Respect Me: The Rise of Athleisure And What It Says About Society

By Justin Phillips

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Photo by Justin Phillips

In an industry that is experiencing a decrease in sales, athleisure is a shining star. NPD research firm found that there was a two percent increase in apparel sales in 2015; however, this is only due to a 16 percent increase in activewear sales. If that category was excluded, there would’ve been a two percent decrease in total clothing sales.

Last Saturday, there were many teenagers at the Eastern Hancock High School to take the SAT. While there was a wide range of diversity in their backgrounds, personalities and expressions, many of them had one thing in common: their clothes. Hoodies, sweatpants, joggers, running shoes, basketball shoes, leggings, and sweatshirts were all a large part of the wardrobe for the students at the school. This is athleisure; wearing clothes that were originally designed for some form of exercise but instead wear them virtually everywhere. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines athleisure as “casual clothing designed to be worn both for exercising and for general use.”

Athleisure is increasing in popularity; in 2017 athleisure sales climbed in the U.S two percent to $48 billion, which is 22 percent of all industry sales. Interestingly, the biggest consumers of athleisure are millennials (while there is no official definition of who millennials are, researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss defined millennials as people born between 1982 and 2002), specifically millennial women. According to Hitwise, a service that measures behavior across desktop, tablet, and smartphones, 60 percent of the millennial activewear audience is female. Teenagers are in on athleisure too; at any public place (Walmart, a mall, a school, a park etc.), it’s quite evident that the majority of people who wear athleisure are millennials and teenagers. There is no doubt that activewear is popular, but why? What makes athletic clothing so enticing to so many people, especially to millennials and teenagers?

There are many possibilities on why athleisure is so popular, the most obvious being comfort. Avery Mozingo is a normal 18-year old. On a normal Sunday he was wearing a pair of black joggers and an Indiana University hoodie. “It’s comfortable,” Mozingo said, explaining why he likes to wear athletic clothing. “That’s probably the biggest thing.” Due to the nature of the materials most activewear is made from, joggers and sweatpants are more comfortable than jeans and dry-fit, athletic t-shirts are more comfortable than a regular cotton shirt. In addition to comfort, durability is a factor as well. Again, because of what activewear is made from, it doesn’t wrinkle as easily compared to cotton, it doesn’t shrink when washed, and due to the elasticity, it will hold its shape even when stretched. Activewear was originally designed to make people more comfortable while being active and to enhance performance; now it is increasingly worn for comfort on a daily basis as well.


People can now go straight from yoga class to the store without feeling underdressed. Anyone headed to the mall right after a workout doesn’t need to feel like they’re being judged.


Practicality is a huge reason why activewear is so popular. People can now go straight from yoga class to the store without feeling underdressed. Anyone headed to the mall right after a workout doesn’t need to feel like they’re being judged. Shoes designed and marketed as running shoes can be worn with shorts on a Saturday or with jeans to the office on a Tuesday. However, there are occasions where wearing athletic clothing is still considered inappropriate, particularly in the workplace.

“It depends on what role you have in the office and what image you’re trying to portray,” says Kris Kimmerling who works in human resources at Jennerjahn. “Even if it’s a nice t-shirt, a t-shirt’s going to have a different image than a button down shirt or a polo.”

Since it was a Friday, most people in the office cubicles at Jennerjahn were wearing casual clothes. However, casual meant and tennis shoes and most were wearing a button up shirt. Kimmerling himself was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and a button up, long-sleeve plaid shirt. Normally the lady working at the front desk wears khakis and a blouse or something similar. That Friday, she was wearing jeans, tennis shoes, and a grey, heathered, lightweight athletic style hoodie. “I think if you want to have the most respect of the people that you’re working with,” said Kimmerling, “the nicer the outfit you wear, the more response you’re going to get.” Even though athleisure is increasing dramatically and is becoming more and more acceptable in society, wearing it to work seems to still be off limits. As more Millennails enter office type environments and managerial roles, athleisure may become more appropriate in offices across the nation.

Even celebrities have been affected by the popularity of athleisure. Beyonce has her own athleisure line Ivy Park and was co-founded by British fashion retailer Topshop. Pop and hip-hop singer Rihanna became Creative Director of womenswear line for athletic and casual apparel company Puma. In addition to being a Creative Director, she has collaborated with Puma to create her own line of fashion named “Fenty Puma by Rihanna.” Pop singer Pharrell Williams partnered with Adidas to produce shoes, jackets, and shirts. Even Gal Gadot, who stars in last year’s blockbuster movie Wonder Woman, just announced that she has partnered with Reebok.

Sports is an enormous part of every culture around the world, and people idolize the players for their amazing bodies and what they can do physically. Fans want to wear their jerseys and wear their shoes. The easiest example of this is basketball shoes, because basketball shoes can be worn on any casual occasion. Specifically, Nike Air Jordans are still popular, even though Michael Jordan retired 15 years ago. Matt Powell, an industry analyst from the NPD Group released a list of the top 10 best-selling sneakers of 2017, eight of which are sold by Nike, four of which are Air Jordans. In addition to Michael Jordan, Nike has deals with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kobe Bryant. Under Armour partnered with Steph Curry and Adidas with James Harden.

It’s popular, it’s comfortable, and it’s cool, but could this relaxed style have deeper implications? “I know this is a broad scope generalization, right? I think we’re [as a society] becoming…uh…maybe a little bit lazy,” said Kimmerling in regards to why he thought athleisure is so popular. “Maybe more relaxed or just a lack of concern of respect for anything.” He may have a point.

People are getting married later and later in life or not at all, as shown by the U.S. Census Bureau; they say that since 1970, the median age for women to get married increased by 4.3 years to 25.1 years; for men the increase was 3.6 years to 26.8 years. In addition, as of 2016, 15% of 25 to 35-year old Millennials were living in their parents’ home, according to the Pew Research Center. This is up 5 percent from when Generation Xers lived in their parents’ house and almost double from when the Silent Generation lived at home in 1964. The reasons behind these facts and speculations are for another day, but if what Kimmerling believes is true and that people, specifically Millennials, are becoming more complacent and lazy, then that might reflect in the clothes that they wear.

This might also explain the decline of non-athletic clothing sales. Picking out a pair of sweat pants and a hoodie is a lot easier than choosing a pair of jeans that fit and a shirt that looks right and fits correctly. Because of that, people might be more likely to pick what is easy than what looks nicer and classier. Whether a culture that is lazy and lacking in respect is a reason for both the increase in athleisure and the decline of other apparel or not, it’s an interesting possibility to think about nonetheless.

These possibilities of why athleisure is increasing in popularity are just that: possibilities. They may or may not be factors in this growing industry. Joggers, cool shoes, nice hoodies and athletic t-shirts are all great. They’re comfortable, they’re practical, they’re easy, and, if done right, they can look nice. However, there is no denying the fact that wearing activewear doesn’t look as professional or mature compared to wearing jeans, cargo shorts, a skirt, a nice blouse or t-shirt and some classy shoes. Like it or not, people make instant judgments about other people based off of what they wear, even if they don’t say a word to each other. Respect means a lot in today’s world and the more time someone puts into their outfit to look nice, the more respect they’re likely to receive. Despite all of that, Morgan Stanley predicted growth of athleisure to $83 billion in the U.S. and over $350 billion worldwide by 2020. People love athleisure for one reason or another, and it seems likely that won’t change anytime soon.

 

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