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Dirty Furniture

When design leaves the showroom

Issue 4/6 – Closet

Busy Doing Nothing

It’s been five years since the trend for wearing gym gear during the day became widespread. Freelance writer Philippa Snow dons her tracksuit pants to consider why athleisure has become a wardrobe staple.

‘There are no ugly women,’ make-up artist Charlotte Tilbury is reported to have said, quoting the late cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, ‘only lazy ones.’ While I would remind Ms Tilbury that if there are no ‘ugly’ women by this metric, there may still be tired women, busy women or poor women, her assertion does feel relevant to an idea I have been considering – namely, whether there is something ethically askew in the persistence of the trend for activewear-as-daywear that is happening in all social circles, and whether there are no lazy women, only fashionable ones.

‘Athleisure’, which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as ‘casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use’ and which I would happily define as a trend that I’m not currently participating in, has been ‘in’ for about five years. By 2015, US sales of activewear had increased by forty percent from five years prior. In 2016, Morgan Stanley estimated American athleisure sales in 2020 would hit $83 billion. By February this year, Forbes felt moved to run a trendpiece with the headline ‘The Athleisure Trend isn’t Taking a Rest Break’, quoting an adviser from the data-mining and trendspotting NPD Group on the subject. ‘I often get asked whether the bubble around leisure will burst anytime soon,’ he reveals, ‘and the answer is no. Athleisure rules the runway.’

If wearing leggings as pants once seemed unthinkable, it now feels typical – a crotch in clinging jersey looks, post-Hilton and Kardashian, less risqué. Comfort and free movement is one part of the allure of wearing activewear outside the gym. Another seems to be its versatility: athleisure can be yoga-bunny cute (see Lululemon or the gruesomely-named Sweaty Betty), yummy-mummy cute (Stella McCartney, Tory Burch), completely alienating and thus chic (Balenciaga, Vetements and Yeezy) or intensely slutty and designed for Instagram exposure (Fashion Nova or – and, now I’m picturing it worn by Kim Kardashian, Yeezy too). It can be super-smooth and futuristic, à la Nike and Under Armour, or else cheap and functional, as at most high-street stores or in most supermarket clothing lines. Athleisure is convenient, but not apolitical. It is anonymous, seemingly democratic, and still ultimately most acceptable in a cashmere blend or futuristic, branded spandex. That a cashmere blend and something as severe and slick as wicking spandex are such diametric opposites is proof of the trend’s ubiquity: as an umbrella term, it is all things to – if not all, then many – (wo)men.

It is also – like Ms Tilbury’s idea that only ‘lazy women’, meaning women who do not wear make-up or good clothes, lack good looks – not a genderless development. Athleisure is more thorny, and far more significant, for female wearers. ‘For men, it seems to be mainly about wearing things like sweatshirts and running jackets and trainers. We often do this anyway,’ huffs Telegraph columnist and gallerist Alex Proud. ‘However, in the brave new world of athleisure, the real action is on the other side of the gender divide…Half the female population looks like they’ve just been to the gym and forgotten to change.’ ‘Ten years ago,’ Vogue echoes:

it would have been considered a bit rough [emphasis mine] to wear Reebok trainers, let alone a pair of trackies…[but] the tracksuit has been overhauled by catwalk powerhouses Chloé, Gucci and Bottega Veneta and is now very chic, and crucially appropriate.

There are, to mangle Don DeLillo in Cosmopolis, two spectres haunting the world of athleisure: the first is the spectre of capitalism, which is really the spectre of class; the second is the spectre of Juicy Couture and its haute-girly tracksuits. Sold in the mid-noughties by high-cost but ‘lowbrow’ LA boutiques such as Kitson, and then reinterpreted (read: aped) by cheap fast-fashion labels, Juicy’s two-piece suits were a baby-pink, confectionary-pretty semaphore whose sometime message was ‘I’m unemployed’. The softness of its velvety velour, as well as the fabric’s curious connotations of not only fashion clothing, but upholstery, exaggerated its domestic connotations. Before ath-leisure, this was a postmodern take on ladies-of-leisure.

