Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Against Athleisure

On the trend toward colorlessness and conformity in America.

Perhaps it is apocryphal, but I remember hearing about the Taliban getting in a massive grump with Afghan women for wearing flip-flops. It was something to do with the resultant sound of rhythmic footfall forcing its way into otherwise religiously focused male minds where it conjured images of naked feet that then, presumably, risked leading on to other inconvenient and unchaste thoughts. No more flip-flops.

Unfortunately, I find myself having similar reactions to the mushrooming athletic-wear-industrial complex dominating female fashion in the United States. Everywhere you look, women of all ages are wearing blandly colored (usually black) identikit leggings. It didn’t help that this spandex fashion trend was accompanied by mask-wearing. Without a normal face to ponder, the male gaze was invariably (deliberately?) drawn, as if by tractor beam, to that area which leggings are brilliantly designed to emphasize. Every time a man found it impossible not to look, it confirmed, like the Taliban tortured by louche flip-flops, that we are slaves to our baser impulses.    

But it’s not a mirror held up to my biological and base weaknesses that really disturbs. After being exposed to all those security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is unsettling now to see the same security-chic fashion choices increasingly permeate the civilian realm. It isn’t just the ladies. Men’s fashion is going in a similarly bland militaristic-functionalist direction. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have passed a couple, her in drab leggings, him wearing clothes of a somber palette, the two of them offering a dun-tinged range of grays, greens, and browns.

I suspect this may also be influenced by the tech-bro, entrepreneurial style, with its joyless mantra of “simplifying” choices for efficiency’s sake. Either way, it is not encouraging to see sartorial choices in the liberal West mimicking the soulless conformity of totalitarian regimes like Chairman Mao’s China and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.  

The antithesis of totalitarian fashion can be seen in Seville, the capital of southern Spain’s quixotic Andalusia region. There one is surrounded by women adorned in dresses of brilliant colors and floral patterns, and the men are pretty stylish too. The fabric generates an uplifting energy, with scintillating movement: hemlines sashing left and right, colors dancing in the sunlight, hair sweeping around the shoulders (as opposed to the tight ponytails, buns, and hair-control measures that appear to go with wearing leggings). Seville is a heady place. Seeing a woman in those vibrant skirts makes you fully aware that you are encountering a potent life force rather than a contender for prepackaged-android status. 

“How beautiful are your sandaled feet, princess!” proclaims the Song of Solomon. “The curves of your thighs are like jewelry.” Such sentiments took on a new, darker dimension after my tour in Afghanistan, where sundry parts of the human torso were blown off people every day thanks to the Taliban’s highly effective IED campaign. After leaving the army and arriving on campus at the University of Texas at Austin, it was immensely reassuring to be surrounded by the impressive results of the U.S. education system’s rigorous promotion of women’s sports. Everywhere tanned thighs and slender calf muscles attached in the right place rippled joyously in the Texas sunshine.   

If that’s too much “objectification,” do a tour of Afghanistan and see the human body get smashed to pieces. Then lecture me about “fetishizing” the female form. Today, looking around, I miss that unadulterated physical grace. Athletic leggings are of a piece with the current propensity to cover everything up, which reached its insidious apogee in placing masks over faces—that snug fit again—including those of children. Even the Taliban don’t do that. 

With its clever figure-shaping design, athleisure offers a simulacrum of fitness, in keeping with our increasingly manipulated and corporately indoctrinated lives. Wear what you want, of course. Much of athletic wear’s popularity comes down to its being comfortable and women feeling good in it as they look after families and keep society functioning. I have no intention of pulling a Taliban and begrudging women sartorial respite during all that.

But the leggings’ popularity and the general reduction of color and variety in fashion, in life in general, point to an underlying malaise. A hardening of the heart, a loss of imagination and capacity for light-heartedness and spontaneity. Smiles and laughter seemed more readily available in Seville. I pass so many younger Americans, ranging in age from 20 to 35, bearing the grim, stern countenances you’d expect on the drill square or even the firing squad. “Look!” I want to exclaim while grabbing them by the shoulders, “I know inflation is shocking and your elders utterly shafted you during the pandemic by shutting down society, but you still have so much going for you; you’ve got enough time and energy to sort things out, and you should enjoy it!” 

Faced with all this, I have mounted my own peaceful protest against the trend toward colorlessness and conformity in America. I wear floral shirts. I picked up a whole bunch of them in Spain, after discovering a family-run shop selling shirts that seemed designed by a surrealist painter. This bold sartorial switch seems to have been appreciated. I have never had so many strangers compliment me. The enthusiastic response may simply be down to the combination of my lanky physique and particular physiognomy. Who wouldn’t be cheered to see a human version of a baby giraffe with a well-meaning countenance sauntering down the street in a shirt emblazoned with pink orchids?

At the same time, I suspect there is also a deeper yearning for more color and vitality in society, which the benighted experience of the pandemic has only heightened through its dark intimations of further dystopian nightmares (happening now in the madness of Shanghai’s zero-Covid campaign). Yet so many Americans seem content with adhering to the soulless beat of the dreadful uniformity forced upon us these past two years. To which, if one might add to the list of heartfelt desires uttered by Aldous Huxley’s defeated protagonist at the end of Brave New World, I would say:  

“But I don’t want comfort [and leggings]. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin [and colorful dresses].”   

James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist and writer who splits his time between the U.S., the U.K., and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter: @jrfjeffrey and at his website: www.jamesjeffreyjournalism.com.