When I started college four years ago, my closet was full of awesome dresses, leather flats, and blazers. I wanted my look to be a Bacall-meets-Annie-Hall hybrid, complete with femininity and gumption.
After a few short weeks, though, I felt that slipping away. The modern college girl uniform of yoga pants, Nikes, and oversize T-shirts was cementing itself in my wardrobe. Suddenly, I found myself reaching for my brother’s old soccer sweatshirt a few times a week while my tailored skirts collected dust.
Athleisure—the trend of wearing pieces usually reserved for the gym as everyday clothes—is everywhere now. Last year, after avoiding the growing trend for many seasons, J.Crew caved and introduced a New Balance collaboration into its stores. Lululemon, a popular brand amongst coeds, sells workout leggings for upward of $100 per pair, yet the company continues to report impressive sales growth and the ability to raise prices despite competition. London-based Sweaty Betty only just opened its first brick-and-mortar stateside in 2013 but plans to continue adding eight to ten stores per year to meet U.S. demand. Nike announced last week that it will now sell directly through Amazon, marking a big milestone for both companies. Morgan Stanley predicts that athleisure sales will double by 2020, making it the fastest-growing market in apparel.
From moms to young professionals, the typical wardrobe has changed. But nowhere is this trend so popular and immortalized as on the college campus. I could blame it on the 8 a.m. classes and the essay-writing all-nighters, but the truth is that athletic wear dominates the college scene not purely because of laziness, as one might think, but because, like any trend, it’s part of the culture. Even I, someone who prided herself on personal style, found myself falling into the mindset that I thought I left behind in high school: Everyone’s doing it, so I should, too.
The clothes are easy to toss on and can—literally—double as pajamas. I barely had to think about what I was putting on. I had no concern over wrinkles or coordinating a look. Yoga pants and T-shirts don’t require much forethought. The challenges to mix patterns and textures were no longer applicable.
One day I looked in the mirror, and I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I remember looking out at a crowd of girls and seeing that we all looked the same: black leggings, hair in a messy bun, Starbucks coffee in hand. What had happened to me?
I felt a little ashamed. My style had always been an intentional reflection of my personality. What happened to my days of wearing custom-made pants from a 1920s pattern or silk wrap skirts made in India? As I looked at my wardrobe full of yoga pants and hoodies, I made the decision then and there to never wear them or any athletic wear items out in public again—unless I was actually going to work out. No more looking like a clone. No more dressing a certain way just because. I had fallen into my new unkempt look far too easily, and I was determined to come out of it just the same.
At first, it was hard to commit to a more intentional approach to dressing, and it required me to get up earlier in the morning or prepare my outfits ahead of time. As I adjusted to the change, though, I started rediscovering all the things I loved about my unique style. Statement flats; tailored, feminine menswear; gold accessories; sleek dresses—I was reclaiming my identity that had been momentarily lost in a sea of spandex.
My style journey made me realize the powerful connection between the external and internal. As I got dressed every day with intention, I felt more energized throughout the day. When I wore an outfit that didn’t include anything with the word “sweat” in it, I felt awake and alert for longer periods of time. I sat up straighter and was less likely to notice my eyes fluttering or head nodding during work and school hours. Most importantly, I began to feel more confident in my abilities to pursue a career. Fellow students and professors began to take me more seriously in the classroom. I was quite literally embodying who I wanted to be with my clothes, allowing me to confidently pursue my dreams. When I pictured myself achieving my career goals, I didn’t envision myself in leggings—I saw myself as a modern Lois Lane, in a sleek 1940s-inspired pencil dress and pumps.
While I don’t fault anyone for wearing athleisure, I would love to see us return to the art of getting dressed. Sure, athletic wear is comfy, but it has also become a cop-out. It takes the fun out of getting dressed and doesn’t allow for an exploration of how personal style can positively impact your life. As Deirdre Clemente, preeminent twentieth-century American culture historian and fashion scholar at UNLV, told the Washington Post, “On sort of the world stage, where American culture is so prominent, many countries emulate the way people in the United States dress, and that’s almost inevitably more casually than the way people dress in those places. The version of casual elsewhere, in Europe especially, it just never gets as down and dirty as the American version.” While the athleisure trend is supposedly here to stay, maybe it's time to reevaluate just how much we partake.
So don’t toss your sweatpants and comfy T-shirts just yet; keep them, but perhaps mix in pieces that will make you feel truly beautiful in a way poly-blend joggers and zip-ups usually don’t. Spend a little time getting dressed, and watch how much it changes your day. My personal journey away from everyday athletic wear has resulted in more freedom of self-expression. I am not beholden to the trendy norm; instead I am able to share who I am with others through the unique outfits I wear.
Photo Credit: Brooke Cagle