Lululemon in Covent Garden feels more like an art gallery than a sportswear shop. Eye-catching posters issue instructions: “sweat, hydrate, sweat, hydrate”. Screens show images of impossibly beautiful people glowing with health. The shop displays its prized products – figure-hugging yoga pants – on the walls like prizewinning artworks. Lululemon has mastered the art of retail in the age of Amazon. But it has done more than that: it has grasped the new fault-line in society.
For most of history clothing was defined by the job you did. People who lifted things wore overalls. Bakers wore aprons. Jeans caught on because they were tough. And those who did no manual labour flaunted that fact loudly: Chinese scholars had long finger nails; gentlewomen wore long dresses; gentlemen sported frock coats.
The decline of the manual economy and rise of knowledge-work threw these rules up in the air. The first sign of confusion was the fashion for jeans among people who had never hammered or welded anything. Today everything is confused – and everyone is a riveter. Middle-aged men with greying whiskers and bulging paunches dress like teenagers in black T-shirts and oversized trainers. Women with dishevelled hair wear pyjamas or boiler suits to the office. In creative companies, the only people who don suits are those who do despicably uncreative jobs, like accountants.
This has created a new social division, between the fat-fighters of the world, and the rest of us. The fat-fighting classes have the time and determination to get on their exercise bikes and say no to junk food. The rest of us know that this struggle is too much trouble. The great thing about manual work is that it burns excess fat. In pre-industrial and industrial societies workers were unfashionably thin and the rich were fashionably plump. Today machines do the heavy lifting and fatty food is ubiquitous. So the world bifurcates along a different line: those who do manual labour in their leisure time – working out and lifting weights at the gym – and those who simply dress as though they do.
Unlike the dress codes of yesteryear, athleisure – workout clothes worn as regular attire – is open to everyone in some form. Most people wearing such outfits never use them for sport (unless watching “Match of the Day” counts). Those who do exercise often choose the figure-hugging variety. Fortunately, a second type of athletic wear is accessible to those of us who rarely break a sweat. Tracksuits and sweatshirts are easy to get on, and voluminous and stretchy enough to conceal great mountains of flesh. And, in the post-industrial age, you can choose how much to pay for your non-sports sports clothes. Lululemon’s joggers sell for £88 (“this versatile tight has you covered from training to boot camp”). Juicy Couture doesn’t even pretend that its signature velour tracksuit bottoms, which cost over $100, have anything to do with activity. But at least you don’t have to earn a fortune to own something resembling athletic gear. At TK Maxx you can get a whole tracksuit for £20 – which should leave you enough spare change to go and buy 20 Big Macs or so with the money you’ve saved. Welcome to the age of abundance.•