Athleisure in NY

At the end of February, Documenting Fashion’s MA class took a study trip to New York. Homecoming for some and the first time in America for others, these few days were outstanding, and we are excited to share our highlights with you. 

I have been living in London since September, but I am from Canada. So when our class travelled to New York for our study trip last week, for me, it was sort of like going home. I was excited to once again see familiar stores and restaurant chains, as they are part of my native landscape of home comforts. However, now that I think back on our trip, it turns out, surprisingly, that it wasn’t these North American landmarks that made me feel right at home: it was how people dressed. (Maybe not that surprising, come to think of it, for a student of fashion history.) Seeing the way people in New York dress – head-to-toe black athleisure – meant I was back!

 For those of you who are not familiar with the term, athleisure is a style of dress characterised by body-con, athletic-inspired clothing. It became increasingly popular beginning around 2000 as advancements in athletic-wear fabrics stimulated the creation of new light-weight, flexible, high performance and fashion-forward sports garments. Brands like Lululemon are credited for having sparked the trend that has been considered the most important fashion trend of the twentieth century. According to Forbes, the American athleisure industry is worth $44 billion.[1]

All images taken from the official Instagram account of Michi New York (a women’s athletic wear brand)

The question that begs to be asked is: is athleisure really is just a trend? Did the American appeal for versatility and practicality really spawn from athletic-wear brands that launched in the late 90s?

The visits we made to the Parsons, Fashion Institute of Technology and Brooklyn Museum archives would lead me to argue that, in fact, a preference for practical clothing attests to a distinctive American pragmatic attitude to dress that goes back to the first half of the twentieth century. We got to see sketches from various American designers, and it was interesting to see that underpinning their aesthetic were definite links to this established American taste for understated practical clothing. In fact, during the 1930s, Claire McCardell – one of the most influential American designers of the time – was already designing functional sportswear for women.

When I moved to London, it hit me that my ‘go-to’ North American uniform of Lululemon leggings and hoodies, which at home made me blend in with every other college student on my campus, actually made me look extremely underdressed and out of place on the chic streets of London. I was on an entirely different register from the sophisticated, tailored, colourful London look.

Therefore, interestingly, New York made me realize that while personal style may be specific to each person, it is definitely influenced to a certain extent by the surrounding fashion culture.

References: Wilson, Chip. ‘Why the Word “Athleisure” is Completely Misunderstood.” Forbes. April 18, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/chipwilson/2018/04/18/why-the-word-athleisure-is-completely-misunderstood/#1c5aa6564697.

Lycra, Linen, and Liberation

Advertisement for De De Johnson sportswear, 1930s

As a retail worker for a popular sportswear company this past summer, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between American sportswear styles of the 1930s and those today. The often competing factors of fashion and function to fulfill both the needs of the active woman and the demands of performative social femininity are constantly engaged in an evolving dialogue, but both the 1930s and 2010s made strides by prioritizing the former at the price of appeasing the latter. Through the simultaneous exposure to contemporary and 1930s sportswear, I found an undeniable kinship between the activewear movement of the 1930s and the colloquialization of American sportswear on a mass scale in 2017.

American sportswear style has developed significantly since the 1930s — shifting from pleated linen skirts and tanks (not to mention the still taboo women’s trousers!) to lycra based yoga pants and sweat-wicking tops with built-in bras — yet the purpose and function of activewear wear remain constant. The construction of these garments valued functionality over femininity, glorifying the female body for its physical potential rather than its erotic or domestic value, thus rejecting expectations of female domesticity.

The 1930s proved pivotal for women’s sportswear fashion, and set a precedent for prioritizing a woman’s physical comfort and range of movement over restrictive garments based on constructs of femininity. Innovations of the decade introduced shortened hemlines and breathable fabrics. The broader impact of these styles were made apparent in the following decade as similar silhouettes and fabrics seeped into women’s everyday apparel beyond simply exercise clothes. In this respect, activewear can be regarded as a tool of liberation.

This 1930s movement parallels the 21st century popularization of yoga pants and lycra clothing in America. These stretchy fabrics and casual styles were initially only acceptable in the context of exercise and sport. Through sheer popularity among women (by giving them a feeling of physical liberation), these styles began to seep into everyday society and became socially admissible beyond their initial practical purpose. In America today, yoga pants and lycra tops are widely considered to be an acceptable form of every day dress.

Activewear is at the forefront of pressuring fashion to prioritize functionality and women’s comfort over oppressively restrictive apparel. In America, the 1930s opened a door to conventionalizing activewear in every day life— a precedent still utilized and appreciated by contemporary women in 2017.

By Arielle Murphy