When funding for public schools across rural Oregon substantially decreased in the early 1990s—a result of Measure 5, a property tax cut that proponents swore wouldn’t affect education—so-called electives like arts and hands-on sciences were snipped and trimmed.
My elementary school in unincorporated Lane County was hit hard by the reduction in funding. P.E. was cut entirely. Fortunately, there was no shortage of inexpensive material available to take its place. Instead of piling into the gym every day after recess, our homeroom teacher took over. Twice a week, we’d file into the music room, now also unused, and form several lines in front of a massively heavy television on a cart, without dressing down or changing our shoes.
Then Mrs. Ladd would pop in a tape for the class to follow.
From Mousercise to this terrifying Barbie workout video featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt to something called “Joggy Bear,” children’s workout videos that were supposed to encourage kids to enjoy movement and instill a lifelong love of fitness. In classrooms, these videos served to address the health issues that plagued lower-income schools.
Whether they achieved that goal—after a few years, the Oregon legislature would pass a bill requiring actual, educational P.E. classes, in part due to the rise in obesity—is debatable, but in the present day, they offer a more sociological purpose.
These brightly colored time capsules, transferred from VHS to DVD to YouTube by intrepid fitness historians (or bored millennials, waxing nostalgic), reflect not only our changing attitudes toward working out (we all do quite a bit less stepping in place now) but also the marked difference in fitness fashion.
Shapes and silhouettes change from decade to decade. Flared jeans give way to those with slimmer legs, and waistlines climb from just below the hip bones to a few inches south of the ribs. Changing styles are noticeable and apparent, as much a staple of magazines and blogs as they are of daytime television and conversations in checkout lines. We all have something to say about the latest styles.
Workout garb is no different—especially now, as leggings have been dubbed “the new jeans” and “athleisure” has become a multimillion-dollar market. But before there were artfully tapered joggers, flatforms, and open-backed yoga tops, there were scrunchies, striped gym socks, and at least one iconic piece that no Instagram fitspo celeb would be caught showing off with a cocked hip in a locker-room mirror.
Ah, there it is.
The workout thong has long since gone the way of the dodo bird, but looking back at dated exercise videos is a good reminder that it was once perfectly acceptable to scoot to Jazzercise class with nothing more than a pair of tights and a snug-fitting loincloth between you and the world. Add leggings, a sweatband, and chunky cross-trainers and you were good to go.
These outfits—and the crop tops that went along with them—left little to the imagination but were rarely seen as scandalous (as evidenced by the fact that they were on shows for kids and teens). Somehow, a piece of apparel that literally threaded the hindquarters wasn’t a shocking display but the mark of a really fit rump.
Which is funny considering the uproar that today’s snug Lycra creations—which offer fuller coverage both in front and back—have stirred for nearly a decade.
It’s become a frequent think-piece event: Several times a year, we must all gather round to either decry or defend yoga pants as virulently as any political candidate or issue. We either are our yoga pants or our rejection of them.
Interestingly, though, it seems likely that many of those who are the most critical about skintight pants are those who might have sweated it out on their ThighMasters with Jane Fonda and her cheeky one-piece.
In fact, leggings and their purpose—making it easier to move while working out and looking cute doing it — aren’t exactly groundbreaking. Highlighting the derriere appears to be a through-line of workout wear throughout the ages.
Whether it was the impossibly small shorts of the 1950s through the 1970s or the leotards of the 1980s, the booty has always been a focal point for fitness-forward folks.
Even the track pants popularized by Sporty Spice gave the look of a shapely rear.
We no longer opt for the ruthlessly high cuts and exposed backsides that our mothers did, but we are certainly upholding the legacy. A recent viral Medium piece examined the role of what the author refers to as Ass Pants.
Ass Pants are meant to tantalize others as they help you-do-you. Ass Pants allow you to fit in with the rest of your exercise class. Ass Pants prove that you can be a Hot Mom. Ass Pants get you likes and retweets on social media as well as comments that are sexually aggressive: comments that frighten and excite your vanity all at once, and, best of all, provide fodder to complain about objectification over your mimosas.
According to a Los Angeles Times article dated 1990, that description sounds an awful lot like the stated goals of the fitness thong.
“Wearing a stylish leotard helps get [customers] pumped up to go to the gym. They want something to show for their hard work,” the article reads.
So why were flashy thongs just another fashion trend in the 1990s, but full-coverage leggings are considered risqué in 2017?
It’d be easy to think that the difference is where you wear your Ass Pants. The rise of athleisure means that snug leggings are designed for both the barre studio and brunch spot. Gap recently debuted a new line of leggings featuring “blackout technology” to ensure no wearers would be subjected to the ultimate betrayal: a sheer behind. So maybe that’s where those who once wore impossibly small leotards but now pooh-pooh Ass Pants draw the proverbial line?
No so fast: Twentysomethings may think they invented gym-to-night wear, but digging through the archives tells a different story.
Again, from that Los Angeles Times article:
Aerobic wear isn’t just for the gym. Even couch potatoes wear leotards and leggings on the street. “Fifteen percent of our customers don’t even work out,” says Abraham of Fitness stores. “They buy the active wear to mix and match with their own wardrobes.”
“It’s fun fashion,” Barlow says. “We’re not talking about $100,000 fur coats. At the most, we’re talking about a $60 to $70 leotard.”
Seventy dollars in 1990 for a leotard? And you thought your Lulu pants were pricey.
Whenever leggings again become the center of the Twitter conversation due to some injustice of apparel—as happened with United Airlines before, you know, their more recent scandal dominated the headlines—or as a rallying cry or as an identity marker or as a snapshot of the market, I’m reminded of what came before.
You won’t find a thong leotard at your local “fun fashion” purveyor, though they are still available at dance supply stores and on Amazon. And for as popular as they were—enough to inspire numerous trend pieces in their day—they’re surprisingly uncommon in thrift shops.
Still, thong leotards were burned into the collective memory and saved for posterity on the fitness videos of our youth. Maybe there’s even one in the back of your mom’s closet.
Which you can remind her about the next time she complains about yoga pants and their revealing nature.