How Comfortwear Came to Dominate the Planet [Trend Report]

"If raw denim is a double IPA, then stretch denim is a fucking shandy."

- Chris Chafin, writing for Men’s Journal

#casualisation #comfortwear #athleisure #uncorporation

To the discomfort of many, Chav-worthy comfortwear like stretchy jeans, yoga pants, onesies, giant hoodies, uggs and track suits are taking on the streets and are getting the iconic and ironic credibility they arguably deserve. According to journalist Marc Bain, ‘consumers are looking to options that are more comfortable, that fit better with their active lifestyles, that take advantage of the performance benefits offered by the latest synthetics.’ In practice, it means wearing an outfit that fits people’s daily activities: from going to school, to work, to the gym and to go shopping. So-called ‘athleisure’ fits this role quite nicely.

At first, the rise of athleisure might be seen as the next superficial fad in fashion. However, a number of authors have investigated the role of comfortwear, and thereby the role of athleisure in the light of societal developments that are way broader than fashion alone. What we wear does not only reflect what we like or what we find fashionable, but can also be related to changes in the way we work, spend spare time and view the world. In this article, we will look at the rise of athleisure and comfortwear, and relate them to changes in society.

Just do it

Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen, both strategy consultants, recount the story of an Adidas executive who, during a meeting, posed the question ‘Is yoga a sport?’. With Adidas being mainly known for its focus on top performance garments for professional sports and athletes, the question struck his colleagues and superiors as absurd. Of course, yoga wasn’t a sport. In fact, meditative stretching had nothing to do with the competitive and action-oriented world of sports. Sports was about outperforming your competition, not about outperforming yourself. Or was it?

In fact, Adidas was not the first to realize that it had to alter its orientation towards sports. In his fascinating case study on Nike, marketing scholar Douglas Holt gives an account how the sportswear giant came to realize that the next big thing was sportswear as a tool for realizing personal goals. Sportswear brands, including Adidas, Puma, Reebok and Nike, were all using the same formula to brand their shoes. As Holt recalls: ‘Companies signed up star athletes as endorsers, placed them in ads to show off their superhuman skills while wearing the product, and then claimed that the company’s branded gear made a significant contribution to these feats. Consumers would buy the branded gear, with the faint hope that it would improve their performance as well.’ When jogging, endurance training and - gradually - yoga, and other personal fitness sports took off, the sportswear brands had little motivation to look into this development, since the default way in which they saw and marketed their products gave them little incentive to closely investigate how sports participation was changing.

At the core of this change was individualism, or the idea that people themselves are responsible for their own well-being, and should work hard to reach goals set out by themselves independent of any community sense. Society was getting more individualistic, and so was sports. Adidas did end up producing yoga pants, and Nike drastically changed its approach to branding in order to ride the wave of societal change. The company became much more focussed on advertising with the message that their sportswear enabled people anywhere to surpass the goals they set out for themselves, in a competitive sense but especially in a self-competitive sense.

Blue jeans

The cases on Nike and Adidas illustrate how athletic wear became more widespread outside of the playing field and the stadium, but give no explanation on why people started to wear sportswear while engaged in other activities, and why athleisure became a thing in the end. This forces us to look at a different aspect of clothes in general. Jeans, arguably the most ubiquitous type of garment in the world, offers a starting point.

Anthropologist Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward studied the jeans-wearing habits of a group of North-Londoners, as to find out what made jeans-wearing so dominant in today’s culture. They estimate beforehand that more than fifty percent of the world’s population wear jeans on any given day, except for people living in China and South Asia. This percentage is quite extraordinary, given the fact that jeans represent just one style of lower-body wear out of many. We tend to think of jeans as making a statement: casual, young, and somewhat rebellious. But with fifty per cent of the world wearing jeans, does this image actually live up to reality? Not really. Are jeans for young people exclusively? Nope, and not anymore since a long time. Are they rebellious? Not if everyone and their grandma is wearing them.

Miller and Woordward found out that the main motivation people give for wearing jeans is not for stylistic reasons, but for the fact that they are associated with comfort. Jeans tend to become more stretchy and soft - in other words - more comfortable, but only after daily use. This process also makes jeans a very personal item to its wearers. At the same time, because jeans are such a common wardrobe choice, they make people fit in with the rest of the world, that is, a partially anonymous or silent crowd that represent ‘ordinary people’.

Journalist Marc Bain introduces the concept of casualisation to signify the move from formalwear, which tends to be uncomfortable and associated with social hierarchy, to casualwear, which tends to be comfortable and associated with social equality. However, this move from formal to casual is more that just a fashion trend. Casualisation also describes larger changes in society, for example, in how we deal with one another, or our views on social hierarchy.

According to Bain, casualisation underlies the acceptance of comfortwear during work hours, especially for the professional and creative classes. Let’s be clear here: professional attire such as the suit is still a garment reflecting authority and competence. But so are jeans and turtlenecks: both are now worn by executives around the world. This development might sound self-evident, but remember that before the turn of the century, it was highly unlikely to see anyone in jeans during business hours. According to Emma McClendon, author of Denim: Fashion’s frontier: “With the first dot-com explosion, you see the first wave of a more casual office dress code. It used to be that there was no way you could wear jeans unless you were talking about a casual Friday. I definitely do think it is right to say that jeans have crossed a threshold.” As Bain shows, it is estimated that by 2020 40% of America’s workforce will be freelancers working at home, feeling little need for professional attire.

In fact, jeans themselves might become the next viction of the ongoing move towards comfort and casualisation. This is not to say that jeans will disappear from the streets. Rather, they are at the risk of becoming uncool or too formal, catering to a market of unfashionable middle-aged men rather than the young and fancy. Jeans now compete more directly with sportswear companies such as Nike and Adidas, whose clothing lines now offer more comfort than traditional jeans. Jeans labels, such as Levi’s, Wrangler and others, have countered the athleisure trend by adding stretch to its jeans, thus making the ‘natural’ process of softening and fitting by use artificial. This is as much as a necessary change in their product line, as it is a surrender.

Chav revenge

To conclude: casualisation and individualisation have cleared the way for comfort and comfortwear. In other words, if bourgeois hierarchy is disappearing, then comfort can proliferate without social constraints. Also, business attire tends to be uncomfortable. With people rejecting uncomfortable clothes, and with people being more self-directed in their choice for sports and other personal goals, we see people increasingly becoming uncorporate. The corporation is no longer the authoritative nexus in people’s lives.

The trend towards athleisure is also represented in high fashion. Bain shows that in the nineties, high-end designer jeans became something of a watershed; a trend that has continued since. A brand such as G-Star RAW was found on the premise that it could offer authentic premium jeans with little to no additives. Recent fashion shows however, demonstrate that certain high-fashion labels developed an appetite for clothes and styles that, until recently, were seen as extremely low-class and tacky. Once again, such developments might at first seem superficial and only relevant for a select number of trend watchers. But if fashion designers themselves take serious athleisure as a source of inspiration and, if it is taken into consideration that these designers themselves form a kind of avant-garde, then their fashion shows might help to legitimize athleisure as something fashionable. Comfort and casualness become chique.