The Lycra Legacy of Olivia Newton-John's "Physical"

The Lycra Legacy of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”

A funny thing happened when Kameron Lennox revisited the music video for “Physical,” the 1981 pop mega hit by Olivia Newton-John, who died on Monday.

For most of the video, Ms. Newton-John bounces around a gym training and terrorizing out-of-shape men while wearing a white leotard. In true 1980s fashion, this leotard was layered over magenta leggings and under a robin’s egg blue shirt, cinched in with a belt and accessorized with thick socks and a sweatband.

As a Hollywood costume designer preparing to work on the Apple TV+ aerobics comedy-drama also called ‘Physical’, starring Rose Byrne, Ms. Lennox saw something she hadn’t noticed during the first viewing. from the silly and sexy music video when she was a kid.

The white leotard “clustered in the groin area”, said Ms Lennox, who wondered if it was a leotard or a singlet made from a large t-shirt. “The bottom looks like a diaper. It looks very homemade. Looks like the fashions, in fact, that were on happen.”

Thanks to the video, which coincided with the dawn of MTV, “Physical” was remembered as something of an aerobics-era anthem — despite lyrics that are really more about lovemaking than cardio. . Ms Newton-John’s ensemble has also become a sartorial symbol of that era – despite the rudimentary construction of the leotard, which “is definitely not a workout outfit”, said Ms Lennox, who ended up inspiration from costume design. of lesser known aerobics instructors like Bess Motta.

In this sense, the “Physical” set is also an early example of athleisure, a term originally used to describe not exercise clothing, but casual clothing that resembled exercise clothing.

As Ms Newton-John explained in a video posted to her YouTube channel in December, the video “really helped start the whole fitness and aerobics craze of the time. It was the birth of the headband fashion craze of the 80s. I should have started a headband and leggings business or made fitness videos. Jane Fonda beat me to it.

It’s true that no one popularized aerobics and the ballet-inspired aesthetic of aerobics more than Ms. Fonda, who opened a workout studio in 1979 and published the best-selling “Jane Fonda’s Workout Book.” in 1981. But “Physical” came close, bringing a bomb of spray hair spray to a fitness trend — dance exercise — that was already poised to light up the decade. Not only because of the dance-centric pop culture phenomena of the decade (“Fame” in 1980, “Flashdance” in 1983, “Footloose” in 1984) but because of the re-emergence of a textile invented in 1958: Lycra, known generically as spandex.

Ms Newton-John’s video “crystallized, in minutes into visual form, what was happening in culture, manufacturing and consumer habits,” said Sonnet Stanfill, senior curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum. and editor of the 2013 book “80s Fashion: From Club to Catwalk”.

In the 1970s, the textile industry began to use Lycra – previously used as a rubber substitute in women’s girdles – to create wardrobes around exercise. So women who took classes or watched videos of Jazzercise or Jane Fonda were exposed to “a whole wardrobe that they could buy to feel good about exercising”, Ms Stanfill said. , citing leotards and tights in a range of “almost violent colors”. tones. Racing bras had been invented, and nearly a decade had passed since Title IX increased women’s participation in sports – the options seemed limitless.

“The last quarter of the 20th century in the United States was this kind of groundswell of celebrating the benefits of exercise and creating a wardrobe to go with it,” she said. “Often fashion changes are, especially for women, linked to times when sport changed the way of life.”

In haute couture, designer Azzedine Alaïa also used stretchy materials for his body-conscious designs – giving women a new opportunity to show off their toned bodies, Ms Stanfill continued.

While the 1980s aero aesthetic looks dated today, some elements from that era briefly came back into vogue. In the 2000s, before the American Apparel founder’s dramatic downfall, the company had reintroduced shiny leotards and shiny leggings, with marketing that was more ironic and grungy-sexy than energetic and silly-sexy.

Yet the use of spandex never really died out, re-adapting into fashionable yoga pants and leggings and then into outerwear. “The lasting legacy is that stretchy fiber that allows the body to move and can be quite flattering and form-fitting if you want to show off your figure,” Ms. Stanfill said.

But as Ms Lennox discovered while trying to track down 1980s leotards for the show ‘Physical’, most Lycra from that era ‘didn’t stand the test of time’. Yet the playful spirit of Ms. Newton-John’s “Physical” continues to inspire clothing and culture (as seen in the Apple TV+ series or the 2020 Dua Lipa song, both of the same name).

When Outdoor Voices designed its first studio collection in 2019, it was influenced by the leotard-over-leggings look (punctuated by shawls and ballet skirts) pioneered by Ms Newton-John and Ms Fonda, Ty Haney said , company founder and former CEO.

But the inspiration went further: Outdoor Voices helped popularize athleisure in the 2010s by promoting the movement outside of traditional exercise, emphasizing “doing things” (its tagline) over doing things. reps, blurring the lines between gym spandex and gardening spandex. Does a leotard have to be a performance leotard, or can it be made for a wacky music video?

There was a “joyful perspective they brought to moving your body,” Ms Haney said of Ms Newton-John and Ms Fonda. “Freeing fitness from performance!” »

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