The meme, “Every day I put on my silly little outfits and do my silly little tasks,” accurately distills the ennui of pandemic life, which often feels like a video game — repetitive with little exciting dialogue. Except … most video game characters are equipped with only one silly outfit of choice, worn day after day without complaint. We might be living in a simulated reality, but the unspoken rules of that world expect me to change up my ‘fits from time to time as I go about my silly little tasks. But, hypothetically speaking, if I had to pick one default outfit, something that’s comfortable and functional for everyday wear, my choice would probably be the exercise dress.
It’s not a stretch to claim that most millennial and Gen Z-aged women have heard of the dress — or even own one themselves. For those unfamiliar, allow me to explain: The exercise dress, as its name implies, is an all-in-one garment made from stretchy fabric (generally a nylon-spandex blend), with built-in spandex shorts under a short, slightly flared skirt. It’s the definition of modern athleisure: loungewear that is active and stylish.
The dress is designed for exercising and the occasional run (or walk) around town, and I’ve witnessed women sporting it at the farmers market, the coffee shop, the beach, happy hour drinks, and casual social functions without a second thought. It’s not a coincidence, then, that “doing things” is the hashtag-cum-lifestyle mission of Outdoor Voices, the millennial-run athleisure brand credited with launching exercise dresses into the fashion zeitgeist.
The Exercise Dress (which, in this case, carries proper noun significance) was first released by Outdoor Voices for $100 in 2018 and became the unofficial blueprint for most workout dresses on the market. The dress debuted with much fanfare in a Los Angeles roller skating rink and involved a rollout campaign featuring a CGI influencer, multiple giveaways, and an aggressive social media strategy. It quickly became the brand’s bestselling item and was restocked six times over the next year as it developed an obsessive internet following. Ardent fans treat the exercise dress as a wardrobe collectible, an item to be owned in multiple prints and cuts. And in 2021, the craze has seemingly yet to settle. Outdoor Voices released a new and improved version of the dress in April, but the market has since grown increasingly saturated.
For a certain subset of shoppers, it feels like the exercise dress is everywhere. It not only encapsulates the latest fashion trends, it is also great for brands — as a simple, replicable garment to create and as a hugely marketable product to sell. The internet is dotted with exercise dress replicas in a multitude of styles, colors, and prints with an absurd variety of names, like Paprika Bloom, Ghostin’ Celadon, and Snow Leopard. We have, as the New York Times declared, reached “peak exercise dress.” Admittedly, society seems to be approaching the peak of everything, from oat milk to streaming services, but a quick Google search confirms the garment’s ubiquity among retailers.
Halara, a Hong Kong-based activewear brand, is known for its TikTok-famous “In My Feels’’ dress — the most convincing $49.95 dupe of Outdoor Voices’ exercise dress. Another customer favorite is the $88 high-neck “Undress” from Girlfriend Collective, an athleisure brand that uses recycled fabrics made from plastic water bottles. Well-known athleisure mainstays (Nike, Lululemon, Athleta) and fashion retailers (Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Aerie, Reformation, and even Amazon) have released their own workout dress iterations at various price points, as low as $31.99 and as high as $120.
There are a few reasons why the exercise dress feels extremely relevant again, despite its history as a three-year-old athleisure trend. Fanny Damiette, chief marketing officer of Girlfriend Collective, told me over email that customers have long requested a workout dress design, years before the Undress’s release in March.
The pandemic crucially changed our relationship to clothing and eliminated any lasting distinctions between “outdoor” and “indoor” styles of dress. People’s quarantine uniforms shifted from sweatpants to bike shorts as the weather warmed, and the athleisure market saw a massive jump in sales in 2020, even though most gyms and yoga studios remained closed. While Covid-19 pushed people toward comfy clothes, it was not a new phenomenon: Athleisure has surreptitiously dominated casual fashion over the past decade, facilitating the decline of sartorial formality in America.
A century ago, a person’s fashion choices would align with various social events and occasions throughout the day. Decorum, for both men and women, was defined through conventions of dress. People had “day clothes for the street, dinner clothes for the restaurant, [and] theater clothes,” fashion historian Deidre Clemente told the Atlantic. These rigid expectations have since eroded, and athleisure’s popularity — and widespread acceptance — represented the disintegration of sartorial barriers. The pandemic, naturally, helped speed things up. Today, once-controversial women’s garments like leggings and even lingerie have become fair game for outdoor wear.
