Is the shellsuit the ultimate crime against fashion, or merely a brilliant concept given a bad reputation by the media?
The shellsuit is a lightweight nylon tracksuit. It consists of a zip-up jacket, and trousers with an elasticated waist and ankles. The outer layer is of fine silky material, like synthetic parachute silk, and it is either self-lined or lined in fine-knitted fabric or lightweight fine silky towelling. It comes in a blinding array and combination of the most garish colours: bright purple, emerald-green, vivid yellow etc, often all on the one suit.
It was originally developed for use by sportsmen, and Kris Akabusi in particular is credited with 'vanguarding' its appearances. But its supreme comfort, cheapness and ease of wearing soon made it popular as general street wear. As the fitness craze of the 1980s continued, people began wearing them en route to and from the gym, as a lifestyle statement. And as manufacturers made cheaper and cheaper versions, its adoption by young people increased.
It soon became synonymous with mouthy lower-class types: Harry Enfield's Scousers, brothers Our Barry, Our Gary and Our Terry (played by Enfield alongside Joe McGann and Gary Bleasdale), would stand around having arguments and going 'eh, eh, eh, carm daw-in'1 and 'Dey do dough, don't dey dough'2 in matching shellsuits. This instantly defined them as 'scallies', a Liverpool variety of chav.
They were also particularly popular with hip-hop fans, largely because of their suitability for break-dancing in, being easy to move about in and good for sliding on surfaces. At the other end of the scale, they became popular with the older generation, due to their high comfort factor and the ease with which they were donned and removed. Sir Jimmy Savile was a famous shellsuit-wearer, accessorising his outfits with lots of jangly gold jewellery.
The shellsuit remains popular with caravanners, most of whom remain convinced it is in some way flattering. It is still used as an easy-to-recognise visual shorthand to identify a 'white trash' character — for instance, Vicky Pollard from Little Britain is always seen in a vibrant pink shellsuit and huge gold hoop earrings. Ali G sports a bright-yellow shellsuit, teamed with a tight-fitting red skull cap. Nice!
Once it was adopted by grannies, its cachet had gone. Concern over safety centred on its flammability (indeed, many have found their way onto a Guy Fawkes effigy, with spectacular results). Pupils in some schools are not allowed to take part in science classes if they are wearing one of these fire hazards.
Footballer-turned-messiah David Icke, a reserve goalie for Coventry City FC who never got beyond the bench, claimed that wearing turquoise was the path to enlightenment, and wore a shellsuit in that colour, with predictable mocking ensuing.
It was voted by the fashion police as the worst fashion crime of all time, beating off tough competition from the likes of the poncho, leg warmers, the ra-ra skirt and clogs. Despite this, it still has ardent followers championing its revival; Goldie Lookin' Chain, for instance.