I've always viewed athleisure as a guilty pleasure. The term’s first usage dates back three decades (who knew?), but it’s truly become inescapable the past few years — and, as of 2016, it’s Merriam-Webster-official. Though I honestly love leggings and sports bras, I've only deemed them appropriate for actual workouts, lazy weekends, and, a bit sheepishly, traveling (what up, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). But athleisure is about wearing clothing once relegated strictly to the gym everywhere. And in the past few years, there's been evidence that more people are wearing more athleisure, more often: WSJ reported the market is estimated to increase by 50% — to a whopping $100 billion — by 2020. It's set itself up to be the most versatile clothing category — so I decided to put it to the test. What if I only wore workout apparel for 31 days straight?
At least I knew it wouldn't be hard to find. You’ll see spiffed-up gym clothes everywhere while shopping nowadays: Brands like Tory Burch, Cynthia Rowley, and Zara have created activewear collections recently. New retailers focused on high-end, hard-to-find workout brands, such as Bandier and Carbon38, have emerged. British brand Sweaty Betty has aggressive stateside growth plans for its luxe leggings (with prices that eclipse Lululemon’s), while Gap Inc. has been betting big on its workout brand, Athleta. Celebrities have gotten in on the action, too — Beyonce’s got Ivy Park; Kate Hudson is behind (the much more controversial) Fabletics. Every sportswear behemoth has dabbled in designer pair-ups, too, like Stella McCartney for Adidas, Riccardo Tisci’s collab with Nike, and Under Armour’s forthcoming pair-up with Tim Coppens. (And, though she’s not a designer, let’s not forget Rihanna’s hit Fenty line for Puma.)
As I started planning, I was struck by how pricey it can be to wear workout clothes constantly. Granted, it doesn’t have to be: Forever 21, Gap, and Target’s C9 Champion line carry affordable, stylish workout clothes. And I was generously lent or given numerous pieces for the purpose of this story, which I mixed in with items I already owned. But damn, athleisure gets expensive: The full tally of my month of athleisure threads comes to $3,451.04.
There were social challenges to this experiment, too. My month in athleisure included two birthday parties, one filled with fashion people I didn’t want to look like a complete schlub around; a Hamptons weekend with a friend’s family; a reunion with my boyfriend’s large extended clan; office team cocktails; plenty of work breakfasts, dinners, and drinks; and extensive apartment-hunting.
On day one, I had a “first day of school”-level wardrobe freakout. I had breakfast plans with a casual college friend I’d reconnected with professionally — read: not a total stranger — but I started panicking that I’d signed up for 31 days of looking like a straight-up slob. Luckily, it was a Friday; despite working at a creative company where crop tops and jorts are commonplace in the conference room, I wanted to look dressed for work, not a workout. But shit, I was late. So after tossing 83% of my entire closet on my bedroom floor, I ended up in a black V-neck; a sports bra that didn’t look too sports bra-ish; and patterned, mesh-inset, double-layered mushroom-hued shorts (an empirically ugly color that’s somehow very chic for workout gear). I threw on sandals I hadn’t worn in a few summers and hated the outfit as soon as I walked out the door.
I didn’t know what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Thus, my first rule: I could only wear shorts to work once a week, and only on Fridays. (In arbitrary observance of Casual Friday, meets a solo take on the Plastics’ dress code in Mean Girls.) I felt like a hot mess and vowed to try outfit planning: very uncharacteristic for me. Luckily, by day’s end, my discomfort dissipated with a few glasses of wine and an Italian feast with friends visiting from out of town, who were highly fascinated by this challenge. Pro tip: A wide, elasticized waistband makes gobbling up gnocchi and tagliatelle that much more enjoyable.
I didn’t exactly start plotting my looks immediately. I completely loafed my way through that first weekend in a haze of unremarkable workout clothes. I even wore leggings — and not just to, at, or from the gym. But I didn’t want to make that habitual; that’d be a cop-out. So I hatched rule two: I could only wear leggings instead of pants once weekly, only on weekends. When I did go the basic, "nursing a hangover in leggings with my BFFs in the sorority kitchen circa 2008” route, I was pretty selective, wearing Alala’s Captain leggings with swooping mesh cutouts: flattering, sleek, and lightweight enough for swampy temps.
But I wore leggings frequently for actual workouts; dresses, skorts, and looser shorts lack the mobility range and coverage I want while exercising. (I also have very sensitive skin, so I was careful with just how transitional my outfits were.) But bringing just a partial change of clothes for exercising — leggings, socks, sneakers — was a dream compared to what I typically schlep around for workouts. I like to believe I’ve gracefully mastered the frantic speed-change pre-exercise class: Simultaneously wrestling into a sports bra, squeezing on compression leggings, peeing, and re-packing a bag is an art form, right? In reality, it’s just sweaty and stressful; there was a private but palpable thrill of segueing more swiftly from work to workout.
