very slow between the late 1920s and 1960s, a new wave of men’s vintage workout clothes was just on the horizon. We will go into more depth about the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s men’s gym clothes another day.
In the 1920s and 1930s, men wore two piece athletic outfits consisting of a ribbed knit sleeveless top tucked into a pair of shorts. The top was the same style as men’s underwear with a deep round neckline and deep armholes. They came in worsted wool (yes, wool, is very breathable) or cotton. Team sports could choose navy, orange, black, maroon, or yellow tops with white stripe across the chest. General men’s top colors were white, Kelly green, red, and navy blue.
In the 1930s a “supporter top” was designed like a leotard or onesie with button crotch. These were ideal for gymnasts (gymnastics), which were the vintage equivalent of a modern gym workout, minus the machines.
Athletic Polo Shirts
In the 1930s, a new style of sport shirt as well as casual shirt developed for tennis players, polo players, golf, and other outdoor sports. The aptly named polo shirt was a cotton knit short sleeve shirt with a pointed collar and a long 1/2 button plaquette (and later a zipper, then known as talon fastener, option). Common colors were blue, tan, Nile green, and white. Long sleeve polo shirts, although rare, were available for winter sports.
The first sporty T-shirt was seen in the late 1930s, and it was called a “training shirt.” It was a flat knit cotton with a high round ribbed crew neck. The short sleeves had a 1/4 length, which you may notice is shorter than most of today’s elbow-length T-shirt sleeves. White was the only choice, although some had ringer necks, sleeves, and pocket trim in navy blue or maroon.
In the 1940s the crew neck T-shirt added a single chest pocket and also offered a wide ribbed cotton texture. Besides white, there was now blue and tan. Tan was what men in the military wore. Army surplus T-shirts continued to be sold off years after the war ended. Casual tee shirts offered even more colors and textures — and while these could be worn for sportswear, they were usually a heavier cotton.
In the 1950s, the V neck t-shirt was finally added to the mix as well as a sleeveless shirt. The sleeve top ended at the start of the shoulder and was ribbed around the arms and neck. Today, they’re often called “Muscle tank tops.”
The fit of vintage T-shirts is very snug compared to today’s baggy T-shirts. Vintage T-shirts also have a smaller neck, shorter sleeves, dropped chest pocket, and wider ribbing.
Wearing shorts in the presence of women was very taboo in the 1930s and earlier. The only acceptable time a man could wear shorts was for athletics. Initially, specialty sport shorts were very short! And on the snug side too. These shorts were made of wool flannel or cotton twill in team colors of black, purple, navy blue, and white with contrasting stripes on the leg and sides. The waistband fit lower on the waist than trousers, and were secured by a self belt in the front. Legs were cut on the diagonal for extra room over the outer thigh.
Some men didn’t buy ready-made gym shorts. Instead, they took an old pair of trousers and cut off the leg or wore hand knitted shorts like the boxer below:
Drawstring gym shorts with the tie at the inside back were worn by gymnasts and track runners. Other men’s shorts were modeled after the latest style in men’s boxer underwear, or was it the gym shorts that inspired the boxers? Either way these new, lighter weight cotton or jean cloth shorts, had side laces instead of a belt.
In the 1930s, gym shorts were renamed “camp shorts” or “tennis shorts.” The belted style remained the most popular with new fabrics of moleskin and new colors like maroon, Kelly green, burnt orange, and red. Some tennis shorts copied men’s trousers with a wide Hollywood waistband, single pleats, and a mid-thigh length. A coin pocket was also added to one side on most shorts starting in the 1930s. Basketball shorts featured inside padded pockets that cushioned the hips.
Shorts in the 1940s continued with the camp short style with belt, pleats and side stripes. After the war, the latest style became the pull on “boxer” short with elastic waistband and an optional coin pocket. The newest fabric was Rayon, which added bright colors like cobalt blue to the color lineup. Rayon had a silk-satin shine making gym shorts somewhat flashy.
No major changes happened in the 1950s and early 60s to men’s workout shorts. Both belted and elastic waist shorts made of shiny rayon or flat cotton now came in gold alongside red and blue, with a 2 inch wide white stripe on the sides. The short legs rose up and the waistband lowered down starting in the late 1940s, only to rise again by the 1960s.
There is little mention of long gym pants in my vintage catalog collection except for sweats, which we will get to in a bit. Men who wanted to do low-impact athletics wearing pants or who needed to wear pants as a women’s coach (remember they can’t wear shorts around women) wore regular light cotton trousers.
Men’s Vintage Sweatshirts
The start of 2021 has retailers selling sweatshirts and sweatpants (jogger pants) to men and women as everyday fashion items, #covidfashion.
