Psychology of Lululemon: How Fashion Affects Fitness

Does expensive athletic wear actually incline us to work out? "Enclothed cognition" proposes that the clothes you wear directly affect how we think and what we do.
Eric Thayer/Reuters

The Simpsons might seem an odd place to find scientific inspiration. Considering Homer’s affinity for couches and anything donut-related, finding insight into Americans’ psychological relationship with exercise and fitness also seems unlikely. But Northwestern researchers Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky did just that.

In “Team Homer,” an episode from the series’s seventh season, Springfield Elementary’s newly-instituted drab grey uniform (instituted after Bart’s “Down With Homework” tee causes an uproar) pushes the students into a zombie-like funk until a freak rainstorm washes off the dye, revealing the true color of the t-shirts: tie-dye. The students riot, and fun returns—all because of their clothes.

“Would this actually happen in the real world?” Adam wondered. “Does the clothing we wear influence our own behavior and the way we think and act?”

According to their 2012 study, the answer is a firm yes. The two researchers coined the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the mental changes that we undergo when we wear certain clothing. Volunteers for the study were either outfitted in a lab coat or given nothing special to wear, and then performed attention-related tasks—at which those wearing lab coats proved significantly more successful.

“It’s all about the symbolic meaning that you associate with a particular item of clothing,” Adam said. And he thinks the study’s results can be applied to many more fields, including activewear and fitness. “I think it would make sense that when you wear athletic clothing, you become more active and more likely to go to the gym and work out.”

Fitness apparel megalith Lululemon would seem to agree. Their endeavor to outfit the world in their $82 Wunder Unders has been incredibly successful. They certainly deserve a chunk of the credit for the recent activewear explosion, though the company did alienate some of its potential clients when its founder said its clothes aren’t meant for some women’s bodies. Wearing yoga pants on the sidewalk, to the grocery store, to class—wherever—used to be a thing to be mocked. No longer. Now, it’s commonplace.

On the surface, it looks like groupthink—which is true, in part. “You think other people will think, if you’re wearing those clothes, you’re a workout woman! You must be really good at it,” psychologist and personal trainer Susan Rudnicki says. “I see girls at hatha yoga wearing Lululemon clothes, and they look the part, and I think: They must be really good. They have their life together. I’m an instructor, and even I feel that.”

When tops start at $42 a pop for a simple, Lycra/nylon blend tank, Lululemon is certainly doing a fantastic job convincing consumers that their brand is what they need. But the field is growing exponentially—as of August, according to an NPD report, the activewear market had grown 7 percent over the previous year. In the same time, the general apparel market grew only 1 percent. More companies than ever now understand that women want both fashion and function in their gym clothing, and affordably-priced alternatives are everywhere.

Donna Burke started scouting small, independent, below-the-radar fitness brands as a hobby after moving back to Atlanta after college and helping her sister open apparel store Atlanta Activewear. “We found these amazing quality independent brands that were based more on fashion and function than just function,” she said. Soon, Burke turned her eye for high-quality, high-function apparel into a career, founding both her blog Yoga in Heels, where she blogs about trends in workout fashion, and online retailer

It’s a big change from her days playing soccer in high school, “back before they made uniforms for women, in the days where we had to wear the boys uniforms and everything hung off us. That was never fun,” she says.

It’s no secret she’s not a fan of Lululemon—in one blog post condemning the brand for last March’s see-through fabric fiasco, she writes, “For a company [whose] mantra states that friends are more important than money, the latest saga of the Lululemon brand shows otherwise.” So Burke focuses on quality over big names, promoting small, high-fashion, high-tech apparel brands like MPG Sport and 15love, a line started by Nancie Tripodi, former director of The Gap.

But just because it’s not Lululemon or Athleta, Gap’s high-end entry into the activewear field, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Quality, long-lasting, butt-squeezing, sweat-wicking materials can be very expensive, but lower-cost imitators will do just fine if you’re on a budget. And if you’re seeking out activewear’s positive psychological effects, anything that amps up your confidence will do.

“I think it doesn’t matter as far as price point, if you feel good about yourself,” Burke said.

The desire to look good at the gym is nothing new—just look to the neon leggings of Jazzercise yore. But athletic clothing today does more than make your butt look good at the gym: It’s carefully designed to fit into your lifestyle, inside and outside the gym. Sure, wear it to workout. Then to the grocery store, where they promise you won’t look out of place. If the trend holds, soon you’ll never change out of your gym clothes, throwing on compression leggings for work and for trips to the mall. Rudnicki says the change is stark—fitness classes today are much more fashionable compared to the first ones she taught five years ago.

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Jamie Wiebe is a writer based in Astoria, New York.

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