What is “athleisure” anyhow, and why should I care?

Sign of the times.
Sign of the times.
Image: Getty Images/Joe Raedle
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Athleisure, in which stretchy workout clothes double as everyday wear, has grown into a major force driving the way people dress in the US, Western Europe, and beyond over the course of the past several years.

The market is now crowded with brands peddling it, stretching the bubble seemingly to the point of bursting. But despite periodic predictions that the athleisure trend has run its course, so far it hasn’t. While apparel sales in the US are largely down, yoga pants are one thing people are still buying, and at premium prices.

“The sports market is far from saturated,” Katie Smith, a senior analyst at retail technology company Edited, recently told Digiday. “In fact, it’s ideally positioned to win big thanks to fundamental shifts in consumer lifestyle.”

But even if gymwear-as-fashion were to fizzle, athleisure has already left its mark. The core qualities underlying it—comfort, informality, functionality, and plenty of synthetic materials—aren’t going anywhere, and in fact, have already been shaping clothes for several decades. What athleisure did was bring them all together. Now that consumers are comfortably ensconced in all this soft, stretchy clothing, they’re not going back anytime soon.

The pressure exerted by athleisure, which has been eating into the profits of regular clothes, has already reshaped other categories of clothing. As young people stock up on yoga pants and sweatpants, denim makers have been adding more and more stretch to their jeans. To match the performance qualities of gym gear, companies are developing dress shirts in high-tech performance fabrics. Sneakers have become so popular that they’re among the best sellers even at companies built on dress shoes and tailoring. Sweatpants costing $800 and up are now filling racks at luxury retailers.

“I think what’s interesting is, with all of this stretch, it’s just representative of this notion of comfort being the driving force in what consumers want and how they’re picking their clothing,” Emma McClendon, an assistant curator at the Museum at FIT and author of Denim: Fashion’s Frontier, said in an interview earlier this year.

But while athleisure brought these demands to the fore, it didn’t create them. ”Arguably we’ve been kind of in a trajectory towards comfort since the start of the 20th century,” McClendon explained. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, clothing was not something you wore to be comfortable. It demonstrated social status and decorum.

That started to change “with the arrival of sportswear as part of the everyday wardrobe,” according to Deirde Clemente, a historian and expert on the dressing down of US society. Sportswear was meant literally for sports (paywall) such as tennis and golf. These were leisure activities—athletic leisure—that required movement which clothes needed to accommodate. Stretchy knitwear and garments that were less restrictive, and also less formal, grew in popularity.

These clothes also broke from clothing’s defined day and evening roles, allowing Americans to live comfortably in them from dawn to dusk, and soon they began to blur markers of class distinction. “The casualization of dress is directly tied to the rise of the middle class as sort of the defining class of the United States,” Clemente says. “We envision our country as a democracy, and casual dress provided sort of a uniform for that democracy.”

Dress codes have continued to break down since. Jeans were once the uniform of rebellious youth, then became ubiquitous closet staples for people of all ages, then became acceptable as work pants. Today jeans are practically considered formalwear by kids.

Meanwhile, synthetic performance apparel has become commonplace, and fitness has taken on a new social meaning. All these threads joined together in athleisure, which many argue reflects a shift in lifestyle more than a passing trend.

Whether or not it remains fashionable on runways, the forces propelling athleisure show no signs of slowing. Whatever the item of clothing is, consumers now expect it to be more comfortable, casual, and functional than ever before.