Fashion isn’t just an extension of one own identities. Fashion is also a reflection of social contracts and constructs.
This is particularly true of women and our fashion, which tends to carry a lot more rules and regulations than our male counterpart.
You must hold things up, cinch things in, pull things back and strap things down, or run the risk of being inappropriate. Even if you don’t want to; even it means a lifetime of bruised bunions from those must-have heels, or not breathing from that waist trainer you have to wear. Even if it means enduring the blame from our assaults, just because our skirts weren’t the acceptable length.
As women, we must think about everyone else, before we can even dress ourselves. And any fashion choice we make, which might value our level of comfort and functionality over appearance and social contract of appropriateness, becomes a revolutionary act.
Oh, you think I’m making a feminist mountain out of paisley-print mole hill?
Well consider this piece from the Washington Post entitled “Yoga pants are comfy. They’re also an assault on manners and a nihilistic threat.”
Yes, you read that right. It isn’t Donald Trump and his Cabinet of Doom we should be worried about. Nor should we concern ourselves with the pesky little polar ice caps threatening to drown us and the polar bears. Nope, our existentialist demise is none other than women feeling comfortable and good about themselves while wearing another variation of pants.
Oh how the mighty (oversized jean) has fallen. Or as Kerry Folan, writer and teacher living in Washington, D.C-ish, tells it:
“I recently left New York, where I was a fashion editor for nearly a decade, to attend graduate school in the suburbs of D.C., where I grew up. I’m happy to be home in most ways, but there’s one suburban habit that I can’t get used to: yoga pants.
“Women in my neighborhood go about their entire day in yoga pants and running shoes. Moms with strollers, undergrads on campus, girlfriends meeting up for coffee dates or errands — I have even seen women dressed this way for cocktails.”
As Folan writes, at first she thought the faddish threat was detained to her suburban enclave. After all, none of her posh NYC friends would be caught dead outside of the gym in, gasp, gym clothes. But alas, she soon discovered the faux pas was spreading everywhere. From runways to retail shops to Christmas trees (according to the article, activewear is predicted to be one of the biggest sellers this holiday season), yoga pants and a transparently terrifying gang of leggings could be seen roaming the streets, grabbing women by the p-ssy.
No, I’m just kidding: that was actually our president-elect…
Anyway, Folan writes her final straw came when Nike chief executive Mark Parker declared, “leggings are the new denim.”
“As someone who cares about fashion, I vote for jeans over yoga pants (or Lycra unitards) any day, but my stance isn’t just about aesthetics. It’s about manners,” she continues.
“There is a photograph I love of my grandmother and her family at the 1948 Macy’s Day Parade in New York City. She’s dressed smartly for November weather in a black wool coat and a hazel circle skirt. With her red lipstick and hair set in waves, she looks comfortable but elegant. Her sons, holding balloons, are dressed casually but appropriately in navy pea coats and argyle sweaters. There’s a simplicity and a dignity to the image that speaks to the core values of my grandparents’ generation. Getting dressed wasn’t about vanity (or, rather, it wasn’t just about vanity); it was good manners.
“What we wear sends a message to the world. An Hermes handbag makes a statement about wealth and luxury. A pair of four-inch Louboutin heels makes a statement about sex and power. Yoga pants make a statement about comfort and modernity. When we board a flight or run to the grocery store swaddled in cotton-lycra, we are saying to the people around us that our own comfort is our first priority. We are expressing a new kind of modern vanity where dressing down, rather than dressing up, is the power move.”
I will say one thing: she is absolutely correct about the power move happening around yoga pants, leggings and other forms of athletic gear which have infiltrated mainstream fashion. Granted yoga pants are all on suburban moms. However, the trend of activewear likely has more urban roots, particularly among young Black and Brown teens.
As hip-hop rose to prominence in the late ’80s and 90s, so did a style of dress that was largely centered on activewear. As such, it wasn’t unusual to see women with intricate hairstyles, long nails and a face full of makeup also rocking more functional and comfortable attire like Nike sweat suits, Timberland boots, or even baggy jeans.
