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Five Vintage Shell Suit Styles That Took The World By Surprise!

February 25, 2018

Way back in the late 70s and early 80s, these five vintage shell suit styles became ever popular for style and comfort, with everyone wanting to be seen in them


From the fashionable authentic vintage shell top, to the stylish shell suit jacket, almost everyone in the 80s definitely owned and loved one of these five vintage shell suit styles

Coming Out of Its Shell – How it all began

Girl wearing Shell suit top at the Leeds corn exchange, from Pinterest user

Girl wearing Shell suit top at the Leeds corn exchange, from Pinterest user


There’s nothing too flashy about the shell suit top and pants. In fact, the Cambridge online dictionary defines “Shell Suit” as:

“…an informal loose top and trousers made of thin, light, smooth material with elastic (= material that stretches) at the wrist and ankle”. When seen in light of this description, the popular shell suit jacket and trouser would seem extraordinarily “simple”.


In fact, the five vintage shell suit styles that we are discussing today had very humble beginnings indeed!

Back in the 80s, it was cool to be seen wearing something sporty and athletic. Anyone that wanted to be noticed had a shell suit outfit stashed away in their closets. And even if you didn’t work out much (or not at all, for that matter!), you did well to don on a shell suit top to fit in with the fitness crowd.


That basic urge to “fit in” gave rise to a whole new fitness movement that saw men and women clamouring to put on a shell suit jacket, or a pair of shell pants, and be seen around town. Mom’s dropping their kids to school; teenagers hanging around the mall; and even men mowing the lawn or shovelling snow wore a piece of authentic vintage shell wear.

Two-piece ensemble

The typical shell suit was crafted as a two-piece ensemble, made from synthetic materials like polyester, nylon or a blend of the two fabrics.  In so many ways, mens vintage shell suits took the inspiration from that ever-popular piece of sportswear – the Track Suit. However, the shell suit jacket replaced the thick cotton/woollen top of the traditional track suit – hence the name “shell top”.


Blue17 vintage 80s Black red & blue shell suit top

80s Black red & blue shell suit top

lightweight materials and Fluorescent colouring

Out of the box, the authentic vintage shell suit was made of lightweight materials, featuring a rounded collar and puffy arms. It started off as a zip-down centre, but other versions had Velcro flaps as well. What really made the traditional shell suit top really stand out was the colours. Fluorescent colouring was its foremost feature, and designers really didn’t care about matching colours of various parts of the suit.


In fact, some of the most popular mens vintage shell suits were designed as “off colour” offerings, with colour-clashing components as the norm. The more “outrageous” the colours, the better!


All of the five vintage shell suit styles featured here have dual uses. They are perfectly functional leisure wear pieces, that individuals of all ages can put on for any occasion – whether it’s to hang out with friends and family, or run chores or relax at home. But they also carry about them the air of vintage clothing that fashionistas dearly love.  And to give the humble shell suit jacket and trousers even more “street cred”, Labour leader Jeremey Corbyn has been creating waves in his shell outfit as he cycles around town in one.


Today, brand labels like Nike and Adidas are collaborating with leading retailers across the U.K to take the shell suit top and pants out from the 80s, and give it a more modern spin. Our five vintage shell suit styles were all very popular back in the day, and are making a resurgence even today!

The Shell-Shocked Look – Pulling it off

The five vintage shell suit styles that we are reviewing here today, are simple to assemble and easy to pull off. Best of all, almost all of the component pieces that we talk about are easily found at any U.K retail outlet.


And if you don’t find exactly what you are looking for, at your local mall or shopping plaza, to pull off your shell-shocked look, try browsing through a nearby vintage clothing store. Chances are you’ll get the right accessories to complete your authentic vintage shell-style look.

Blue17 vintage 80s retro purple shell suit top

80s retro purple shell suit top

The Lazy Look

  • The Lazy Look: It’s well known that when you can’t be bothered to change for no “special” occasion at all, just grabbing a top that’s one size large for you, and wearing it over your house clothes makes perfect sense. Because shell wear is both leisurewear and semi-formal wear, it makes an ideal companion for those wanting to pull off the Lazy Look.


Pulling off that one-size-too big look is easy with a shell suit jacket, especially because of how the top can easily be zipped up – strategically hiding whatever else you are wearing underneath. Best of all, like all of the five vintage shell suit styles covered here, this Lazy Look is so simple to pull off that you really don’t need to shop for anything special. Just reach behind in your wardrobe, and you’re sure to find something from the past that’ll work!


shell suit fashion exhibition, Pauline Rushton with the Shell Suit at Sudley House taking her own shellfie!

