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 ActivewearOutlet.com.
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.
But if you’re buying more into the brand than yourself, it might be a matter of fitting in, not getting fit. Lululemon has been called “cult-like.” In one interview with Business Insider, an employee says new employees are indoctrinated with motivational CDs and Malcolm Gladwell books, and to succeed, “You have to drink the Kool-Aid a bit, and if you're not going to drink it, you won't do well and you probably won't like it.” Even their approach to commission is communal, with every employee getting their share of the store’s sales.
Controversies aside—and there have been many—the business model has been immensely successful. Lululemon is the first company to figure out how to wheedle athletics into the lifestyle of your average Jane. And as it turns out, your average Jane likes feeling sporty. Gym clothes are no longer hidden away in a bag, they’re proudly on display in your street, your office, your grocery store.
Granted, just because you’ve stocked up on tight pants and breathable tees doesn’t mean you’ll become a robot, slave to the gym. Rudnicki advises just picking up a few items at a time. “People who get a totally new wardrobe—that’s never a really good sign. Too much, too fast to accommodate your routine and lifestyle,” she says.
The transtheoretical model of behavioral change, developed in the mid-’70s by University of Rhode Island researcher James O. Prochaska, outlines five stages to making successful changes in your life: Precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance. Originally applied to smokers attempting to quit, the cycle now is applied to all sorts of change, from eating habits to job-searching to fitness routine. There’s a difference between someone in, say, the precontemplation or contemplation phase and someone in the preparation or action phase. The former is just thinking about it—they’re barely motivated. Enclothed cognition isn’t a substitute for intrinsic motivation. It’s unlikely a new pair of pants will inspire you to go to the gym for the first time in six months.
But conversely, it makes no more sense to wait for success to update your wardrobe. “I’ve seen that with clients who were heavy and waited to get nice clothes because they’re heavy,” Rudnicki says. “Don’t wait to get nice clothes. You’re allowed to feel good now, and that will help you lose the weight.”
I started thinking about workout clothing when I adopted my own moderately-successful routine. Like, well, pretty much anything, I’ve tried one method after another to try to wedge myself into a healthy, fitness-focused lifestyle. Classes. Running. Yoga. Hours after hours on the elliptical. Nothing really worked—I had an excuse for everything, because cardio sucks, for me at least (I’ll never stop envying marathon runners). Then I found weights, and came to enjoy picking them up and setting them down again, and again.
Next thing I knew I found myself in an Old Navy, deliriously purchasing all the compression pants and mesh tops my wallet could afford. New tennis shoes. A new sports bra, to replace my six-year-old stalwart. New socks. I texted a selfie to my boyfriend. omg I look so silly. But I didn’t, not actually. And despite it being, in every other way, a completely normal Monday, I kicked ass.
I might have even gone for a run.
It all comes back to Adam and Galinsky’s idea of enclothed cognition: That the clothes you wear directly affect how you think, and what you do. Dress like a doctor, you’ll pay more attention; dress like an athlete, you’ll be more inclined towards physical fitness. And clothing that bridges the divide between activewear and streetwear means you’ll wear it more often—and by doing so, you might feel like going to the gym a little bit more often. It’s not a perfect analogy, and Adam agrees more research is needed, but Rudnicki and Burke back up the theory.
“The more confident you feel, the more apt you are to go to the gym and work on getting the results you’re looking for,” Burke says.
“Once you start feeling better, you’re gonna dress the way you feel,” Rudnicki says. “Your clothes represent your inner motivation and feelings. It’s a feedback loop—I feel good, so I’m going to wear the things that make me look good."