In defence of activewear

Clare McCarthy explores the significance behind the popularisation of gym clothes

Activewear is actively popular now. That’s not an opinion, it’s a global trend. According to the financial services company, Morgan Stanley, sales in activewear are continually on the rise and are projected to rise by another $50 billion worldwide by 2020. In fact, activewear is becoming so popular it’s cutting into the market share of regular clothing.

The significance of activewear goes far beyond the size of the global industry. The trend reflects a societal and lifestyle shift towards health consciousness but also points to today’s relaxed clothing standards. Why wear jeans to a lecture when it’s acceptable and, more importantly, comfortable to wear gym leggings?

As the levels of physical activity in females rose in the late 20th century, so did their need for practical and functional sports clothing. The invention of the sports bra in 1977 would come to totally revolutionise sportswear and female participation in sport. Before the era of the sports bra was an unimaginable age where women had to face the discomfort of exercising without any support – both morally and in the chest area. When the first boobie trap was invented back in the late seventies, scientists were still arguing that women were not physiologically capable of running marathons.

No doubt the sports bra has had a knock-on effect on the sportswear clothing industry in general. Today, the sports bra alone is estimated to be a $7 billion industry worldwide. Happy 40th birthday to the sports bra!


The rise in popularity of activewear, however, is somewhat at odds with the high dropout rate of young girls in sport. Research commissioned by Lidl and the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA), found that by the age of thirteen, one in two young women drop out of sport. The data, collected in June 2017, while shocking, is actually in line with many of the worrying global trends about young women and sport.

When I was 13, I unknowingly went directly against my gender’s statistics and took up athletics. However, I was keenly aware that my peers were not into sport. I remember making a pact with myself that I could do athletics as long as I never wore athletics gear outside of training because I didn’t want anyone to think I was sporty. By today’s fashion standards, 13-year-old me’s pact is laughable – sports clothes have never been cooler. But statistically speaking, for some odd reason, gender perceptions of sport remain the same. Girls are three times more likely to drop out of sport than boys.

Perhaps this same shift in attitude towards activewear can be applied to encourage young girls to remain in sport, combating the alarming dropout rates. Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and cope better with peer pressure. Lidl’s research found that girls who play sport are four times more likely to feel body confident and 80% more likely to have a positive mental wellbeing than girls and women who do not. Exercise clothing becoming more desirable is an incredibly positive thing and just like the invention of the sports bra, can be seen as a breakthrough for women in sport. Now making sport itself more desirable is the next crucial step.

You are more likely to exercise just by wearing activewear

A viral video by three Australian comedians entitled “ACTIVEWEAR” hilariously parodied women sporting activewear, doing anything but sports. The women accurately mocked the global fashion trend of doing the groceries, going to the movies and being hungover in activewear but why would women not wear clothing that is functionable and now stylish?

While it is widely acknowledged that activewear is not always worn for the purpose of exercise, according to science, it doesn’t even matter. Apparently, simply wearing activewear can have an influence on your fitness. Through some combination of “psychological mindset” and a term coined “enclothed cognition,” statistically, you are more likely to be active just by wearing activewear.

I didn’t come up with this magic, a 2012 study by Adam and Galinsky on “the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes” produced results that show that “the influence of clothes thus depends on wearing them and their symbolic meaning”. Enclothed cognition means that the clothes you wear directly influence and affect the way you think and what you do. Wear a doctor’s coat and you will be more likely to pay attention, wear activewear and you will be more inclined towards physical exercise.

There is no reason to assume or accept that the 50% of young women who dropped out of sport at the age of 13 will never be active again. I can’t prove that activewear is the solution, but I can promise that it is very comfortable.