Athleisure Wear Is the New Denim

I was recently thinking how the fashion industry is not really as inventive as the music industry. Sure there are regular new trends lasting approximately a decade in both, but fashion seems to be much more influenced by the past (sometimes even the recent past!) than music. Sometimes you’ll hear musical influences of other artists in music, but rarely do you hear ‘new’ music that harkens back to a previous era. Fashion is much more cyclical.

Having said that, fashion has been sliding along the comfort continuum for some time now; corsets moved to girdles and brassieres, and then to bras alone and now to sports bras without wires. Ok, sure, the shapewear market is alive and well, but no one would think to wear it on a daily basis. And frankly, I’m glad that I can support my girls without whalebone!


But this comfort shift has brought an accompanying casualization of style. No woman in the 1940’s, no make that even the 1960’s, would ever been seen out of her house without a hat and gloves, and certainly never in her pajamas. And yet I regularly see people in my neighborhood popping to the shop in their pajamas. But not nearly as often as I see athletic wear, or ‘athleisure wear’, for all occasions.

Originally designed to make for an easy transition from the gym to real life, the comfort and ease of athleisure wear has been adopted by huge swaths of the population for nearly every occasion. Deirdre Clemente, a professor of history at the University of Nevada who studies culture, describes athleisure as a "weird hybrid" of business casual and athletic wear, which has essentially created an entirely new category of clothing. Many of the clothes that people now consider work-appropriate incorporate sports-inspired materials, like spandex, Lycra, and other synthetic fibers. "People want less maintenance of their clothes," Clemente said. "Technology is such a pervasive part of our lives. To want it in our clothes is simply natural." (Business Insider 2/17)

Which is something I’ve been seeing in the pages of Vogue and the windows of Nordstrom for some time now. And it’s backed up by sales figures: It has been the lone star in a waning apparel industry, with an estimated market size of $44 billion in the US alone, according to research firm NPD Group. While the apparel sales, as a whole, increased 2% year-on-year in 2015, the rise in activewear sales was a whopping 16%. (Forbes 6/10/2016)

From left to right: Marine Serre dress in Vogue Jan 2018, Nordstrom window Feb 2017, No Ka 'Oi in Vogue Jan 2017, Versace dress in Vogue May 2017.

But what's more interesting to me as a fashion observer is how this trend has become ‘stylish’. Rihanna has an entire line for Puma done in collaboration with Fenty, the Italian fashion house famous for it’s fur. The Puma website describes the collection this way: "Beachy and badass, it’s a vibrant, unexpected mashup of high fashion, extreme sport and beachwear."

All images Fenty Puma by Rihanna.

But Rihanna doesn’t just throw on a pair of sweats, her athleisure wear is styled. She’s consciously chosen her look and is accessorizing her athleisure for high style impact.  As Vogue puts it, “But don’t go thinking she’s running around in drabby sweats and sneakers—the singer’s take on athletic dressing is anything but unpolished.”

Kendall Jenner in Vogue, Feb 2018

Kendall Jenner in Vogue, Feb 2018

Kendall Jenner too. In her role as a brand ambassador for Adidias she puts her own spin on the athletic clothing and takes it into a league that is definitely not athletic wear. Note the tights with white heels and what can only be described as a tracksuit.

But it’s not for everyone. While I’m in favor of clothes that are comfortable and practical, my personal style veers more towards ‘elegant’ than ‘street’. And athleisure is both more ‘street’ and more casual than I like for myself. But I have a funny feeling that I am going to find myself on the wrong side of history on this one – my ten year old daughter refuses to even wear jeans, stating that they’re ‘uncomfortable’. Should anyone be surprised that the athleisure wear trend has filtered down to the teen and tween market?  


What will be interesting is how this ‘trend’ shakes out as the new normal. Remember, there was a time when older folks didn’t wear denim, and it wasn’t all that long ago. Perhaps I’ll be spending my twilight years in athleisure wear, because let’s face it, comfort is pretty key when your mobility is compromised!