Whether the wearer’s state of unemployment happened to be genuine – that of a person from a tougher socio-economic background, ergo someone for whom opportunities were scarce; or, grimly and unethically, one that was coolly, Marie Antoinettishly triumphant, from a socioeconomic background that had meant they did not need to work, and never had – the Juicy/imitation Juicy tracksuit covered ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ both: the one ‘have-not’ uniting them being not having anything resembling an office, service industry or retail job.

Paris Hilton, so indelible a symbol of inherited wealth she was photoshopped into a shirt that read ‘Stop Being Poor’ in one mid-noughties meme, helped pioneer the trend: dressed more or less the same as what we called in Britain, cruelly, ‘chavs’, and what Americans called, just as cruelly, ‘white trash’, Hilton signified her lackadaisical approach to schedule or to struggle. Here, her leisurewear as daywear said, is someone with a great deal of free time – but in a fun, unburdened way. Contrast this with Britney Spears’s ‘pimps and maids’-themed wedding, at which groomsmen wore velour suits reading ‘Pimps’, and bridesmaids ones emblazoned with – you guessed it – ‘Maids’. For Spears, a multimillionaire who grew up in a Louisiana trailer park, this was not a pat ‘ironic’ move, or meant to signal anything luxurious, or to make a joke at anyone’s expense – except, perhaps, her own. It was funny, and a little goofy, and I almost feel nostalgic for its honesty, its lack of trend-awareness or pretension; Spears, not Hilton, looks in retrospect like the realest deal.

Juicy tracksuits are of course now passé. What passes for athleisure these days is more typically a look like something predatory and self-sufficient: slick like sealskin, and as thick and grey and poreless as a Great White’s hide. Where ‘having it all’ circa Juicy Couture meant having the time and the money to fritter away both these rare resources, having it all circa athleisure means – as far as I can tell – having the opportunity to signal to the world at large how seriously you take your body, and – oh, poor brave would-be fitness model! – just how busy you must be at every minute of each hour: ‘busy’ being, now, a badge of honour. I am picturing Kendall Jenner in a pair of Lululemon leggings, black and second-skin, with a latte and a jacket by Givenchy or Gucci. I am thinking of the women I see in the chicer parts of London dressed as if in wetsuits beneath their camel wrapcoats. I am thinking, to be frank, of almost every paparazzi image I have ever seen of a Hadid.

The principle is similar to Juicy’s earlier model, but different. If a Juicy Couture tracksuit flaunted the privilege of doing nothing, sealskin athleisure insists free time is to be spent conscientiously looking after oneself. Working out is now a more aggressive undertaking and as Instagrammable a hobby as clean eating or antiquing. ‘Strong’, I’ve often read these past few years, ‘is the new skinny’ (although ‘strong’ is still to my eyes, in its best-loved form, extremely skinny, as few social media fitspo influencers are at all large; fewer still of those walking for Victoria’s Secret fall above a US size two). As with many trends that focus on the image of undoneness, or of looking ‘natural’, thin, rich, white, cisgendered women seem to gain most mercy when negotiating the slippery line between looking fashionably unkempt and like an outright mess.‘What may pass for sporty chic on a Victoria’s Secret model sipping a post-workout shake at Equinox,’ Vogue also sniffed in January 2016 – proving just how long the trend has been in play and how the more things change, the more they stay the same – ‘might not have quite the same charm on a professional who squeezed in a Spin class before a meeting…with little time for an outfit change.’ School-gate mothers rich enough to spend time on maintaining pre-motherhood bodies are more likely to enfold themselves in Lycra; mothers short of anything like spare time tend to either stick to looser, less-hip sweatpants or get ridiculed. Athleisure in its purest, most dynamic form has all its outlines drawn by the lines of the wearer’s body. It is no real friend to lumps, or bumps, or imperfections.

