Athleisure: Hybrid Wear for Hybrid Times


NEW YORK, United States — There was a time not so long ago when elastic waistbands were regarded with great sartorial suspicion. At best, sweatpants, leggings and anything of the spandex variety served as standbys in the backs of closets, reserved for private or dire situations only, often providing stretchy consolation after brazen holiday feasting.

Currently, you would be hard pressed not to find the most fit and fashionable among us garbed in high-tech compression leggings, designer “street wear” T-shirts and sleek sneakers with triple–digit price tags.

How did we go from the former to the latter? Enter “Athleisure”: the most enduring word in recent fashion history, also known as athletic wear. A portmanteau for athleticism and leisure, athleisure is a hybrid name for crossbreed clothes made to take from the barre to the bar. But the highly documented movement’s flexible fabrics reveal more than just well–cycled muscles.

Is athleisure just glorified pyjamas or a utilitarian shift in the way we wear clothing? Is the prominence of athleisure just another symbol of consumerism, designed to keep us just arms–length away from attaining fitness goals? Muse with us as we trace the rise of athleisure, a manifestation of late 20th century workout culture that has merged fashion and fitness.

Looking Athleisure–ly

What is the point of demarcation between workout wear and “athleisure?” If the look du jour is any indication – sports bras under tailored hoodies with high–waist leggings and “fashion sneakers” – athleisure is dedicated to the sleek, toned muscles associated with studio workouts, from yoga and spin to barre and Pilates.

In the USA, home of “casual Fridays,” the post–workout look has been going strong for a few years. On this side of the Atlantic, New York City is peppered with Lululemons, one of the most recognised lux athletic–wear retailers offering notoriously pricy leggings.

Unsurprisingly in the UK, the trend is rising more slowly, but steadily. London’s Sweaty Betty, which has been around since the late 1990’s, offers luxury “athleisurewear,” while fast–fashion retailer New Look offers consumers the “après–gym” look for less.

Giants like Adidas and Nike have always offered premium leisurewear to consumers, but with the insurgence of athleisure aestheticism, the companies have steered products into a more overt “lifestyle” direction.

Athleisure has been one of the most lucrative labels for fashion start-ups entering e-commerce. Labels like Girlfriend Collective, Vimmia, and Outdoor Voices (to name a few) have sprouted to almost instant success, all throwing around similar phrases, like “technical fashion” and “functional wardrobe,” to explain their approaches.

Celebrities like Kylie, Kendall Jenner and Rihanna, who have their own fashion lines, have all contributed to the rise of spandex dressing, often spotted in variations of the sports bra/hoodie/sneaker combination. Who knows if they actually worked out? That’s not the point. Hillary Swank, Kate Hudson, and Beyoncé all have their own athleisure lines, each at varying price points but with similar declarative statements. The aspirational and ideological are two key features that tend to sell when pitched together, and the concepts of form, function and fashion have become athletic wear’s platitudes.

For example, Swank writes to “Manifesto” customers:

My brand and vision is about connecting with ourselves but also knowing we’re not alone in our journey because others have and are experiencing similar challenges in their journey.

Sounds (and looks) nice, but do we really need her $600 sweatshirts to truly feel connected to ourselves?

Despite overwrought rhetoric, the potential for activewear to streamline our daily lives is undeniable. On principle, athleisure directly addresses the form of the body, conforming to it rather than the other way around. Marketing aside, the popularity of athleisure is tactile. High–waist leggings and draped cotton jackets simply feel nice – in dressing, soft is always preferable to structure.

Gendered Athleticism

Form and function are principles men have always expected from their clothes, heavy on the function. Womenswear has traditionally prioritised form over function, which is perhaps why athletic wear has had a longer shelf–life than most trends. The category, which Veronique Hyland referred to as “soft dressing,” surpasses fleeting aesthetics.

Some brands carry men’s lines, but women are athleisure’s bull’s-eye targets.

Conversely, athleisure’s popularity is perhaps symptomatic of a more Foucaultian fixation on the disciplined body, so internalised in our contemporary consciousness that it has manifested a wearable lifestyle movement. In that vein, Jezebel writer Julianne Escobedo Shepherd recently criticised Athleisure’s ties to as “a smaller figment in the cultural trend towards performing fitness, which in itself is lifestyle marketing.” sanctimonious.

Less than a decade ago, no one would have dreamed leggings and hoodies would have been just as viable for dinner out as they are for 10 A.M. yoga. In fact, women spotted in workout garb in any other place besides the gym were berated for having failed to meet public quota.

Now, the line between casual and frumpy, athletic and lazy is increasingly thin, but still perceptible. As Hyland observes: “The accelerating casualness of everyday life isn’t stopping anytime soon — we won’t be trading in our athleisure en masse for the restrictive clothes of the past.” Athleisure deserves our critical attention as a movement, not a trend, because it is a material culmination of contemporary ideals related to movement, discipline and health.

Aimee Williams About the author

Aimee Williams is a New York City–based fashion writer and instructor. She holds a M.A. in Fashion Studies from Parsons School of Design, and is especially interested in the role of language in fashion.