'A Basically Marxist Analysis of the Rise of Activewear' by Lauren Carroll Harris

aka the creation of an eighty-three billion dollar market out of thin air

Before approaching my desk today, I walked for half an hour along the coast where I live. On my walk, I saw nautical-striped stretch camisoles, floral sports bras, and quick-drying ballet crops. I saw gorgeous leopard-print midi pants and silky monochrome tanks matched perfectly with oversized sunglasses and enormous takeaway coffee cups. I saw lightweight silver jogging shorts, metallic snake-print bandeaus, seamless perforated micro-shorts, and draped jersey tees.

This is the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Out here, the look is tight, bronzed, and highlighted. Diversity is down to blondes and brunettes of the caucasian variety, and the dress code is activewear – the term now synonymous with sporty fashion. This is the ground zero of sports luxe: an eighty-three billion dollar industry targeted to women who want to look hot, comfy and athletic.

But here’s something true: fashion doesn’t make you fitter. So what, then, does activewear really do? It’s more than a fusion of sport and fashion culture, or even wellness and aesthetics. How exactly did gym clothes become sexy?

Activewear is a lesson in how to commodify, how to problematise, how to whip up something from nothing – and by something, I mean a multimillion-dollar mass market. It’s the story of late capitalism in miniature.

Let’s be clear. This is not about what to wear when exercising. There have always been gym clothes and workout gear. Exercise used to mean looking like shit – sweaty and disgusting and shiny-cheeked. But activewear is about looking like you’re working out while just doing regular leisure tasks: strolling, brunching, shopping. Working out might be about to happen, or have happened, but there’s no physical evidence of this beyond the get-up. Even this repetition of the word ‘activewear’ makes me feel like a bit of a schmuck. It’s made-up buzzspeak concocted by our evil genius marketing overlords, who have no doubt come to terms with the pragmatic dimensions of living under capitalism in a much more Om Shanti manner than I ever will.

I often think of the thing I wish I had invented ten years ago that would have made me a multimillionaire – the missed market waves I might have predicted had I developed a more entrepreneurial approach to life: selfie sticks, Flirtmoji (yes, they are sexy emoji, and they are wonderful), internet cooking videos, post– Pumpkin Patch upper-middle-class children’s fashion involving big silver polka dots and fluffy-rimmed boots, water with vitamins in it, fluoro doughnuts, unicorn hair, pimped-up milkshakes, vegan protein powders, flavoured kombucha, cold-brew coffee, 3D-printed cups housing succulents, orthopedically sensible timber clogs, bamboo sunglasses and iPhone cases, swimwear featuring a custom print of your pet, kimchi, sauerkraut and other pickled vegetable goods now essential to your gut health – and probably any other disposable item that is purchased by an urban tertiary-educated middle-class twenty-something still dependent on parental generosity. All these things were once only marginal capitalist ventures with pathetic profit margins: imagine the risk of starting a kombucha business in Australia in 2005. And before that, these tiny niche markets didn’t even exist.

Another gambit, obvious perhaps but worth stating: these new markets are totally unnecessary to our existence, and do not improve our lives in any way. None of it is essential, in terms of sustenance or even comfort. Cast your mind back a hundred years, and think of all the markets and sectors that did not exist: public relations, human resources, superfoods, children’s lunchbox items, social media, pregnancy fashion, entire branches of speculative finance. Think of the jobs birthed just in digital years: online content manager, visual merchandising manager, brand partnerships executive, digital product manager.

Similarly, activewear functions economically as a brand new market. As the business of fashion continued to find new ways to grow and thrive, sportswear broadened to activewear, and was evaluated by industry research in 2015 as a sector that could add eighty-three billion dollars in sales by 2020.

Within the luxurious viscose folds of that mega-industry lie dozens of micro-niches, powered by the middle classes. Activewear for the elderly is a new surge area, according to one Oregon State University researcher. There’s what my mum calls her “spiritual activewear” – gear for yogis in organic stretchy bamboo fabrics to match your mantra. Middle-aged mums are catered for by Country Road in tasteful, preppy, pastel tones. There is your classic gym bunny activewear – monotone, skintight, overtly branded and mesh-panelled. There is sex-bomb activewear – leopard print, red criss-crossed spaghetti bra straps peeking out from racerback singlets, black lace sleeves wrapping slim biceps. Hungry for consumer goods to prove status and style, the Chinese market is predicted by Morgan Stanley to achieve the most growth outside the US through to 2020. It’s no coincidence that China’s middle class has exploded exponentially at the same time as its activewear market.

