When Fashion Meets Fitness: Representation and the Rise of Fitness Chic

As of late, a lifestyle of both fashion and fitness is en vogue. Designers such as Alexander Wang and Stella McCartney have activewear lines, and athletic brands focused on fashionable fitness gear are gaining popularity.  Models and celebrities don sporty ensembles while posting fitness and health related practices on Instagram.  Seemingly, athleticwear has made a comeback since the days of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” music video, minus the leg warmers. The CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, even went as far as to say that “leggings are the new denim,” as women’s activewear sales have soared (Friedman). However, as with most fashion trends, the significance lies beyond the actual physical objects and instead lies with what the clothing represents or communicates socially.  The recent phenomenon of fitness chic, fashionable fitness attire, which couples the meanings associated with both fashion and fitness, demonstrates how representation is an act of communicating to others the embodiment of particular qualities, lifestyles and forms of status.

Specifically, qualities and status of the wearer typically associated with wealth and leisure are communicated through or inferred from wearing fitness chic apparel, demonstrating the communicative nature and role of representation. In general, “adornment is a communicative symbol that serves crucial functions within human lives…(and) useful functions within society…it can be used to indicate social roles, to establish social worth (and) as a symbol of economic status…”(Roach, Eichler 120). Understanding how adornment can serve as a symbol through which various social and cultural qualities and statuses of individuals can be inferred, is the basis for the discussion of how representation is a key component of the trend of fitness chic. As parodied in the image from the fashion blogger Man Repeller, titled, “What Your Gym Clothes Say About You,” particular items of clothing, accessories, brands, and even the way an outfit is assembled, can serve to represent and communicate a host of meanings about the wearer, simply based on clothing worn at the gym.

What Your Gym Clothes Say About You
What Your Gym Clothes Say About You

For instance, wearing clothing from expensive fitness brands such as Lululemon, or high-end fitness boutiques such as Soul Cycle, can signal to observers that the wearer is wealthy and has a certain level of economic status, since that person can afford to go to expensive exercise classes and purchase the apparel. Additionally, clothing from those brands could indicate to observers that the person wearing a tank top from Soul Cycle or Lululemon leggings is aware of what is trendy and popular right now, both in terms of apparel and where to work out.  As a result, it becomes easy to link these brands with a particular brand user or status, since the designation of being trendy or wealthy is a form of status. The “tendency to purchase goods and services for the status or social prestige value that they confer on their owners” is the definition of consumption-related need of status, according to Han, Nunes and Dréze (Han et al. 16). Ultimately, since “consumers often choose brands as a result of their desire to associate with or resemble the typical brand user” (Han et al.16), the association with brands and certain qualities and types of status believed to be embodied by those brand users, is important for understanding representation.


Adidas StellaSport (new line from Adidas x Stella McCartney)
Adidas StellaSport

Fitness apparel communicates and represents the idea of leisure, which is a form of displaying wealth and status, and also demonstrates a form of lifestyle. According to Veblen, “in order to gain and hold the esteem of men it is not sufficient merely to posses wealth or power. The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence” (Veblen 24). The way to demonstrate one’s wealth and power and to receive the esteem and status guaranteed by such qualities is to demonstrate having a life of leisure. Veblen states, “a life of leisure is the readiest and most conclusive evidence of pecuniary strength; and therefore of superior force” (Veblen 25). A life of leisure includes having the time to exercise because one does not need to be working, and having the excess funds to be able to afford to do so. Therefore, dressing in ways that signify a life of leisure come to represent a host of meanings and statuses associated with wealth, social standing and lifestyle practice. Elizabeth Wilson references the street fashion of women in New York City, describing how fitness apparel is, “a new dress code…come into being to signify ‘leisure’” (Wilson 142). The overtone of communicating a life of leisure through fitness apparel and the positive meanings associated with that lifestyle is perhaps why brands want to associate with the fitness chic image and why individuals want to represent themselves as being a part of the lifestyle.

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Alexander Wang X H&M

Whether carefully cultivating an outfit to wear to the gym, or posting an Instagram photo of eating a salad post-workout, representing oneself as aligning with the trend of fitness chic both in apparel and through practice is becoming popular because of the lifestyle image it promotes. Fred Davis notes, “we know that through clothing people communicate some things about their persons, and at the collective level this results in locating them symbolically in some structured universe of status claims and life-style attachments” (Davis 149). In other words, the clothing one wears has the ability to communicate to others one’s participation in a particular lifestyle, such as the trendy lifestyle of being healthy and fit, as well as fashionable, and the status of being a part of that lifestyle. Additionally, by sporting an outfit from a designer activewear line such as, StellaSport by Stella McCartney and Adidas, or Alexander Wang’s collaboration with H&M, individuals can use “brand choice…(to) send meaningful social signals to other consumers about the type of person using that brand” (Han et al. 18). Thus, the brand choice of one’s fitness clothing can be a means of signaling to other consumers that one subscribes to the lifestyles of both fashion and fitness.