As novel as the modern exercise dress is (women in the late 19th century exercised in restrictive, ankle-length dresses), its silhouette is quite familiar: It bears a sporty resemblance to the slip dress, a slinky garment popularized by ’90s supermodels for its versatility and elegance (Nike’s Sportswear Icon Clash design is basically a calf-length slip).
Like the slip dress, the exercise dress is wearable in many social contexts, conducive to the barrierless nature of modern society. In spite of its name, most people don’t wear the dress to exercise, but as a form of low-maintenance loungewear. In the same way off-duty athletes sport Nike gear, the exercise dress is the trademark of an active and carefree lifestyle — the subtle yet sporty girlboss uniform of 2021.
The dress is not just easy to wear, it’s simple to make, which is a boon for retailers. The dress can be scaled and replicated in all sorts of colors and prints; the hems and cuts just need to be slightly altered to create an entirely new product. This reproducibility is a defining aspect of most athleisure brands. They’re not selling items that are necessarily special or novel; the distinction, for consumers, is the lifestyle and mission that a brand champions. That makes its products feel unique.
But brands, too, have an underexamined role in manufacturing consumer enthusiasm — or the perception of virality — through sponsored content and strategic advertising. The “TikTok made me buy it” phenomenon, according to my colleague Rebecca Jennings, has boosted random lifestyle products into the limelight, leading some to develop cult followings — and sell out — basically overnight. Users are not just receiving product recommendations; they become incentivized to create their own reviews of the product, or offer alternatives to sold-out or expensive items. That’s what happened with the exercise dress. On TikTok, the #exercisedress hashtag has garnered over 2.3 million views, featuring thousands of young women trying on the garment, styling it, offering dress comparisons, or simply wearing it out.
And as general intrigue ramped up in the dress, so did press coverage: This summer, women’s fashion and beauty sites like Refinery29, Well and Good, Byrdie, and PopSugar released lists of their favorite exercise dresses (with handy affiliate links), and Good Morning America ran a segment declaring that the garment was “summer’s hottest trend.” Influencers did dress reviews and hauls, and the cult of the exercise dress morphed into a self-deprecating meme among young women.
pretending I don’t see the other exercise dress girlies at the function
— Chelsea Cirruzzo (@ChelseaCirruzzo) September 5, 2021
The enthusiasm surrounding the garment, however, is not pure algorithmic coincidence. It’s become more common for brands to masquerade influencer-created content (like a TikTok product review) as paid ads on social media. This process is called whitelisting, according to Nicole Alibrandi of the influencer marketing agency Mediakix. “Whitelisting allows brands to use the influencer’s handle for their ads, which contributes to the feeling of how a product is suddenly ‘everywhere,’” Alibrandi told me over email.
The brand Halara is especially notorious for its targeted TikTok ads, which are so pervasive that some users can’t scroll through the app without encountering it. (At least one woman has made a TikTok begging Halara’s marketing team to stop bombarding her with ads.) And as annoying as Halara’s advertising strategy can be, it has been undoubtedly successful in generating attention and discourse around the brand’s bestselling item: the exercise dress.
Athleisure, according to writer Jia Tolentino, fits neatly in the space between pure exercise apparel and fashion: “The former category optimizes your performance, the latter optimizes your appearance, and athleisure does both simultaneously.” During a time when fashion trends and our personal tastes are heavily influenced by shoppable algorithms, the exercise dress is the quintessential garment for efficient, optimal living. The wearer exerts little effort in styling the dress, since it is basically an “instant outfit,” according to Damiette of the Girlfriend Collective.
It’s worth pointing out that some of the most recognizable athleisure brands are backed by investors who are notoriously style-averse, whose approach to fashion “mirrors [their] underlying faith that individuals’ lifestyles can be optimized just like products,” wrote tech writer Drew Austin in Real Life Magazine. The exercise dress is a keen example of a garment that is “subservient to functionality”: As a culture, we’ve flirted with Marie Kondo-inspired minimalism, obsessed over clean lines and the spacious, familiar emptiness of mid-century modern. The exercise dress is stylish, sure. But it’s also the culmination of our modern obsession with utility, simplicity, and self-optimization.