It was a look that was immortalized by Salt-N-Pepa’s leotard onesies, LL Cool J’s Around the Way Girl and Mary J Blige’s entire swag. And whereas much of the pop-80s still celebrated soft-lines, frilly skirts and Whitney Houston-sized wigs, this new kind of femininity seen mostly among urban youth rejected those social norms in favor of its own socio-economic distinctions. A distinction that honored young women whose everyday lives consisted of subway steps, cold winters and working class paychecks. A distinction that honored young women whose everyday lives offered scant opportunities to have mid-day wardrobe changes, let alone actual gym memberships.
The pioneers of the activewear trend were largely women who lived their lives on the fringes of society. They were covered yet comfortable; functional and still very fashionable.
Of course, that changed when Hip-Hop values changed…But even to this day, activewear, including sweat pants, leggings and sneakers are all pretty much staple items in even the most overdressed hip-hop diva’s closet. Many of the socio-economic reasons for the style’s popularity remain the same as well — more specifically the Great Recession of 2008, which ushered in an era of economic devastation not felt since the Great Depression.
Insiders would coin a term for our new flare: Recession Fashion. And at the same time that suburban moms in yoga pants were flocking to their nearest yoga studio to find their Zen during the harsh economic times, they were also swapping shoes at meetups, buying used accessories at thrift stores and DIY-ing outfits thanks in part to videos on YouTube.
Also coming into vogue during the era, was Normcore, messy hair and of course, sweat pants. And as Time Magazine writer Lee Sheppard noted in a piece from 2014 about the fashion era, “it has finally sunk in that the problems following the financial meltdown in 2008 are permanent. Fashion designers have caught the zeitgeist.”
Although we are firmly into a recovery, the impact of the Great Recession can still be felt to this day. People now work differently –many no longer full-time employees but rather part-timers and independent contractors. We are also more cautious and frugal. We buy less houses, cars and diamond rings and save more.
And some of our cultural values have changed too. Like how we prefer our brunches with friends over getting married.
Ironically, Folan concludes her essay by discussing the time she wore yoga pants and sneakers to go tutor a student, a first-generation immigrant from China, in English. As Folan tells it, to be dressed so comfortable in his presence, was a display of elitism, especially since her student “works even harder than his classmates to complete his assignments.” She also adds:
“Part of the reason I love the way New Yorkers dress is that I see it as a metaphor for everything else I loved about the city — the work ethic, the energy, the specific kind of community that comes from collective ambition. Maybe it’s precisely because I love those elements of city life that I am wary of the seductive promise of suburban comfort: Why walk when I can drive? Why go shopping when I can order online? Why go out at all when I can lie on my giant couch and watch my giant TV? Why even get dressed today?
“Without the external energy of the city urging me on every day, will I find my own internal reasons to keep working harder than I strictly have to? Or will I soften, get lazy?”
I don’t know about those things, but yoga pants might make her more relatable.
To wear yoga pants is not a sign that folks have given up, but rather a sign that folks are ready to shed a social contract that no longer reflects their socio-economic realities. The old contract, which requires her ESOL student to have to work that much harder without half the comfort. The old contract that helped facilitate the type of culture of luxury, vanity and greed, that spurred the economic collapse in the first place.
It’s no surprise that the popularity of athletic wear in women’s fashion also coincides with the rise of Occupy Wall Street, followed by Black Lives Matter, followed by Bernie Sanders and even Donald Trump. People weren’t just looking for change; they were also looking for a chance to feel comfortable again too.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding our new administration, it is hard to say if mainstream America will ever feel safe again.
But at least we all can be comforted in our yoga pants and leggings.
Charing Ball is a writer, cultural critic and smarty-pants Black feminist from Philadelphia. To learn more, visit NineteenSeventy-Seven.com.