I set aside a couple outfit options before my second work week kicked off. As I quickly discovered, nothing elicits an incredulous “Wait, that’s athleisure, too?!” like an Outdoor Voices court skort or Carbon38 private-label LBDs (both the sexier, strappy-backed Polymorph and boxy, V-necked Spectrum styles). Those three items proved to be the total workhorses of the month. A glossy, faux-leather-like pant from Cushnie et Ochs' Bandier collab also effectively duped people into thinking I was wearing real clothes.
I got invited to The Met’s annual Young Members party, complete with a dress code and a plus-one. I got increasingly anxious as the date neared. “Cocktail attire” likely meant current-season RTW from Bergdorf's to the swishy, benefit-circuit-in-training crowd, but for this writer, it meant a black jumpsuit from ADay — my first jumpsuit, ever — with a gilded belt, plus the palest-blue suede heels. Plenty of pinot grigio and a dearth of hor d’oeurves later, I tipsily forgot that I was in glorified workout clothes at a posh party.
A jumpsuit wasn't the only item I forced myself to try for the sake of the story. The crop top happened. I’d only worn the midriff-baring item exactly once in public, for a night out with friends, on vacation. I surprised myself by donning a crop top — not one, but two! — at work and beyond. I think I’d secretly wanted a reason to test-run a (very small) swath of exposed midriff in public. Another revelation: I have a lot of love for the skort. How did I not discover this sooner? It’s like built-in thigh-chafing guard. Brilliant. And today’s skort selection isn’t limited to ultra-short pleated white tennis numbers, thankfully.
I also went the entire month wearing strictly sports bras or wireless bras, as self-imposed rule number three. I’ve always kind of nerded out over a beautifully designed, sleek-feeling sports bra, so I loved that aspect of the, uh...research. There was my faithful Outdoor Voices Steeplechase style, plus new favorites from Beyond Yoga, Under Armour, C9 Champion, and Lively. I even went braless to the office for the first time, ever. I got away with it (I think). As a C-cup, it was seriously freeing not to feel underwire prodding or poking me.
A month in athleisure also made me see my body differently. I found myself wearing less clothing when running outdoors. I went to Spin class in just a bra and leggings. Fear of mid-workout catcalls is really fucked up, but it happens. Plus, I've found the obliques-flaunting, scarily chiseled women who tap it back in sports bras tend to be the most obnoxious people jostling me in the locker room. Why would I want to deal with — or become — any of that?
Well, here’s why it matters: I’ve lost a few dozen pounds gradually over the last few years, by obsessing less over food and finding no-BS joy in certain forms of exercise — bless you, dance cardio — and getting slightly toned in the process. That means I still run into PTSD moments over wearing shorts outside the gym or a super-fitted tank. Those are items that I never would’ve worn on my late-2010 to mid-2013 body. A month in athleisure ultimately made me feel comfortable wearing less clothing. Even though I could have done so at any weight, wearing more body-con clothes for a month was a salient reality check that my body (like most bodies) will continue to fluctuate, and it'll always be okay to wear anything.
I surprised myself by willingly choosing to wear shorts. A lot. Wearing more body-con stuff for longer than just a workout helped me appreciate the hard work I've done sweating it out. Sounds minor, but I spent a few summers, not that long ago, covering up my arms and wrestling on pants on the hottest of days, worried I was too fat to show more skin.
During the final week of athleisure, I lobbied to extend the story to two whole months, but my editor didn’t really see the point. Much to my surprise, I was anxious about the prospect of not wearing workout clothes constantly. After those rocky first few days, I was comfortable — hell, I was straight-up luxuriating — in an endless sea of stretch. It was like the (much trendier and lax) school dress code I never had. It was hard to wean myself off of athleisure; I took a full week to wear any denim.
Staying faithful to sweat-wicking garb for four weeks also took more discipline than expected. I broke the challenge exactly once: I carelessly pulled on a cape blazer from my desk when I was craving the transformative effect of clothing to make me feel more productive. I immediately felt guilty.
That slip-up aside, four weeks of Spandex may have slightly changed my closet, long-term. Despite my checkered history with shorts, I've been wearing them frequently. I’m sneakily swapping in sports bras for “real” bras as much as I can. And don’t get me started on the magnificence of the skort. My monthlong affair with athleisure proved that, yes, the category has enough breadth and polish (though it doesn’t come cheap) for me to feasibly wear it all the damn time. For all you know, I still am.