Try, but look as though you haven’t; and look effortlessly beautiful while doing so. Most women reading this directive will be unsurprised, and furthermore unmoved, especially the outlier group of which I am a consummate and lifelong member: the depressives (‘writer’ being, as most people know, one of this group’s primary subgenera). The writer, activist and feminist theorist Audre Lorde described self-care as being not ‘self-indulgence’ but ‘self-preservation’ and ‘an act of political warfare’. For some women, what might constitute self-preservation and an act of political warfare would be wearing clothing more akin to sleepwear or to ratty gymwear when the very act of putting on one’s ritzier, outdoors-ier and more public clothes feels like hard labour.

There is a curious crossover with athleisure here, too. Yes, the Sad Girl as meme proper is a glamorous invention à la Lana Del Rey – eyelashes, long nails, a lazy purr, a weakness for mean dudes etc – but the Sad Girl as a form of protest, as a theory coined by the artist Audrey Wollen, is not necessarily as chic or lovely. Often, she is simply and defiantly undone. Where Victoria’s Secret models in athleisure offer up each minute curve, each taut and perfectly defined limb, Sad Girls in sexless, shapeless garb maintain their agency through mystery: they obfuscate what otherwise might be objectified.

Wollen writes:

The sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance. [A] limited spectrum of activism excludes a whole history of girls who have used their sorrow and their self-destruction to disrupt systems of domination. Girls’ sadness…is a way of reclaiming agency over our bodies, identities, and lives.

Sometimes reclaiming agency over one’s body as a woman means the freedom to prioritise the mind over the outward, polished whole. Sometimes it means saying ‘hell’ and ‘Igiveup’ to polish. Talk to any downbeat freelancer on a deadline while depressed, and the list of what she’s wearing sounds athleisure-lite: a pair of greymarl sweatpants, an American Apparel hoodie, something stolen from a one-night stand.

‘I think it’s important to look very hard at anything that mass culture wants to stay invisible,’ Wollen added in an interview with Nylon. ‘Being a girl in this world is really hard, one of the hardest things there is, and…our sadness is actually a very appropriate and informed reaction.’ And how better to externalise that sadness – to make something that should be invisible into a thing that’s visible; to quit one of the hardest parts of ‘being a girl in this world’, along with all that being entails – than to reject a beauty standard, or refuse to expend effort on external and conformist hotness?

Vogue bemoans:

the standard cliché of the millennial freelancer: in perpetual pajama-party mode, schlepping around coffee shops with a Carhartt beanie masking her dirty mane…the seemingly inevitable sartorial slump that comes with having nobody to answer to but yourself.

But what if the beanie were a Balenciaga? What if the pyjamas were silk, rebranded as a ‘co-ord’ and ‘inspired by the louche loungewear of the 20s and Coco Chanel’, as per the magazine’s suggested guidelines? What athleisure represents, to me at least, is the freaky almost-closing of a feedback loop, hinged on how the person wearing it comports themselves, on how much they have spent on their attire, on their personal approach to motivation and on how they look, genetically or by design; what it means depends on who is looking, who is being looked at and who happens to be writing the next trend piece.

‘Athleisure, the high-performance sportswear originally designed for workouts but now worn everywhere, represents a populist, street-up phenomenon’, The New York Times reports with enviable optimism:

[It] got its start like this: women loved wearing comfortable and sleek leggings to the gym. Sweat-eliminating wicking fabrics allowed them to add layers before heading to brunch. And sometimes, they didn’t even work out at all.

While it’s faintly ludicrous to think that sweat-resistant Lycra could – applied correctly – fix society’s imbalances, the upside is that even flawed democracies can be a little better than the outright dictatorial vibe of more exclusionary trends. Several months ago, I must admit, I started yearning – privately – to buy a black velour two-piece as a kind of half-ironic, half-sincere salute to my stay-at-home lifestyle. It was out of character but also felt uncannily inevitable; truthfully, I never work out and I don’t buy into brunch but I do like the idea of a mindless, easy kind of comfort. Neither built like a Hadid nor paid as well as a Kardashian, it seems unlikely anyone will see my style and cry ‘athleisure’.