A few weeks ago, Beyoncé launched a new apparel line in partnership with Topshop to much fanfare. But her new collection won’t do much for admirers hoping to create themselves in her own honey-haired, sparkly bodysuited pop-glam image. Hers is a brand of activewear – sports bras, drawstring shorts, and gray hoodies – modelled by the queen B herself in half-sweaty, half-dewy-glow glory.
At worst, the mere mention of sweats might still evoke images of beer bellies, sweat stains, and empty pizza boxes dimly illuminated by a flashing old TV. Sweatpants, as Seinfeld put it, was a way of telling the world that you’ve given up: “I can’t compete in normal society. I’m so miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.”
But if Beyoncé’s choice of product is unexpected, consider her in good company – she joins an already crowded marketplace for sportswear mainly geared towards women. As specialist sportswear brands (Lululemon, Sweaty Betty) continue to thrive, big apparel brands have launched their spinoffs (Net-a-Sporter, Athleta by Gap, Tory Burch to name a few) – other celebrities (Kate Hudson’s controversial Fabletics, models Coco Rocha and Behati Prinsloo) are diving in too. Independent labels round off the competition with their offerings for general ‘recreation’ (Canadian brand Kit and Ace, New York-based Outdoor Voices).
This retail phenomenon, recently officially christened “athleisure” in Merriam-Webster, refers to “casual clothing – yoga pants, sweat pants, and hoodies – that are worn both for exercising and for doing (almost) everything else.” As the ‘casual’ spaces to which sportswear was formerly relegated – the home, the gym – have become social breeding grounds for ‘sharable’ moments, so too has athletic wear adapted to the see-and-be-seen public-ness of the quotidian. Beyond eliciting laments about increasingly lax standards for self-presentation, sportswear (and athleisure) reveals bold cultural shifts in how modern leisure, recreation, and everyday-ness are now being defined…
The clothes offer clues. Athleisure often adheres to a monochromatic palette (with muted variations): black, grey, white. Despite diverse silhouettes, the lines are kept consistently clean: either conforming to the gentle curve of a woman’s torso or creating the neat, structured volume of a Zaha Hadid invention. But this paring-down isn’t exactly about low-profile relaxation. The non-descript yet polished simplicity allows for maximum versatility – a pair of dark leggings, for instance, can be adapted to a variety of ‘looks’ across home, work, and any environment in between (leisurely third spaces: cafés, restaurants, parks). In turn, the harried cosmopolitan city-dweller can tackle his/her long and fragmented to-do lists (early yoga practice, school run, queuing at the bank, lunch with a friend) without compromising a veneer of ease and effortlessness.
There’s also the robust quality. Brands boast about the amount of thought, sweat, and tears poured into the conception of their pieces; emphasis on strong materials and fabrics, expert craftsmanship, and pragmatic design contribute a sense of polished premiumness to the equation. The meticulous attention shown to be devoted to each piece potentially reflects the considered precision and tireless work ethic of the on-the-move, achievement-orientated wearer who can’t and won’t slow down to adjust poor fit or fix a faulty zip.
Tech plays a role too. Brands tout new developments in ‘smart’ materials that will keep you optimally comfortable, or refreshed, or warm, or cool. The language of tech floods blurbs introducing stretch crepe, technical cashmere, and AIRism to hungry consumers – each a new ‘innovation’ that lends a sleeker, more scientific edge to robust craftsmanship. As a result, the clothing represents elevated competence: not only can it keep us warm and express our sensibilities toward style, it also is an optimally advanced tool that allows us to navigate (and move with confidence and momentum through) multiple spaces, roles, identities with maximum efficacy. Athleisure is the equipment of modern survival – as essential to our functionality as our personal gadgets are in the midst of the urban jungle.
In a worldview where life is about ‘getting things done’ and busy-ness can approach unhealthy obsession, the gym isn’t the only place for athletic performance. The ‘aspirational’ cosmopolitan life, full of (often-welcome) challenges and pressures, demands the world of us – our leisure time is no longer about lying back, but leaning in. And athleisure is the uniform that offers the mobility, fluidity, and efficiency we need to do so – to explore and push the boundaries of what we’re capable of achieving in sport and in life. Far from representing a sloppy surrender to life, sweatpants have become an unlikely hero – one that symbolises an unstoppably vigorous engagement with life worthy of Beyoncé-level ambition and acumen.