Athleisure is the new business casual. Your gym clothes aren't just what you wear to the gym. You now wear them out shopping (and I don't just mean a quick trip to the grocery store). You wear them out to dinner. You may even wear them to work. A typical athleisure outfit isn't the pair of leggings and the oversized souvenir t-shirt I wore to the gym this morning. In fact, an athleisure outfit may never see the inside of a gym. On a typical morning I roll out of bed and stumble into some sweatpants and steel-cage sports bra. That's not athleisure.
Let's imagine for a moment that I took the athleisure route when I got dressed this morning. There would be no random pulling of tops and pants from a drawer in the dark. I would carefully put together today's exercise-inspired outfit ahead of time. I pull a pair of leggings over my legs from a massive collection of colors and prints I put on a matching sports bra with questionable ability to actually support my boobs. The bra may not support me much, but it is smartly accented with interesting straps and cutouts. Over the top I add a coordinating long tank top that would likely get in my way if I needed to perform a deadlift or a downward dog, but it's cute the way it dips down in the back enough to show that cute bra. I look like I'm about to work out, except that my outfit is hardly built for athletic performance and I wouldn't want to get it all sweaty anyway.
I have found it distressing when I go into high-end exercise clothing stores - whether Lululemon or independent boutiques - and see clothes that are meant for looks and not for function. This is particularly true of yoga clothes. Everything is flimsy and provides minimal coverage. Do you want a cute yoga outfit? I hope you don't mind wearing skintight leggings or showing nearly all of your torso. If you have big boobs you're out of luck. It sends a subtle message that people whose bodies fall outside of a certain ideal don't work out and shouldn't even attempt it.
Workout clothes have become so expensive and so fashion-forward that we now have no choice but to take them to the street.
Most critics of athleisure mourn the inappropriateness of wearing workout gear in situations where traditionally one did not wear workout gear. The argument is that it's sloppy and makes you look like you don't care. This is not the issue I have with athleisure. I don't care if other people look sloppy. I don't care if you're going to work looking like you are going to the gym. That's your choice and if your boss doesn't like it, or the hostess won't give you a table at the restaurant, it's your problem and not mine. Wear what you like. If that's what makes you happy and comfortable go for it.
My problem is not caring out how others look. My problem is that yet another simple and inexpensive area of our society has become commodified and gentrified.
I remember my first yoga class over twenty years ago. The teacher was a gray-haired black woman with a soft full body. She wore a dated looking 80s style unitard. When she stopped teaching at my gym she was replaced with a sinewy, plain-looking, middle aged woman who biked to the gym because she didn't own a car. She was as unglamorous as a fitness instructor could be and taught class in ordinary shorts and a t-shirt.
Twenty years later the yoga teachers in my gym look nothing like they did in the early years. They are all young, white, taut, hipsters - fashionably pierced and tatted and dressed in the latest yoga gear. Once upon a time there was no such thing as yoga gear. Yoga isn't just a class my gym offers. There are high end yoga studios that employ those young hipster teachers and seem to cater exclusively to white women dressed in Lululemon.
Even though it truly only take a few simple exercises, done consistently, to stay in shape, the fitness industry never stops trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead of balance and flexibility work we have yoga done in high-end (sometimes branded) studio, and yoga's more expensive cousin, Pilates. Strength training is packaged in a hundred different DVDs and gimmicky classes, some of which are more effective than others. Instead of taking your bike for a ride, you go Soul Cycle. Rather than take a dance class at your local Y, you go to Barre class. I could go on about the fitness industry complicates the simple in order to lure women with promises of a miracle or a quick fix, but that really needs another post.
Most branded exercise classes also sell branded gear to go with the classes. I have a bag full of dance shoes that have all seen barre work (as in actual dance classes where I warm up at the barre), but if I wanted to take Barre class, I'd have to buy their special socks. Soul Cycle has special socks too. Also shoes. They also have a website full of cute clothing. Zumba instructors have to wear Zumba branded clothing to teach. It's part of their certification. If you buy a DVD from Beachbody, they will have all kinds of recommended pieces of clothing and equipment on full display during the course of the class (and let's not forget about those stupid shakes).
This isn't the first time a humble article of clothing was gentrified. Let's look at the most ubiquitous item of clothing in our culture - jeans. If you go back in time to the 19th century, you will see jeans as something only the working class wore. Cowboys and farm hands wore them. They were gear meant for manual labor. In the 20th century they became standard casual wear. As it became acceptable for women to wear pants, we would see women wearing jeans when they worked in factories. Young people began wearing them as casual wear. It was still unacceptable to wear them in most public situations. I remember an episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy was in a hurry to go somewhere and was telling Ethel she had no time to change her clothes, but Ethel was adamant that she would never be seen on the subway in her blue jeans. According to one of my high school history teachers, my high school forbade girls wearing jeans to school as late as 1969.
What changed about jeans? Well, I am old enough to remember the moment when jeans changed into something fashionable and even dressy. A new trend appeared called Designer Jeans. High end designers began selling jeans in their lines with the brand label and logo clearly visible. The only difference between these jeans and the jeans you wore to go outside and play was the price. That price meant you could take those jeans into places where they previously weren't allowed. The price of jeans continues to climb. When I was in high school, the most prestigious labels were $50 a pair, and that seemed fairly outrageous. Now people think nothing of spending $200 or more for a pair of jeans (even adjusted for inflation, that's a lot of money for cotton made in a Southeast Asian factory.)
Now that we have taken casual jeans into the dressy mainstream, it's time to elevate something even more casual onto the streets. The key was to start creating high-end brands. We now have Athleta and Lululemon. Chain-smoking fitness guru Kate Hudson has created "affordable" workout gear through Fabletics, but your inexpensive outfit comes with a monthly subscription fee. The manufacturers of these lines claim their quality is superior, but testimonials from women who have bought this stuff and found it lacking (remember the Lululemon leggings incident?) will tell you differently. Highly technical and justifiably expensive workout gear does exist, but that kind of clothing is worn by serious athletes who need this type of fear to perform better in their sports and not by women on the street.
If I am going to pay a lot of money for fitness gear, I am going to be paying for functionality. I have spent as much as $80 on a sports bra because I'm busty and need something that will clamp me down in place when horseback riding. My riding boots cost more than any other pair of shoes I own because I need boots that can survive days at the barn. I want tap shoes that sound clean and are easy to move in. Other than that, I don't need expensive gear. A pair of leggings from Modell's or Kohl's or the back racks of DeJaneiro work just fine for me. I throw on whatever t-shirt or tank is clean and I'm good to go for some time at the gym or dance class. None of it looks fancy. I just need it to do its job.
You will not see me pay extra money for workout gear that looks stylish just so I can wear it on the street. I'll keep my athletic gear in the gym, the dance studio, and the barn. I'll pay for the functionality I need, but I won't pay to make my most casual clothing socially acceptable.
I'd rather just go out wearing my cheap jeans.