Hannah Bronfman showcasing her healthy lifestyle by featuring a salad from sweetgreen, and including her fitness apparel in the photograph.
Hannah Bronfman showcasing her healthy lifestyle by featuring a salad from sweet green.  She also includes her fitness apparel in the photograph.
Karlie Kloss
Karlie Kloss

In particular, fashion models and celebrities on Instagram represent and “model” the lifestyle of fitness chic. Even before the popularity of social media, Elizabeth Wilson described how “the correct costume of the fitness freak has its own obsessional details…it all mimics casual informality, but is minutely thought out” and “the bright uniform acts out as a lifestyle” (Wilson 142). Wilson’s observations demonstrate the thoughtfulness and work that goes into representing oneself as embodying the fitness chic lifestyle, which is now only enhanced by models on social media. Regarding models, Elizabeth Wissinger notes, “complying with the structured demands of the modeling world, they might be said to promote a host of things: aesthetic standards of dress, body and demeanor, a particular ‘lifestyle,’ and particular patterns of consumption” (Wissinger 284). Specifically, Victoria’s Secret models such as Karlie Kloss and Izabel Goulart are well known for having fitness inspirational Instagram accounts, and are therefore assumed to have fitness inspirational lives. Karlie Kloss was the face of Nike’s Fall 2014 advertising campaign, due to the fact that she, “smartly branded herself as an athlete, frequently posting well-composed shots of her workouts on Instagram” (Indvick). Her ability to represent herself as having the qualities and lifestyle of both an athlete and a model led Nike to want to hire her; but Nike is also using the lifestyle she represents as a model in order to present an image of the brand’s products as fashionable to consumers.

Izabel Goulart
Izabel Goulart
Carmen Hamilton (The Chronicles of Her)
Carmen Hamilton (The Chronicles of Her)

Overall, designer labels, athletic brands, models, and the public at large are infatuated with the idea of fitness chic because of the positive associations with fashion and leisure. Although it may be true that “leggings are the new denim” (Friedman) and a kale salad is this season’s best accessory, the popularity of the trend is not due to some superior intrinsic feature of the commodities themselves, but rather, is predicated on the qualities, status and lifestyle attachments that are communicated through these items and practices as a representation of being both fashionable and fit.

Works Cited:

Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 148-58. Print.

Friedman, Vanessa. “Nike Stakes Its Fashion Claim.” Web blog post. On the Runway. The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 May 2015. http://runway.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/23/nike-stakes-its-fashion-claim-on-activewear-for-women/

Han, Young Jee, Joseph C. Nunes, and Xavier Drèze. “Signaling Status with Luxury Goods: The Role of Brand Prominence.” Journal of Marketing 74.4 (2010): 15-30. Print.

Indvik, Lauren. “Why Nike Is Working With Karlie Kloss.” Fashionista. Breaking Media, 23 Oct. 2014. Web. 06 May 2015. http://fashionista.com/2014/10/nike-karlie-kloss

Roach, Mary Ellen and Eicher, Joanne Bubolz. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. Ed. Barnard, Malcolm. New York: Routledge, 2007. 109-21. Print.

Veblen, Thornstein. “The Theory of Leisure Class”. Ed. Dover Thrift. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1994. Print.

Wilson, Elizabeth. “Chapter 7: Fashion and City Life.” Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2003. 134-154. Print.

Wissinger, Elizabeth. “Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society.”  Journal of Consumer Culture 15 June 2009: pgs 273-296


1. Milrom, Sophie. “What Your Gym Clothes Say About You” Digital image. Man Repeller. N.p., 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://www.manrepeller.com/2014/10/gym-clothes-and-personality.html

2. Workout-Clothes-Soul-Cycle. Digital image. SADIERAE + CO. N.p., 21 Apr. 2013. Web. 29 Apr. 2015. http://sadieraeandco.com/2013/04/21/savvy-sunday-fitness-fashist/workout-clothes-soul-cycle/

3. Keiser, Amanda. Adidas StellaSport. Digital image. Teen Vogue. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. http://www.teenvogue.com/fashion/2015-01/stella-mccartney-adidas-launch-stellasport

4. Schwiegershausen, Erica. Alexander Wang X H&M. Digital image. The Cut. NYMAG, 16 Oct. 2014. Web. 30 Apr. 2015. http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/10/here-is-alexander-wangs-full-hm-collection.html

5. 19 September, 2014. @hannahbronfman instagram https://instagram.com/p/tJG0EeSEF9/?taken-by=hannahbronfman

6. 2 January 2015. @karliekloss instagram https://instagram.com/p/xWzqSAkSuG/?taken-by=karliekloss

7. 31 March, 2015. @iza_goulart instagram https://instagram.com/p/05T3ciRPlC/?taken-by=iza_goulart

8. 29 April, 2015. @chroniclesofher_ instagram https://instagram.com/p/2DfRuaJXN_/?taken-by=chroniclesofher_