Fleece sweats or warm up clothes have a long history in which little changed in the design from the 1920s to today. Sweatshirts, also called training shirts, were made of a heavy knit cotton lined in fleece. They had wide ribbed cuffs, a waistband, round crew neck, and an upside-down triangle ribbed patch at the neck in the front and back that prevented the neck hole from stretching out of shape. Over the decades, the width of the ribbing and the depth of the V insert made subtle changes to the basic crew neck sweatshirt. Eventually, the back V was removed as fabric processing improved.
In the 1930s designers played with the sweatshirt by adding some new styles: raglan sleeves, a half-zip with collar, and printed designs. Beside team or school names/logos and most popular printed t-shirt design was Micky Mouse. Not just for boys, every man in the 1930s had something designed with that lovable Mickey Mouse printed on it. In the 1920s, some sweatshirts were printed with a trendy all over “Aztec” design that made them look like men’s sweaters.
In the 1940s, sweatshirts continued with a crew neck, now with or without a V notch. The raglan sleeve sweatshirt in two tone colors became the sportiest and trendiest choice for teenagers.
The 1950s was an exciting year for men’s sweatshirts. Neckline designs were being taken from men’s casual shirts, making sweatshirts something a man could wear outside of active sporting. There was the 1/4 zip up pullover, now in two tone Chevron color-blocking. The Gaucho neck was a zip-up without the zipper. The boat neck was a wider oval or slit neck opening. The wide crew was similar to the boat neck with a ribbed crew neckband. The collarless crew 1/4 zip jacket combined the ribbed crew new and zip up pullover into one. Zip up styles with a Nordic prints on the top half became popular ski sweatshirts.
There were other styles that crossed over into casual wear using cotton and nylon fleece at the material, but they were not for sportswear.
It was a raglan sleeve hooded sweatshirt with center front hand pocket that was the biggest invention in the late 1950s. The pocket shapes and placements changed a bit over the years, but overall the look wasn’t too far off from everyone’s favorite Hoodie sweatshirt today.
Men’s Vintage Sweatpants
As soon as sweatshirts were invented, sweatpants quickly followed. In the 1930s and early 1940s, sweatpants had a wide ribbed band with drawstring waist as well as drawstring ankle cuffs. After the mid 40s, the ankle cuff became an encased elastic band (no more tripping over untied ties.).
Men’s Vintage Varsity Jackets
With the usefulness of sweatshirts, there was little need for specialty sport jackets in the 1920s and 1930s. Men could choose one of their casual, sporty jackets to wear to and from sports or even a knit cardigan sweater. From the mid 1930s onward some of these casual jackets, called Cossack jackets, came in two tone color-blocking. Retailers looking to sell more sport team clothes made two tone sport jackets with team colors. At first these were advertised to coaches, but it wasn’t long before teens in the 1940s wanted to wear them too. Adding a team Letter renamed them Letterman jackets or varsity jackets.
Initially, letterman jackets were made of heavy wool and some had leather or suede arms. The cuffs and crew collar had white striping. As rayon shorts became trendy with the shiny satin finish, so were varsity jackets made in the same rayon to match.
Men’s gym shoes are the last topic to cover. There were different shoes for different sports both indoor and outdoor.
Gymnasium/Bowling – Indoor mild impact sports on wood floors required a leather shoe or boot in the 1920s to early 1940s. The flat sole was made of smooth leather so it could slide easily on the waxed floors. Similar shoes with cleats were used for grass played sports.
Basketball shoes could also be leather but now had a rubber sole. They were Converse All Stars! Gradually, the canvas fabric was more popular than stiff leather. They were so popular they were also worn for outdoor sports – track, football, soccer, etc. By the 1940s, they were about the only “sport shoes” available.
Tennis shoes were Converse style low top shoes in white made in flexible canvas cloth or soft leather and gum rubber soles. Men wore them as gymnasium shoes too.
Getting the vintage sport clothes look today
Since most sweatshirts and sweatpants are similar to vintage ones they are fairly easy to recreate. Choose a classic fit, not tight, in solid colors. See below for some options or order the SJC 1930s reproduction warm up sets.
Gym shorts can be trickier because of the short cut and high waist. WW2 military surplus shorts, if you can find them, are great for gym shorts. Otherwise a boxer type short with elastic waistband is back in fashion this year. Shop here.
Sleeveless tank tops with a ribbed texture that expose a lot for arm, will work for the 1920s. Underwear is the better category to find them in, than shirts. Look here.
Levi’s makes vintage 1950s T-shirts and sweatshirts. Basic T-shirts or undershirts that you can size down or get a trim fit with shorter sleeves will look more vintage than baggy sleeve T-shirts.
Shoes- just get a pair of Converse All Stars. Brown leather or white canvas is the most vintage, but black is good too.
Find some varsity jackets here.
Debbie Sessions has been teaching fashion history and helping people dress for vintage themed events since 2009. She has turned a hobby into VintageDancer.com with hundreds of well researched articles and hand picked links to vintage inspired clothing online. She aims to make dressing accurately (or not) an affordable option for all. Oh, and she dances too.