A Short History of Running Kit

By Iffley Road. Posted: June 05, 2017

If you watch any running race these days, it’s striking how much variation there is in what runners choose to wear.

Club vests, charity tee shirts, lycra leggings and compression wear in a sea of colours and patterns provide amazing images when you watch the start of a big city marathon like London.  

This spectacle led us to question how running kit has evolved over the course of time.  The lack of available research on this subject means that we have drawn many of our conclusions by looking at old images of Olympic runners.

History of running kit

Spyridon Louis wins 1896 Olympic Marathon in a white tunic

We went back to the first Modern Day Olympics in 1896 to look at what Greek marathon winner Louis Spyridon was wearing.  He wore a white tunic and long trousers.  In fact his attire looks so cumbersome we’re convinced he would have run a lot faster than 2:58:50 if he’d been wearing something lighter (and also if he hadn’t stopped to down a glass of wine 10 kilometres before the finish!)

Spyridon Louis 1896 Olympic MarathonSpyridon Louis wins 1896 Olympic Marathon in a white tunic

Early 20th Century: Race kit was white shorts and white tees

Moving to the 20th Century you can see a marked change in what runners were wearing.  Gone are the long sleeves and long trousers and in their place you see t-shirts and shorts.

If you look at a picture of the 1912 Olympic 1500 meters final in Stockholm you can see the vast majority of runners wearing knee-length white shorts and white t-shirts.  Some of the white tee shirts have granddad collars, some are adorned with their country’s flags and some have navy bands round the waistband and edge of their shorts.  In contrast to today’s elite runners who typically have their names printed on their tops, these runners relied on a number pinned to their chest.

1912 Olympics 500 meter finalThe 1912 Olympic 1500 meters final in Stockholm

1920s: Dark colours and vests appear

By the early 1920s kit was becoming more varied.  We see runners wearing dark coloured shorts and vests.  Some have white stripes around the neck of their running t-shirts and the edge of their shorts.   White shorts and tees with country flags remains however the main kit of choice.

Stripes first appear on running tees around the 1950s

While stripes have been used in other sports such as rugby for many years, it appears that runners really only started wearing stripes around the 1950s.  In the case of Sir Roger Bannister, the first runner to break 4 minutes for the mile at Iffley Road, his stripes represented the colours of the Amateur Athletics Club (AAA).   Since then runners tees and vests frequently have horizontal stripes to represent their running club or college.

Roger Bannister's vestRoger Bannister's vest

Diagonal stripes and bold geometrical patterns make the runner visible

In some areas of running especially fell and cross country, you see an even greater variety – with diagonal stripes and checkerboard designs which identify your running club.  One of the purposes of such striking patterns is to make the runner visible from a far, an important element of safety if you’re running in the fells.

From the 1950s kit became skimpier and more logo-ed

From the 1950s to the current day, kit has become skimpier and more logo-ed.  This culminated in the short shorts and vests with massive armholes as worn by Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram in the 1980s. Fortunately running shorts are not quite so short today!

1980 Olympics 800 metersRIA Novosti archive, image #556242 / Yuriy Somov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Most memorable running outfits

Female runners win the prize for some of the most eye-catching running outfits.  During the 1980s Florence Griffith-Joyner (aka Flo-Jo)  was known for her incredible speed as well as her body-suits (sometimes one-legged) and six inch nails.  More recently Cathy Freeman won the 400 metres final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics wearing a hooded bodysuit which apparently helped her avoid wind resistance.

Classic British style in modern day fabrics

At Iffley Road we’ve aimed to capture the classic style of running kit with state-of-the-art technical fabrics.

The fabric used in all our vests (and running tees) is bespoke to Iffley Road.  They are made from our trademark dri-release® piqué – highly wicking, lightweight and soft.  The cut is slim, with carefully shaped armholes that allow free movement without being too gaping.

Our striped tees are inspired by the stripe worn by Sir Roger Bannister when he broke the 4 minute mile in Oxford.

Sketch of Cambrian stripe t-shirt

Sketch of Cambrian striped t-shirt

We hope you’ve enjoyed our potted history of running kit.  Please email us at claire@iffleyroad to let us know which historic kit you like best.

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