Activewear, productivity culture and the death of personal style

photo of athletic wear
Caroline Lobel /Staff

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Let’s take a trip down memory lane to remember the 2016 “VSCO girl” aesthetic: She wore Lululemon, Birkenstocks and puka shell necklaces. That type of “girl” was likely to be trending on the Instagram explore page and defined an era of femininity that, while now mocked, encapsulated an entire identity of adolescent teenage girls. Just like all trends and fads, they wane overtime and evolve into something new (for example, more recently the “e-girl”), but they all remain to have one common theme of packing expression and identity into a box of what we should all strive to be.

Cut to recent years, more specifically, a time of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, where fashion and expression in the public eye were stifled (rightfully so) by generalized anxieties of the future. There was no need to put on an outfit when working from home, especially when a Zoom call only saw glitchy, pixelated images and general morale for even getting dressed was low. Convenience and comfort were one of few positive qualities that the general public could bask in during the chaos that surrounded them — Peloton and home workouts, Instacart and delivered groceries were increasingly popular forms of reliable comfort one could depend on. 

Slowly but surely, comfort and optimization to make the best out of the situation slipped into fashion. Brands such as Aviator Nation, the self-defined “1970’s inspired California lifestyle brand” styled the stay-at-home working Malibu mom who was happy to wear the stylish $156 sweatpants on her morning walk. Lululemon, the once monolith of leggings and yoga-chic, found their main audience divided into newer, trendier and more “millennial pink” activewear brands such as the Los Angeles’ based Outdoor Voices or the more inclusively sized and sustainable Girlfriend Collective. These brands were able to seamlessly capitalize on those who were looking for comfortable yet put-together enough clothing that could still provide reliability one depended on when nothing else was.

But as the pandemic begins to become a distant nightmare and steadying vaccination rates and reopenings launch us back to normalcy, these brands still remain and are even stronger than before. In the event of going back to the supermarket, school lectures and general life, who wouldn’t choose the trendy sweatpants over the tight and unfavorable skinny jeans? 

This question serves to highlight a bigger, more concerning problem, one that relies on the optimization of checking the ever-growing boxes off our to-do lists and making every day more productive than the next. Author Jia Tolentino hits the nail on the head in her essay, “Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman” writing, “This is how athleisure has carved out the space between exercise apparel and fashion: the former category optimizes your performance, the latter optimizes your appearance, and athleisure does both simultaneously.”

So, when the VSCO and e-girl fall, “That girl” triumphs. She wakes up at 6 a.m. and heads to her spin class before her nine-to-five touting a matching workout set from SetActive and prefers meal-prepping to eating out. And while there is nothing wrong with this lifestyle, it slowly dissipates a strive toward individualism in our wardrobe into a deafening boom of productivity and capitalist culture that sneakily slipped its way into expression. 

In short, productivity has stolen the choice of comfort and a healthy balanced lifestyle behind the mask of a trend. The choice of optimization dwindles when there isn’t another one that can provide the fullest living experience around long work weeks. To explain: it’s easier to conform to the identity of activewear when there is barely enough room to craft personalized style. 

Even so, there lies the ever so grueling and time-consuming challenge of crafting a wardrobe that is sustainable, representative of oneself and is inexpensive. In a way, personal style and identity have become a counterculture to a new monopoly of trends that depict the “ideal woman.” When there is less time in the week to explore one’s personal eccentricity and a push to depend on social media for the current trending lifestyle, the backbone of what makes fashion enjoyable disappears. 

Decentering productivity and “work” culture, or at least finding a balance between self-identity and the need to be productive are crucial in rediscovering eccentricity and individualism in the way we express ourselves in clothing. Fashion and crafting a wardrobe has concealed itself as a chore underneath easy, pre-made, and easily optimizable active and comfort wear. Yet, fashion has always been the easiest and quickest way to self-identify. 

First impressions are realistically consumed in the way one presents themselves; reveling in this reality rather than fearing it makes the option of the workout set and style being entirely dependent on productivity and capitalist work culture less than ideal. 

Kaitlin Clapinski covers fashion. Contact her [email protected].