But what underlies this specific phenomenon of how to raise new markets? The logic of capitalism is to go where no enterprise has gone before: the trajectory of endless growth necessitates expansion and invention of things previously not thought of as necessary or even able to be commodified. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,” theorised Karl Marx in 1848. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” The colonial expansions into California and Australia were cited by Friedrich Engels as examples of this very need to create new markets from scratch. But if Engels and Marx identified these market invasions, they couldn’t have imagined activewear.

Existing markets are forever reaching saturation point. Sure, there are always new lotions and masks and exfoliants for women, but the logic of capitalism always looks ahead: to the next serum, the next ‘need’ to be filled. Now, through your leggings, you can showcase your aesthetic discernment and upward social mobility.

The cultural logic defining this trend, particularly in the Australian and American markets and their expression of mature capitalism, is that all realms of contemporary life should be affected by aspiration and consumerism. Everything you do and every product you select says something about you. Your morning shower must be luxurious and involve an organic scrub. Your baby bump should look sexy. Your brows should be tapered to the season. Your coffee can’t be any old percolated brew; it must be a small skinny coconut milk turmeric latte served in a large cup, snapped for social media. This kind of social perfectionism means that everything you do is deemed demonstrative of your place in society. Activewear is a way of being and moving, of living, of bringing zen into the everyday, of being your best self, achieving your potential, and, in the words of Queensland University of Technology researchers, exhibiting “a regime of self-discipline” and displaying your status anxiety as a woman.

This is where gender and the politics of appearance come in.

Just a few years ago, Cotton On leggings and baggy T-shirts were acceptable options for the treadmill. That was long before fitness clothing was mainstreamed and the word ‘athleisure’ added to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary (“casual clothing designed to be worn for both exercising and for general use”). Sports apparel and equipment companies like Nike didn’t yet dominate the fashion market, of which sports was a smaller niche – remember athleisure-adjacent brands like Fila and Kappa, which are already retro? In hindsight, what Nike didn’t understand was that sneakers and diagonal forms didn’t have to be a jock thing. The athletics aesthetic went the other way, and hard, infiltrating mainstream women’s fashion: leggings could be marketed as sexy yet functional everyday wear.

Kanye West, always at the Zeitgeist of American ingenuity, was ahead of the sexy sports fashion curve. “We brought the leather jogging pant to Fendi six years ago and they said no. [Now] how many motherfuckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?” asked Mr West in September 2013. It’s a good question. Who exactly was the first to realise that hoodies could be developed by Chanel, fashioned from bespoke cotton, wrapped in tissue paper and tied in ribbon?

Workout gear has its origins in military and professional sporting contexts, and the story of twentieth-century fashion is in part about the very incorporation of sporty, American sleekness into ready-to-wear design. Many-pocketed vests, furedged parkas and plushed-up bomber jackets—all derived from various army uniforms—are staple inclusions in many activewear lines. But activewear is distinct from both military and sportswear, and divorces itself from the traditional vision of the female sporting athlete that the military and athletic sportswear trends developed. Instead, it’s a subset of the women’s consumer market, and a lifestyle choice rather than mere clothing or workout garb.

Much of today’s aesthetic is traceable to Jane Fonda and the infrastructure of female fitness she established in the seventies with Workout, a series of phenomenally designed and choregraphed home exercise videos that seized on Fonda’s celebrity. Fonda established her workout in 1979 as a fit, middle-aged beauty. With her career drifting after conservative backlash against her anti–Vietnam War activism, she instead played the role of global fitness instructor and female entrepreneur. Fonda talked about Workout in 2014 as an inherently feminist project:

Prior to my first workout tape, which was a VCR, there was no video industry, because it cost too much to buy the hardware to play it. My video came out, and suddenly people said, I wanna use that over and over and over, and it was worth their spending the money to get the hardware. So it really launched the video industry. Plus it really launched women being okay with muscles. Back then, if a woman went to a health club, there’d be a gym for men and nothing for women. We were not supposed to be strong and fit.

