Sportsation: The Appropriation of the Sports Nation

On the surface, sports and fashion have little in common, except that they are both cyclical and expensive. They attract different types of people, involve different aspects of life, and in general do not overlap often. Fashion however has taken a vested interest in sports over the past few years. Mainstream fashion has appropriated clothing articles from a vast array of sports, much like the popular appropriation of articles from other cultures. In the process of appropriation the clothing is given a new meaning, but at the cost of the story, expertise and training associated with the original users. This is similar to the loss of original meaning in cultural appropriations and the loss of story as items are commodified. As sports articles become normalized within the realm of fashion, the need for the original story decreases. The goal of sportswear appropriation is to let the wearer seem like they know the other, are part of this exclusive group, without requiring they posses any of the specialized knowledge.

Within sports appropriation there lies a spectrum on which items fall between being thought of as fashion or sports. On the fashion side one sees polo shirts and converse high tops. A little further over are pieces of clothing featuring team logos, such as retro shirts and Victoria’s Secret Pink collections. Edging closer to sports are yoga pants, leg warmers, and equestrian wear. On the sports side resides soccer jerseys and Nike running shorts.

Spectrum 3.10.10 PM

One could say that appropriating sportswear is the most conspicuous form of consumption. A life of leisure was said to be a life of pleasure (Veblen 24), so it makes sense that one would show this in clothing. Athletics are a leisure activity requiring extra time and money, thus appropriating sportswear could be said to reflect a desire of the wearer to exude conspicuous consumption. One sport known for being upper class is tennis. The polo shirt was originally introduced by Jean René Lacoste, a tennis player (see photo below). While tennis players still wear polos, a more casual wearing is common today. Another item that originally began in the sports world is the converse high top. Interestingly though, most people that wear high tops today have no resemblance to the shoe’s original wearers. By commodifying what was once other, it is now normal. A concept complicated by items that are in the transition period from sports to fashion.


Jean René Lacoste

Polo look

Modern Polo Wearing

As one tries to appropriate and “know” the other are there status levels involved? Much like elite clothing brands, there are elite sports brands; think Patriots, Yankees, Lakers (Han). Does one signal something different by wearing cute Boston Red Sox gear (see photo) as opposed to a hand-me-down UNC-Chapel Hill shirt? How about when that Chapel Hill shirt is just designed to be retro? When aesthetic acts don’t grow out of a vacuum, but are learned from others (Roach 109), one could argue that wearing an elite team’s brand is just as important as having a Coach or Louis Vuitton bag on your shoulder. Knowing that costume and clothing are closely related to the living person (Wilson 1) and that adornment is an indicator of economic and social status (Roach, Veblen) it seems that yes, the team on the shirt does matter in mainstream fashion (even if the wearer can’t name a single player on the team).

Pink_Red Sox

Screen Capture from VS Pink Website

Sports clothing has often been viewed as a costume of fitness, as with dancers clothing in the 80s, and still today (Wilson 142). Maybe the real goal of sports appropriation is to represent someone that works out; to show that, “Hey-I’m fit too.” Simmel noted that the appropriation of “foreign dress” creates a special form of socialization (545). Replacing “foreign” with “sport” keeps the clarity of the claim: sports dress allows one to be seen in an athletic/sports savvy light by others. Often in the city I see people wearing boots or pants similar to my own riding gear, except there are subtle details that tell me they don’t actually ride (see photo). Bourdieu says, “the body is a social product which is the only tangible manifestation of the ‘person’” (192), which makes life complicated when I know these other people do not resemble my identity. Another extremely popular form of fitness costume currently making its way into the mainstream is the yoga pant. No longer just for yoga, these pants have introduced a new level of acceptable public dress, much like the appropriated manteau did in France (Tu 100). By altering the modes of dress, sportswear is inviting more consumers to appropriate; where might they head next?

Equestrian Boots

Personal Photo

Sportswear still has a heralded area reserved for the hardcore fans and work out addicts, but this is slowly going away. While typical wearers do not check Vogue or watch Fashion Police before stepping out of their homes, their clothing articles are next up for appropriation. Just like the subcultures Hebdige reviewed in his seminal work, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, sports entities are having their clothing re-appropriated. Not out of fear, but out of a desire by outsiders to join this exclusive spectacular subculture, more people are beginning to wear soccer/futbol jerseys (though possibly not as well as Will Ferrell). Nike running shorts are also being targeted for appropriation, especially in the South.


Will Ferrell being Will Ferrell

While Simmel claims that fashion is a social construction, often with no objective/aestheic reason for it (544), I don’t think this can be said about sports fashion. There must be a reason for pulling sportswear into mainstream fashion, just as there is a reason for the appropriation of Asian Chic. Tu claims that there is a need (121), a need for the other that is only acceptable through appropriation (hooks 374-5). People want to be seen as sports enthusiasts, athletic, but why? Sports have an intense grasp on American culture. ESPN is the single most expensive cable channel on a per subscriber basis, the Super Bowl is the most watched event on television, and being fit says that you care about your body and personal presentation. Appropriating sportswear is a way for consumers to represent this sports-centric view (White 70) while cutting corners. Most people wearing faux riding boots can’t name the country that won Olympic gold last summer, just like most people can’t tell you the tribal origin of the design on the Pendleton bag they are carrying (Hix). The appropriation of sportswear has added another set of tools for those who see clothing as a part of their project for self-identity (Sweetman 306). Appropriated clothing has oft been used to craft identities, but can they truly be meaningful when the wearer doesn’t know the article’s origin?

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. N. pag. Print.

Han, Young, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods.” Journal of Marketing 74 (2010): 15-30. Print.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Print.

Hix, Lisa. “Why the ‘Native’ Fashion Trend Is Pissing Off Real Native Americans.” Collectors Weekly. N.p., 1 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. 21-39. Print.

Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. Print.

Sweetman, Paul. “Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. 292-310. Print.

Tu, Thuy Linh N. The Beautiful Generation: Asian Americans and the Cultural Economy of Fashion. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 1994. Print.

White, Keith. “Burn Down the House of Commons in Your Brand New Shoes.” Commodify Your Dissent. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1997. 62-71. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003. Print.


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