The fashion trend of “athleisure wear” — dressing like you’re going to the gym, only you’re not, and instead of wearing an old T-shirt, you’ve spent several hundred dollars on designer yoga pants and a mesh shirt with wicking panels — has been huge for more than a year now, and everyone seems pretty happy about their increased comfort levels and not having to wear skinny jeans anymore. One thing people aren’t happy about, though, is all the weird language required to convey the territory athleisure occupies, straddling the worlds of sport, high fashion, walking out to Starbucks, and maybe even going to work.
Last October when Beyoncé and Topshop launched a line of “athletic streetwear,” Kristin Tice Studeman of Style.com pointed out that “athletics” and “leisure” should be opposite pursuits, and said the portmanteau was “absurdly silly.” In a story about Tory Burch’s new “athleisurewear” collection this July, The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman, said, “I know, I know, I hate the word, too, but for want of a better one it seems to have become the fallback term of choice.” But athletic clothing has long had a beloved place in fashion, and we’ve often required new language to balance the two. “Athleisure wear” may actually be a quite accurate term to describe what’s been a long, affectionate coexistence — and one that’s sometimes been lacking in satisfactory language.
Certain energetic pursuits had dedicated clothing by the Middle Ages (gauntlets for falconry; boots, which were originally specific to riding-gear), said Rebecca Arnold, a fashion historian at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. But by the 16th and 17th centuries, both elite men and women would have had specific garments in which to hunt, ride, and later on, play organized sports (a definition of sports that didn’t really appear until the 18th century) like tennis and croquet. “Sports clothes evolved within elite, aristocratic circles and were made specifically for the individual,” Arnold noted.
In the second half of the 19th century, a revolt against the corset led to the introduction of more comfortable clothing for cycling and tennis — earlier sporting dresses had featured whalebone and high-buttoned collars — including “bloomers,” the yoga pants of the 1890s, originally named for Amelia Jenks Bloomer, an early suffragette who embraced the comfortable harem style. The Oxford English Dictionary cites, from 1895, the Westminster Gazette describing “female teachers who have been riding bicycles in male attire, commonly called bloomers.”
As sports — and more importantly, the sporting life, its grace, ease, and implications about your time to squander on leisure activities — became more fashionable in the 20th century, the division between words describing clothes for sports and clothes for casual wear continued to grow more permeable. The word “sportswear” first appears in the early 1900s to describe clothes for skiing, bathing, and boating. By the 1920s, haute couture designers like Claire McCardell and Coco Chanel, inspired by those relaxed, comfortable styles, began making dresses and ensembles for casual and daywear, often in knitted fabrics, which were then also called sportswear.
To avoid confusion, according to Arnold, sportswear picked up some new modifiers: “active” (to wear when actually taking part in a sport); “passive” or “spectator” (casual separates); and “town and country” (smarter and included travel wear). But sportswear continued to flicker between these meanings. Merriam-Webster’s definition for sportswear in the 1949 edition was specifically, “clothing suitable for wearing while engaged in various sports.” It didn’t add a second definition, “clothing suitable for recreation,” until the 1963 edition.
Today we have a new plethora of terms to describe sportswear in the sense of clothing that evokes sport without actually requiring you to participate: “sportswear” itself (now confusing because it also refers to Bill Blass-era 1980s daywear) or “activewear” (on the sporting end of sportswear), plus recent innovations like “sports luxe,” “gym-to-street,” “sports-inspired,” and, according to one fitness entrepreneur interviewed by the Wall Street Journal in May, “convertible dressing”: “Her go-to pieces [to layer over leggings and tank tops] are a long cardigan, a delicate necklace, and Isabel Marant booties.”
Many of the terms of modern athleisure wear embrace the basic conflict — athletic wear, worn at leisure — inherent in the expansion of the term “yoga pants” far into legging territory, regardless of any yogic intention on the wearer’s part. Others embrace another contradiction: clothes that are normally meant to be sweaty and utilitarian, but in this case are designed by Kanye West for Adidas (“luxury sneaker,” as referenced by Tory Burch in the Times to describe her pearl-encrusted version, for instance).
Athleisure, like it or hate it, works because it does both. It suggests, as sportswear did back in the 1920s, all the different ways sport might inspire comfortable and maybe even classy clothing. It’s also got an edge of elitism, implying that you’ve got the time and money for SoulCycle. All of this may be why athleisure is “going to sound increasingly less strange and remarkable,” predicts Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster, who adds the dictionary is strongly considering it as a candidate for entry. Like “sportswear” and even “bloomers” before it, it’s an awkward word for a comfortable relationship — and one that’s not going away.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.
Correction: In an earlier version of this column, Emily Brewster’s title was incorrect. She is an associate editor at Merriam-Webster.