Pauline Rushton with the Shell Suit at Sudley House taking her own shellfie!


The Sporty Look

  • The Sporty Look: Originally designed for the sports lover, the shell suit top is the ideal accessory for anyone looking for that sporty look. To look “sporty” in your shell top, wear it on a pair of sports shorts, or pair it with any track suit trousers to complete your active look.


Any other piece of vintage clothing, like a 90s hairband or a wrist band, along with a gym bag slung over your shoulder, can accentuate the sporty look even more. One word of caution when going for the authentic sporty look. Make sure your shell suit jacket isn’t too snug for you. Choose something that’s a size large for you – just so it doesn’t cling to your body.


The Busybody Look

  • The Busybody Look: Whether you’re a busy mom shopping around at the mall, or someone running errands across town, or picking up ingredients for a special dinner at the grocery store, nothing fits better for the occasion than an authentic vintage shell top and trousers to match.

Five vintage shell suit styles to remember

Of the five vintage shell suit styles discussed here, the Busybody Look is probably most associated with Shell wear. Your shell top and trousers not only feel comfortable, but because they aren’t too “clingy”, they allow you to just go about your business without getting in the way. The mens vintage shell look can be completed with a pair of matching joggers to go with any shell suit jacket and trouser.


Astrid Andersen Menswear Fall Winter 2018 London, from pinterest user

Astrid Andersen Menswear Fall Winter 2018 London


The Hipster Look

  • The Hipster Look: As mentioned earlier, shell wear isn’t about vintage clothing Shell pieces are becoming far more mainstream than they have been before. London-based creator of casualwear, Astrid Andersen, recently paraded several “hipsteresque” versions of their shell suit jacket and suits at London Collections Men.


The Hipster Look is far removed from the Jimmy Savile or Golden Girl image – popular icons (or villain – in one case) that loved to be seen in a shell suit top and matching trouser. The new shell suit look comes with jogging bottoms made from soft grey cashmere, and lighter flannel tops that brings back that 80s authentic vintage look into the 2000’s.

The Costume Party Look

  • The Costume Party Look: While our five vintage shell suit styles have been selected with sombre thought, there’s no reason why you can’t have some light-hearted fun with vintage clothing.


Anyone that recall’s the 90s hit show Harry Enfield’s Television Program, will remember Harry Enfield’s iconic look. If you are invited to a fancy-dress event, you can easily create an authentic vintage costume party look with a bit of tash and perm, sporting a Scouser wig. To complete the look, add a hairband and pink wayfarers with your shell suit jacket – and you’re all done. And oh…don’t forget that gold chain and Boom Box!

Mixed and match five vintage shell suit styles

All of the five vintage shell suit styles discussed above can be mixed and matched to pull off a variety of shell-shocked looks. And these pieces are constantly evolving as we speak. Even as you read these lines, contemporary designers like Kim Jones are reinventing the traditional shell suit top and pants by experimenting with newer fabrics – like Cashmere.


Typically, you created your own unique authentic vintage shell-shocked look by combining a shell top with a matching (or contrasting!) trouser/pants. The shell suit jacket was normally worn full-length, but because of its elastic cuffs, they were often rolled up and worn above the elbows. A pair of white socks were standard, with a pair of Nike’s or Reebok’s rounding off the look.

Functional, Flashy…Relevant

gucci shell suit spring summer 2018, from Pinterest user

gucci shell suit spring summer 2018, from Pinterest user


From the cricket field to the catwalks to concert stages, you’re bound to come across all five vintage shell suit styles highlighted here. From being purely functional sportswear on the cricket field, to going super-shiny and flashy in the early 80s (thanks to icons like Rod Stewart, Elton John and Madonna), the women’s and mens vintage shell suit has never lost its relevance – even today.


Many of our five vintage shell suit styles were also made popular by some contemporary celebrities like pop star Michael Jackson.  The King of Pop made the shell suit jacket a signature piece of his wardrobe, famously varying the jacket with a tracksuit pants, or pairing his favourite faded jeans with a shell suit top.


Recently, at the 2018 Spring/Summer show, Gucci gave even more relevance to the shell suit top and pants. Alessandro Michele’s latest look prominently featured a rejuvenated authentic vintage shell suit, using a blend of crystal-studded flames and sequined droplets to bring an iconic piece of vintage clothing back into the 2000s.


So, while the humble shell suit jacket and accompanying trouser has had a long and successful run since the late seventies, it is also becoming more and more popular today. With popular sports franchisers collaborating with renowned fashion designers, Shell isn’t relegated to the vintage clothing store any longer. Shell-wear lovers will be pleased to know that all of these the five vintage shell suit styles are very much mainstream!

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