If the gays and the straights are united in one thing, it’s their love of sportswear. Take a trip to any gay club in London and you’re bound to see a lad dressed in a pair of trackies. Adidas three-stripes and Nike swooshes are as prevalent on queer dance floors as chiselled abs, poppers and wired twentysomethings with eyes like fried eggs.
Whether you’re stalking the halls of Adonis in East London, having a rager to Britney deep cuts at Heaven or simply going for a few scoops midweek at Dalston Superstore, you can expect to be met with boys in nylon.
This isn’t anything new, of course. Sportswear has long been an integral component to the shared wardrobes of particular LGBTQ+ tribes. From the early 1990s, gays in the UK began dressing in sportswear as “lad culture” reached its peak, with the homosexual adoption of the sportswear look being dubbed “lad drag”.
The emergence of gay scallies solidified sport gear’s place in the community. These are the lads who tuck their tracksuit bottoms into white socks, buzzcut their hair and get off on fellow “straight”-acting blokes who drink cans of Stella and wear Nike TNs. There’s been much debate around it: from the internalised homophobia towards feminine gays to the ways in which the styles of working-class men – which have often been politicised as uniforms for anarchy by the bigoted red-top newspapers – have been fetishised as a subculture within the gay community. (In an article for Attitude in 2005, writer Paul Flynn criticised gay scallies as “loads of middle- class people fantasising about a bit of common rough.”)
Today, though, sportswear’s place in the community is commonality. “I find [sportswear] sexy and it serves a purpose,” says designer Olly Shinder, who was first enticed to sportswear and workwear during his time spent on Berlin’s most hedonistic dance floors. “Workwear is affordable, well made, it’s got lots of pockets. I think if you spend a whole weekend out dancing, you’ll probably realise why designer clothes are usually not the best option. They get dirty and ruined. I don’t think people want to go out and feel like they’re trashing their expensive clothes. They would rather wear something that’s a bit more durable but still has some level of sex appeal.”
The Central Saint Martins alum cut his teeth interning at the likes of Nasir Mazhar and GmbH – two brands which have subverted macho dress codes – and spent a year interning at Snickers Workwear, a Swedish technical-wear brand that makes clothes for construction workers. “I find that the world of workwear exists in a very hypermasculine space, which I don’t identify with,” says Shinder. “I identify myself in a much more queer, subversive space. So naturally, I would take ideas from a different space and somehow make them work for the space that I exist in.”
Graduating in 2022, his final collection (which has already been snapped up by Dover Street Market) sees Shinder fashion hiking trousers from silk and engineer track jackets with bra contour net, veining sporty twinsets with elastic cord so they delicately cling to the body in sensual formations. With immense prowess, he toys with utilitarian wear to give rigid, masculine garments a softer edge.
Like Shinder, a slew of London-based menswear designers have set about queering overtly masculine dress. Like Martine Rose, for instance, whose SS23 collection was staged in Chariots, a now-defunct gay sauna in Vauxhall, South London. Curtained by black latex, with erotic panting and thumping EDM feeding through the speakers, what emerged was a hot-under-the-collar ode to the history of London’s gay scene and the allure of urgent sexual encounters. “I wanted people to smell the latex, see the sweat on [the models’] bodies, feel the energy as they walked past. I really wanted to create an experience and pull people into it,” Rose said at the time, as her ingenious toying-with of proportion led to super-shrunken silhouettes. Think sleazy trench coats pulled tight to the body, narrow MA-1 bombers and jeans hoicked high above the waist to purposefully expose the fly, as if borrowed from last night’s hook-up. On the surface these are simply great clothes, but they are awash with homoerotic fantasies.
At Cottweiler, design duo Matthew Dainty and Ben Cottrell subtly explore fetishised sportswear. They have long referenced shell-suited scallies in their visuals and have taken classic sports kit down a subtly queer route. They did camping gear for AW17, moving to cave divers a year later, where models’ hands came coated in jelly-based lubricant. For SS19, the Cottweiler man took a trip to the spa, via a detour to the sauna: his torso covered in cupping marks, nipples pierced with rings and his bum firmly tucked into a pair of skimpy cycling shorts. Channelling a seedier side for AW19, their signature technical tracksuits came in mostly earthy hues.
The palette was inspired by Epping Forest, a neighbouring attraction to Dainty’s family home, and funnily enough one of the biggest cruising grounds in Europe. “It has surrounded me for a very long time and I was oblivious to it until I was a lot older,” Dainty said backstage at the show. It was here where the Cottweiler boys cleverly used “the lost art of cruising” as a reference point in encapsulating the consequence that technology has played at the suspense of human, face-to-face interaction. Nipples were visible, while the rear of a white pair of nylon tracksuit bottoms were slashed to expose the cheek. Subtle, more tactical, visual codes could be missed at first glance. Singular gloves and handkerchiefs attached to belts served as hanky codes and flies of trousers were left unzipped. One nylon track jacket in clashing blues has a cap built into the hood, perfect for keeping the casual cruiser warm, and more importantly, on the down-low.
Gay men adopting sportswear as their daily uniform comes down to the fact that “we are drawn towards activeness,” says Shinder. “There’s something attractive about being active in whatever you do.” The artist Brian Kenny echoes this: “The sex appeal of athletes is pansexual. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing a physically fit, often totally beautiful, human being engaging in activity with other fit men or women at a highly accomplished level? Add in the homoerotic elements of man-on-man competition and their sensually appealing wrapping in sportswear and voila! A fetish arises.”
Ever since he was a child, Kenny has been fascinated by sportswear. “It’s brightly coloured, often shiny, and is imbued with energy and a sense of community and identity.” Having played football, basketball and taken part in gymnastics through his adolescence, as an adult he’s continued to collect the shiny, satin football shorts he wore through the 1980s and ’90s.
“The best story you can ever tell is your own. I’m gay, an athlete, an artist and an exhibitionist/ voyeur, so it’s perfectly natural that I’m interested in and have homoeroticised sportswear,” he says. Specialising in textile artworks which feature buffed-up athletes, he began painting in oils last year, crafting photorealistic paintings of shiny, vintage football shorts. “It was a natural stylistic choice for oil painting because fetish itself, like photo-realist painting, is an obsessive kind of attention,” he says. “Sportswear is sensually alluring. The feel of silky fabrics and their eye-catching colours, shine and masculine design are all pleasurable.”
Kenny is not alone in finding sportswear sexually enticing. Everything from tracksuits to footy kits have been sexualised amongst the community, whether it’s in porn or inside sweat-drenched clubs. FC Snax United, Berlin’s biggest gay sex party at the notorious Berghain, for instance, has a strict dress code of sneakers and sportswear. “Gay men often fetishise sportswear because it’s associated with a kind of hero worship, male bonding and a vigorous masculine energy,” adds Kenny.
It doesn’t just come down to what you’re getting dressed (and later undressed) in for your bedroom escapades, though. For myself, as a gay kid growing up in Liverpool, I was surrounded by lads in trackies and trainers. Feeling alienated through my closeted queerness, I instead opted for a rotating wardrobe of skinny jeans and band tees. Moving away from home to London when I was 18, I subconsciously found myself drawn to the styles I once loathed. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and putting on a pair of Nike trackpants was subconsciously my way of connecting with my scouseness – even though my 11-year-old self would’ve cringed at the thought of me kitted out in a full Nike look.
Boys, no matter their sexuality, want to feel comfortable, sexy and at home in their everyday garb. A trackie is the way to go. Swish, swoosh.
Artwork by David Lock. Taken from Issue 57 of 10 Men – NEW, DAILY, UNIFORM – out now. Order your copy here.