One of the unexpected consequences of the current crisis has been the great Lycra bloom of 2020. The few of us who venture outside these days appear, often as not, in bike shorts, leggings or something similarly stretchy. An observer from a distant planet, looking down on our streets, might conclude that our primitive species believes we can ward off disease by revealing the shape of our buttocks.
But we humans are only stir-crazy. Exercise is one of the few things worth venturing outside for and, as a result, our exercise kit is one of the few outfits in which we are most likely to be seen. A good time, then, to consider the niceties of exercise style and the dress code – if indeed there is one – of shedding sweat.
Lycra, and all its form-fitting relations, are at the heart of the matter. The discussion must therefore begin with dispensing with a nasty prejudice. Most people think that there is something particularly distasteful, even gross, about men in Lycra – whereas for women, a pair of yoga pants is perfectly natural, not just for triangle pose but as a standard piece of casual clothing.
This is rank sexism, another example of the notion that while the whole of women’s bodies are meant for display, by contrast, what matters about men is only the head and what it contains. So we are left with a choice: ban tight trousers for everyone, or give men their Lycra licence.
Some men have it already, of course. I think we can all agree that, even at the ripe age of 50, Matthew McConaughey is welcome to prance around in bike shorts. Jake Gyllenhaal is going to be dreamy in any cloth ever woven. In fact, beautiful people, as a category, are a distraction in the present conversation. They can wear what they like. They can wear nothing at all, bless them.
The rules of exercise gear, whatever they are, are for the rest of us – the lumpy if not lumpen masses. And I can only confess to a long history of dressing badly while sweating. I used to run in a pair of short shorts and no shirt. I do not have McConaughey’s chest or his tan. Parents used to cover their children’s eyes as I staggered past.
Now that my knees are shot, I swim. When it’s warm, that means a snug black number only a few notches more modest than full banana hammock. Lately I’ve taken to the ocean in a wetsuit, in which I resemble a particularly sedentary accountant who has been forced into a sausage casing. The right to look a mess while exercising is sacrosanct. Putting in the work is what matters, and to hell with the distractions. This is why flirting at the gym is so hateful; it drains the soul from the whole endeavour, leaving only brittle vanity behind.
And yet. Might it be fun to sweat in something more stylish? Certainly there are brands encouraging me to think so. Both Louis Vuitton and Fendi will sell me some modestly baggy running shorts (Fendi also offers a minimalist swim brief stamped with its logo). Castore’s bike shorts are sleek.
After I upgrade, of course, the next step will be easy to make. Sports kit has always found its way into everyday wardrobes. Trainers are now the universal shoe. So once I become presentable as I work out, can it be long before I am seen in my best Lycra at the grocery store? Or perhaps on casual Friday, when we are let back into the office? Colleagues, you have been warned.