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The Un-Chic "Athleisure Creep"

Like many, I am embarrassingly attempting to reinvigorate my athletic career at the start of this new year. (Yes, four months in is still ‘The New Year’ for some of us.) Naturally, before trying my hand at any actual exercise, I went through my wardrobe and found all my workout clothes to be – safe. Plain, black and tight fitted – with as little detail as possible (as the details available for workout clothing are usually horrendous).

Admittedly these clothes are the same baker’s dozen I have been wearing since middle school.. Still, when looking for a refresh online, I found that little has changed in the last 5 years. You have two choices when it comes to workout wear: ugly neutral, or ugly neon. 

There are a few more shapes, a few more colours, and crucially of course — more size diversity — but still I find there is something missing. The return of the yoga pants has been  welcomed by me, a lover of flares, but it also follows, what I’ve come to consider, one of the greatest fashion tragedies of the 21st century; athleisure creep. The continuous ascension of exercise clothing, materials, silhouettes, brands and garments into everyday “non-exercise” fashion. 

This permeation of ath- and leisure has spawned in most corners of the fashion world. There are brands like Sporty and Rich, early signs of the ‘Quiet Luxury’ pollution, making 80s and 90s inspired, Princess Diana, Olympics, Tennis Court, athleisure wear. But these brands don’t make actual exercise clothing.

In an article for British Vogue, from this January; “11 Activewear Brands to Kickstart Your New Year’s Fitness Plan”, Arden Andrews and Joy Montgomery offer an assortment of minimalist stretchy workout pieces in black, cream and other neutral colours. Alo Yoga, Lululemon and Tala to name a few. Not bad, but it is much the same problem detailed in Savannah Bradley’s  essay, “Gauzy Problems”, critiquing modern underwear brands; “It’s the kind of satiny, bright, inoffensive brand identity that’s become increasingly prevalent even outside of underwear.” 

The immediate argument may be that it doesn’t matter what work-out clothing looks like; that it’s not its purpose. But we know that’s simply not true. All advertising for modern workout clothes emphasises looks. I, myself, keep getting ads for Fabletic leggings, that emphasise their “tummy-flattening”, “thigh-smoothing” and “bum-boosting” abilities. This argument will likely also implicate social media, “Why do we have to look good while working out? For social media?” But then why is work-out clothing of the past so much more interesting to look at?

Can’t exercise clothing be both flattering, inclusive and fun? Why do we all have to strip away our personalities when we don our gym apparel? It is, believe it or not, possible. Serena Williams is famous for sporting looks teeming with personality. A studded black Nike set. A buttery pink blazer (!) over a pink minidress. But notably the new “Serena Williams Collection'', fronted by Nike, is nowhere near aesthetically on par with the athlete’s actual wardrobe. Most of the collection is not even workout clothes, but, yes – the dreaded athleisure plague – fleece pullovers and a – trench coat?

Maybe I need to pack it in and accept that exercise clothing isn’t supposed to make us look a certain way. The purpose of the clothing is not necessarily visual. Still, if it must look a certain way can that way not be good? Like so many times in my life, I am looking to vintage clothing for the really good stuff.

Vintage workout clothing, sadly, doesn’t survive the same way daily and formal wear does. Probably because people don’t feel the need to keep hold of their sweaty gym rags. They’re not exactly considered heirlooms, on par with jewellery or fur coats. It’s also not lost on me that a lot of vintage workout styles have gone out of fashion for a reason. Also,retailers didn’t sell dedicated exercise wear for women until the 1940s. Most women, instead, wore their regular clothing, pyjamas, lingerie or swimwear. Now, the high heels have thankfully disappeared, and the itchy unbreathing materials have been replaced by more comfortable, tech-y inventions. My question is; why can’t we make these classic and fun vintage silhouettes in modern fabrics? 

Please? Pretty please? No more excuses! Here are the vintage looks I want to don.

Lynn Marshall – the Jane Fonda of yoga – ’s incredible monochrome tights and leotard combinations, from her 1976 picture book, Keep Up With Yoga

Colourful and patterned tights and leotard combinations. Yoga became a popular form of exercise in the 60s. Danksin, 1968. N/A, 1960s. Sears, 1977. Chatelaine, 1965.

Pleating, colour-blocked piping and a dropped waistline in a Lacoste advert from 1976. Some sports are just chicer than others. Tennis reigns supreme.

Primary colours and waist-emblems in Seventeen, 1992 from the Just Seventeen Tumblr Blog.

Collared leotards and bodysuits in Sears Catalogues. Winter 1973 and so-called “Exersuits” in 1978. Personally, in want of the baby blue collared leotard.


The best to ever do it, Serena Williams. The US Open 2004, the Australian Open 2005 & the US Open 2004.

Striped skirts and sailor buttoned shorts, Iowa girls playing 6-on-6 basketball in the 1950s. In the 50s 70% of girls in Iowa played 6-on-6 basketball, as it allowed them to participate in competitive sport.

Dancer Mrs. Tullah Hanley leads a Hollywood dance class, 1950s, from Vintage Dancer.

Authors Note

Special thanks to The Vintage Woman Magazine, Vintage Dancer and Christmas Muse Technical for their excellent research and incredible archival work.

Olivia Linnea Rogers is a Norwegian-British writer, fringe enthusiast, film watcher, and poet, if you're lucky. Based in London. She can obviously be found online, Instagram (@olivialinnearogers) and Twitter (@olivialinrogers).


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