At this point, the tutu has transcended costume and become a common piece of many runners’ race-day wardrobes, regardless of whether it’s a costumed event. How and when did that happen?
An obvious place to start, as with most things princessy, is Disney. The company runDisney has been hosting races across Disney theme parks and resorts since the mid- ’90s, but in the late ’00s it began rolling out women-focused races like the Disney Minnie Marathon Weekend and the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend, which debuted in 2009. However, it took a little while for the costume skirts to catch on. For the 2010 Disneyland half marathon, Lewis decided to dress like Tinker Bell. She lined up in the first corral, the sectioned area at front of the starting line reserved for elite runners. “I walked in wearing a lime-green sparkly skirt and wings and everyone in that corral turned around and gave me the up and down, like, ‘Why is she in this corral?’” says Lewis. (She set a personal record during that race.)
Now? You can find chat rooms dedicated to the art and science of Disney race tutus. According to the Orlando dietitian Tara Collingwood, a runner who once served as the official nutritionist for runDisney, “At the Disney races, if you’re not wearing some sort of sparkle skirt, you’re kind of sticking out.”
Carey Pinkowski has directed the Chicago Marathon since the early 1990s and says that he began noticing a rise in outlandish race gear over the last 10 to 12 years. “It wasn’t until the charities really came to prominence and they identified themselves [with uniforms] to draw attention to what they were doing,” he says. In 2011, the Wall Street Journal noted that the rise of the charitable run had arrived hand in hand with technology that made it easier for runners to raise money online. Races are not only fundraising events, but ways for charitable groups like Girls on the Run (GOTR) or the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to advertise themselves. Pinkowski says, “They have their own uniforms: They’re very identifiable, and very much keen on the branding.”
Ben Waldman, 37, a volunteer running coach in New York, donned a skirt for charity when he ran the 2013 Nike Women’s DC Half Marathon. While men weren’t forbidden from the course, he had reservations being a man in a woman’s race, even though he was running with women he had trained for the race. Donning his team’s tutu, Waldman says, “took away from me being a guy on the course.” While he found the skirt less than comfortable, he couldn’t deny that it helped increase team camaraderie and made the race more fun and appealing to would-be runners. “A half marathon, which seems so unreachable to so many people, suddenly is more in reach when you see people having a good time and being silly.”
It’s hard to believe that until 1971, that women weren’t officially permitted to run the Boston Marathon. Now, groups like Black Girls RUN! and Girls on the Run help contribute to the rise of (and business of) women runners—Pinkowski says that the Shamrock Shuffle, another major Chicago race he oversees, was 58 percent women this year.