Activewear, an often neglected and under-glorified arena of the fashion world, has carved a clever niche in the fashion market — high-end designers such as Yohji Yamamoto and Stella McCartney have lent their names to spandex cuts and flouncy hoods for the sake of 300 percent markups. Though the shrewdly draped tops and stitched pants have their appeal, I often wonder who pays top dollar for something they will sweat profusely in for about two hours maximum and end up (hopefully) washing right after?
On a lustful scroll through of one of my favorite online fashion browsers I found Burberry sport shorts for $250, Sonia Rykiel sequined trackpants for more than a $1000 (appropriately modeled with “sporty” stiletto heels) and Alexander Wang cotton hoodies for upwards of $200. Though I am usually quite tolerant of the idea that more money can buy one more quality, I still find something quite comforting and all together liberating about exercising in the free high school t-shirts that have managed to make the cut each time I repack my suitcase for Cornell — faded and tattered shirts with awkward cartoon mascots (mine was a jolly, chubby gator) that welcome sweat stains and a nonchalant attitude.
Working out in my New York City gym this past fall made me conscious of my athletic clothing choices as women and men alike wore color coordinated tops and bottoms to boast their perfectly sculpted limbs — even pregnant women wore skin tight tops that announced to the world that they had successfully preserved their size two waists while carrying a seven pound creature in their stomachs. Though not nearly reaching the height of 80s sportswear excess — with all the wonders of legwarmers, sweatbands and revealing unitards — many individuals still opted for the body conscious rather than unconscious. My own trainer, a perky, petite woman who wore questionably endless amounts of Lululemon activewear, had many amusing laughing fits as I arrived to the gym each morning looking like a high school athlete: rolled up Soffe shorts, white tube socks, a t-shirt with an embarrassing slogan or inside joke emblazoned on the front that usually earned double takes and an elastic sweatband that pulled back all my hair. This clear segregation between the stylish exercise fiends and myself pushed me to finally purchase a high-end sports top with the meager hopes that I would feel more stylish and graceful, but it has yet to make an appearance at the gym as I feel more guilt than pride for sweating in a spandex tank top that cost $80. At times, as I ran on that treadmill in Manhattan, I wanted to show people photographs of my “outside of gym” outfits; that I did blend in with the rest of the fashionistas of New York City; that I knew the difference between Balmain and Balenciaga; that I only wore Soffe shorts for exercise sessions.
But back in my gym in Ithaca, the scene has been reversed. As I haul my half-asleep body to my 9 a.m. “Strength + Tone” classes, my high school t-shirts that have “SENIOR” printed on them in bold caps ironically allude to the throng of senior citizens who exercise around me. Suddenly my urge to shell out more than $20 for a pair of lycra spandex has disappeared as I proudly sweat my way through my youthful cotton shirts. The women and men who surround me are of my parents’ generation and older; they wear tracksuits most likely purchased from a Macy’s Thanksgiving sale, white sneakers that do not reference a recognizable brand and gym bags that were a free giveaway at work. What’s even better is that a typical early morning class at this gym is a boost to my self-confidence for the day and also a relief. These gym rats do not have the perfectly sculpted bodies of my Manhattan spin classes, but instead an admirable humility where one can only laugh and joke through absurd exercises that are led by overly cheerful exercise instructors. And with only myself and the rest of the elderly ready to exercise in the wee morning hours, I parade the gym grounds like a proud rooster as my youthful anonymity beckons admiration from the older individuals in my classes and has somehow formed into a comical exchange: As I tolerantly opt for the harder versions of the workout, some tell me I remind them of their grandchildren and the cheekier ones tell me to wait until I am 65 and experience menopause.
At times, I often wondered why the incubator of Manhattan always required a fashion scene for every moment of life — even taking out the trash warranted a swift brush of the hair and perk of the eyelashes as I wondered if I would run into any eligible bachelors on the four stories down to the trash dump. Though I never committed to the haute activewear scene, fashion editorials periodically boast innovative sportswear spreads that are often figments of a most likely un-active editor’s imagination; girls in tight bodysuits who soar higher than the skyscrapers that provide their absurd backdrops are clad in military-esque stilettos (deemed sporty merely through the mesh detailing) and don perfectly slicked ponytails and polished lips while lifting hefty dumbbells. But criticism aside, I still admire these teetering model athletes with their will and determination to look good without breaking a sweat and realize that fashion, in the gym or not, relies on inner confidence more than physical strength and agility. And I decided that matching jumpsuit or not, I will leave it at that.
Original Author: Courtney Jiyun Song