The authentic national costume
By Jaana Laitinen
The Finnish street scene owes much to running coach Jorma Jormakka.
During trips to athletic meets in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, he saw new waterproof sporting outfits. Jormakka bought a few of the garments to bring home. At home, he examined them carefully.
This gave birth to a profitable business idea. He started up a company and began to manufacture the same kinds of sports outfits for the Finnish market.
This is how the Finns got their own wind-resistant clothes.
The colourful outfits were met with great enthusiasm. Shellsuits are usually cheap, easy, and practical garments. Soon they became an everyday sight - a national costume for everyone.
"I remember when the boom began. Development was dizzying. The sales showed that something was happening. Large producers of textiles in Europe were amazed at the amount of cloth that was delivered to Finland", recalls Jasmine Julin-Aro, a designer specialised in sport clothing.
She designed her first shellsuits for Rukka in the 1980s. She also teaches clothing at the Helsinki University of Art And Design.
Shellsuits were also big business in the whole world, but in Finland it became a major fashion trend.
"[Olympic runner] Lasse Viren gave the first impetus. When the Swedish jogging craze came here, all of Finland began to run. Everyone in Finland was a Lasse Viren in that frenzy."
The fashion conscious were the first to discover shellsuits, and the rest of the people followed.
Leena Lounamaa-Lindgren, a clothing advisor at Stockmann’s Department Store, says that people were impressed by the practicality.
"It is extremely easy to put on and to take care of. It is also a very democratic garment. Everyone is at the same starting line, when a shellsuit is on. You could wear it anywhere."
Soon they could be seen at shopping malls, on shopping trips, and at the annual tango festival.
"At airports, you could tell a group of Finns by the shellsuits that they wore", fashion consultant Johanna Salovaara laughs.
The classical combination was running shoes, brown tights, a dress, a windbreaker jacket, and a purse.
Although the garish cuts of the early years were became more sedate, and although the quality of the cloth improved, those wearing shellsuits risked being labelled in an unfortunate way. The outfits became something of a symbol of poverty, riffraff, and country bumpkins.
"making fun of shellsuits offered people a way to distinguish themselves from the masses, and from sensible dress", Leena Lounimaa-Lindgren explains.
"The shellsuit is indeed a bit rustic - with all respect - when it is detached form its purpose - that of exercise."
She notes that situational dressing is a relatively new concept for Finns. Not many had mastered the skill just a decade ago. Partly for that reason, the shellsuit got a conspicuous role in street fashion.
Julin-Aro agrees that they became a label that made it possible to make generalisations about people wearing them.
"Those who label people might well look in the mirror. Perhaps such people are wearing an invisible shellsuit of sorts - one that is seriously tight in places."
The fashion peaked in the mid-1990s.
"We thought that the shellsuit would sink in the swamp. But a good product will not go away. Cheap versions only ruined its reputation", Julin-Aro says.
The outfit began to develop; a water-resistant micro cloth, and ventilation appeared. The manufacturers competed to make the best in the world. Nordic walkers and runners got their own.
The shellsuit has returned mainly to its original purpose - exercise, walking and running. At best, it has developed into a high-quality good-looking free-time garment.
Julin-Aro sees some good in the boom.
"It gave impetus to the development of materials and outdoor clothing. In a shellsuit people can use colours, and dare to dress in a more relaxed manner. It gave courage to try other types of clothing as well."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 7.9.2007