Her VHS was part of a much larger business plan, including a book and an LA studio where she taught the Workout plan herself. It was based on aerobics, calisthenics, and dance. Fonda credits it with healing her decades-long bulimia.

There is another way of interpreting the gender politics of Fonda’s workout. Gender and sexuality scholar Wendy Chapkis writes that Fonda was a known disciplinarian, and that her workout was not so much a salve against the pressures of beauty and thinness, as an expression of them. “In her attempt to maintain a perpetually thin and youthful beauty,” writes Chapkis, “Fonda was faced with the choice of starving to death (stay pretty, die young) or control (not showing the effects of eating, of aging). If bulimia was Jane Fonda’s secret vice, fitness is her public virtue. And yet the objective of both is remarkably similar – live but don’t change. Maintain an attractive appearance through the disciplined exercise of control over the body.”

Fonda’s aesthetic, within the Workout videos, embodies this bodily control and tamed femininity to a tee. Exquisitely art-directed and produced, the Workout videos start out functionally enough, featuring the kind of iconic workout gear you’d expect: block-coloured tights, high-cut leotards and yellow leg-warmers, designed to flatter the female body with zero per cent body fat. It’s true, the workouts could get you into shape, but only one shape, evidently. As the workouts progress, new looks are developed: the Lean Routine, a night-time, rooftop-set sequence, is full-tilt eighties, with lacy long-sleeves, denim cut-offs, chunky sneakers and cinched belts. Fonda’s Workout-era style was deeply embedded with the stereotypical vision of women’s sexiness, with seeing skinniness and wanting it for yourself. But it was linked to the actual practice of exercise, something that activewear has now left behind.

By the early 2000s, activewear’s cultural genesis had continued with none other than Jennifer Lopez, who in her pop days, famously spent a good deal of time outside the gym in velour tracksuits. Glorified gym clothes were front and centre in Jenny from the Block’s early-2000s ensembles, which remain among the most obvious and visible precedent to the myriad of activewear options available today. Whether dancing with Ja Rule or performing live, she could be seen in oversized sunglasses, gold hoop earrings and pink cropped fluffy tracksuits by Juicy Couture. Paris Hilton picked up the baton: terry towelling was replaced with velour and elevated by bling to the realm of fashion. The seed was planted. But still confined to gyms and MTV video clips, the notion of wearing a mesh tank-top while shopping, or running errands, or brunching, or drinking lattes, hadn’t quite gelled with the masses. Despite the prevalence of tracksuits and joggers in global hip-hop culture and R&B videos, streetwear hadn’t yet fused with fashion in the way that we understand it today.

Gwyneth Paltrow became a major player in the nascent market. Her 2012 collection of yoga-inspired gymwear involved quilted side-panels, one-shouldered tanks and a patented new fabric called Supplex. It was a clothing ‘anthology’ designed to be both functional and chic, curated by a rich, powerful woman whose lifestyle was the source of envy for millions. Pret-a-Reporter salivated over a legging with “a very long leg that can be tucked into boots and worn with high heels – or barefoot in your yoga class. [The] pieces are perfect for daywear, and even for nightwear – the one-shoulder top would be flawless with a black pencil skirt or a flared skirt in red or black.”

This promise of utility and flexibility spoke to a long-missed and oft-cited gap in the fashion world: that women’s clothes are notoriously impractical—and generally pocketless—when compared to men’s. While many designers and buyers had long taken that lack of functionality as a given, people like Paltrow saw it as an opportunity: a hole in the market existed for clothes that both functioned and felt good. After all, a friend of mine who is a new mother recently said to me, “It’s so comfortable. Before activewear, I wore my pyjamas.” For her, activewear accounts for the failures of fashion; it is pyjamas, made socially acceptable. So much so that retail analyst Robin Lewis has found that some non-sporting retail sales have curbed somewhat: evidently, jeans are being replaced by leggings.

This is an excerpt of a piece that appears in full in The Lifted Brow #38. You can get your copy here.

Dr Lauren Carroll Harris contributes to ABC Radio National, The Monthly online and, with her monthly ‘Stream Lover’ column, Guardian Australia. A contributing editor of Kill Your Darlings, she has a PhD in cinema from UNSW and is the author of Not at a Cinema Near You: Australia’s Film Distribution Problem (2013, Platform Papers).