Article Thumbnail

The Death of the Headband

The unlikely rise and inevitable fall of the early 1980s athletic headwear of choice

Carmelo Anthony is out of a job and his future with the NBA is in question, but I have only one question: If he’s done with the basketball, what will become of his headbands? After all, Melo is just about the only prominent figure still rocking that sweatband consistently, especially since LeBron James ditched his back in 2015. Without Anthony’s ever-present sweatband on the court, it could mean a sad new low for a fashion accessory that was once the very hottest of trends.  

While the sweatband dates back at least as far as the 1930s, where it was marketed to sweat-drenched factory workers, it wouldn’t be until Fila began selling sportswear in the 1970s that the athletic headband would become a specific product. Prior to that, athletes would generally use pieces of fabric to create makeshift head wraps to absorb sweat. “During the 1970s there was a rise in the interest in athletics across lots of different disciplines,” explains fashion historian Jennifer Grayer Moore, who authored the book Fashion Fads Through American History. With this rise in the profile of sports, clothing companies began marketing specific sportswear and “improving upon ideas that already existed,” Moore explains — which is how we got the headband.  

The first guy to really rock the sweatband in a high-profile way was Swedish tennis player Björn Borg, who spent the latter half of the 1970s decked out in Fila gear from head-to-toe, terry-cloth headband included. Moore explains that, given the hairstyles of men in the 1970s — long, natural and generally light on hair product — the headband served a very utilitarian purpose: It kept sweat and hair out of your eyes. Tennis continued to be a sport in which headbands were highly visible, most notably in the legendary 1980 Wimbledon Final between Borg and John McEnroe, both of whom had their long locks reined in by a sweatband. Even today, while a sweatband isn’t an ever-present accessory of her’s, it sometimes can be seen on Serena Williams.

In terms of its place in popular culture, Sylvester Stallone sports the terry-cloth athletic headband in the training montage of 1979’s Rocky II, but it would be another two years before the accessory rode a major wave in the American zeitgeist. In September 1981, still fresh off of her success with Grease, Olivia Newton-John released the song Physical, which was an immediate success. The following February, the music video premiered on MTV, while the network was still in its infancy. The immensely popular — and controversial — video features Newton-John in workout attire (headband included) as she dances with nearly naked, ultra-fit men while also trying to get some fat guys into shape by “getting physical” with them. The video is pure 1980s in the worst kind of way, and because of that, well, let’s just say it doesn’t age very well.

While this was going on, the ‘athleisure’ trend was also on the rise, which is when workout attire like tracksuits, sweatpants and legwarmers began to become multi-purpose casual wear that people wore outside of the gym. With that and the popularity of workout videos at the time, the athletic headband rode the athleisure wave right to the top (of your head).

In fact, where you wear the headband also fits nicely with another fashion movement at the time. Moore explains that in the 1970s, for the most part, clothing companies began putting their logo on their clothing in a really noticeable way. It began in the high-end market and then spread to just about everywhere else, so given the fact that your forehead is fantastic advertising space, it makes sense that brands would do what they could to promote this fairly cheap accessory as part of athleisure’s growing influence.

After Newton-John’s fat-shaming but ultra-catchy, homoerotic romp, the headband found itself in countless other media of the time, especially if it involved dancing. It would appear prominently in Flashdance, the Breakin’ films, and the TV show Fame. It became more widespread in the sports arena too, as evidenced by football great Jim McMahon. You could also find musicians like Cher and Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler wearing it.

It’s important to note that in some of these examples of the headband, it’s not always the terry-cloth athletic sweatband that we see. Moore explains that the athletic headband, while singularly identifiable, was merely one of the kinds of headgear you’d see at the time. For example, 1984’s Karate Kid features a headband throughout the film, yet it’s one that’s tied in the back. The same is true for Josh Brolin’s look in 1985’s The Goonies. See, unlike accessories such as the fanny pack (to pull an example out of the bag attached to my ass), the athletic headband doesn’t really have it’s own unique history: It was simply part of a few different trends at the time, like the rise of athleisure, the exercise culture and other headwear that included bandanas and other kinds of wraps as well.

So, what killed the headband? Well, if you watch Stranger Things you’ll understand instantly — just look at Steve Harrington’s hair: That complex coif filled with Farrah Fawcett spray is far too beautiful to destroy with a little piece of terry cloth. As the 1980s advanced, the long, natural hairstyles of the 1970s gave way to the shorter and much more product-filled hairdos that would come to signify the decade, and the headband faded from view.

Additionally, Moore says that, in the early to mid-1980s, “There was a backlash against 1970s culture, and things like leisure suits didn’t just go out of style, they went out of style with a vengeance.” Athleisure, however, would only grow, but some of the fabrics that made it prominent — like terry cloth and velour — got completely replaced by sleeker and costlier fabrics. So as athleisure became more mainstream, clothing companies began making designer versions of casual gym wear, a trend that still persists today.

With this change in fashion tides, the athletic headband would be sacrificed all but entirely in any context but working out and sporting activities. On the streets, if people still wore headbands into the late 1980s and beyond, it would generally be smoother fabrics like a bandana or other kinds of wraps instead. And it’s probably going to stay that way, at least for a while. “It doesn’t seem cool or interesting to me at the moment,” says Moore.

Still, while it may seem like one of those rare early 1980s trends that doesn’t receive a second wave, you never really know. In many ways, the future of the headband is about as uncertain as Carmelo Anthony’s.