Nineteenth-century activist Amelia Bloomer, originator of the eponymous pants, once said of her invention, “The costume of women should be suited to her wants and necessities. It should conduce at once to her health, comfort, and usefulness; and, while it should not fail also to conduce to her personal adornment, it should make that end of secondary importance.” Though she could hardly have imagined the juggernaut that is jeggings, Bloomer's vision was prescient. Whether you call it “soft dressing,” as Gap has dubbed it, “athleisure,” or the “third wardrobe,” this new aesthetic of casual comfort suits those of us who like to live somewhere in between gray flannel suits and, well, flannel pajamas.
No wonder, then, that Beyoncé just announced a partnership with Topshop on a line of athletic streetwear and Nike is actively courting the curb-to-treadmill demographic. Net-a-Sporter, the high-end activewear arm of Net-a-Porter, and countless boutique treadmill-to-street lines, such as Process, Lucas Hugh, and Charli Cohen, are popping up everywhere. Mainstream ready-to-wear designers, including Theory, Cynthia Rowley, and Betsey Johnson, have all recently debuted activewear lines, and Alexander Wang's H&M line consists entirely of performancewear. At London Fashion Week, Jasper Conran presented a gym-inspired lineup of drawstring pieces and loose shapes, while a couple of days later in Milan, Fausto Puglisi debuted formal pool slides. And in Paris, Damir Doma focused on loose athleisure pieces, including mesh pinnylike vests to get your memories of soccer practice percolating.
At some point, a phenomenon like this stops becoming a remarked-upon trend and simply becomes status quo. Plus, with Chanel flip-flops and Dior sneakers parading down couture runways of late, to try to halt this athleisure avalanche would be like trying to cram an unwilling genie back into its bottle. Still, it seems that every new benchmark in American casual dressing is followed by an immediate outcry. Why doesn't anyone dress up anymore? Why are we schlumping it out at the airport? Why do our teens refuse to forswear their beloved leggings? Are sweatpants eroding the strong foundations of American marriages? Are people who wear pajamas in public the biggest threat to our cities? There are huffy op-eds testifying to all of these views.
Much of the criticism around casual dress is gendered: Mark Zuckerberg gets gentle joshing, at most, for his sartorial quirks, but could Marissa Mayer get away with a hoodie and shower shoes? (Though she got flak for posing on a lawn chair in Vogue, wearing a designer dress, too, so I guess women really can’t win.) And notice how often the “casual dressing at school” panic is inevitably centered around girls? There’s a reason that women dressing casually threatens the status quo—it’s subversive and the ultimate sign of not caring. It’s the quintessential “I’m going to dress for myself” statement. Just ask jorts aficionado Cathy Horyn. What women wear has always been up for debate, while what men wear is simply what men wear. As the Cut’s Kat Stoeffel pointed out, slamming middle-school girls for their “distracting” leggings says more about the authority figures than the girls themselves. And shaming women for not looking like what you deem to be “presentable” every minute of the day is the sartorial equivalent of telling a random woman on the street to smile.
Not to mention that with today’s array of “third wardrobe” options, being comfortable doesn’t automatically mean being an eyesore. Sweatsuits used to be awkwardly proportioned and Rocky-reminiscent. Now a pair of Alex Wang for H&M leggings and a Rag & Bone sweatshirt looks arguably chicer than a rumpled skirt suit from the dowdy officewear provider of your choice.
Still, whether you take the high-fashion path or the schlubbier route, dressing down feels focused on the wearer, not the person looking at her. Making the decision to be stylishly comfortable means you’re prioritizing your own needs over the preferences of the people who happen to think your spandex-clad lower half is the downfall of the free world. So feel free to embrace your inner Zuckerberg, haters be damned. After all, it’s a new era. Even Jenna Lyons doesn’t care what you wear to work.