Activewear Everywhere: The Sociology of Conspicuous AthLeisure

In this post Nathan Palmer explains why increases in sales of athletic clothing haven’t corresponded to increases increased participation in athletics by discussing Veblen’s theory of the leisure class.

When I was a kid, the saying was, “if you leave your house in sweatpants you’ve given up on life.” My how things have changed. Today sales of athletic clothing have been booming, celebrities like Kate Hudson and Beyonce have their own athletic fashion lines, and wearing your workout clothes outside of the gym is increasingly become the norm.

The days of wearing $8 Hanes drawstring sweats are over [1]. Today, many customers will gladly pay over $100 for a pair of Nike sweatpants. Sweat pants have even gone “high fashion” with runway models strolling down the catwalk in $800 sweatpants(!).

Ready to say, “no duh”? Well, here you go; most of the people buying these athletic clothes aren’t exercising in them. This fashion trend is often called athleisure, because these athletic clothes are often worn by people who aren’t working out. For instance, in the Wall Street Journal Germano found that sales of yoga apparel grew approximately 45% in 2013, but yoga participation that same year only grew 4.5%. In many social circles, it has already become the norm to wear athleisure clothes in everyday situations, and some journalists have suggested that wearing sweatpants at the office or yoga pants in a board meeting may soon become the norm.

Athleisure & Symbolic Fitness

Symbolic interaction is a sociological theory that examines how we use symbols to communicate with one another who each of us is and what each of us thinks is going on at the moment. Dramaturgy, which is a more specific theory within symbolic interaction, argues that every second of the day we are performing our identities. We use costumes, props, settings, and movement to perform for one another. From this perspective, our bodies are like walking billboards that tell those around us who we are and where our place is within social hierarchies.

AthLeisure represents a sort of “symbolic fitness.” By wearing gym clothes outside of the gym, we are associating ourselves with fitness, healthiness, and athletics; all of which are highly prized, and difficult to obtain, social ideals.

It is difficult to be fit, healthy, and athletic today because of how our society is structured. High-calorie foods are cheap and organic vegetable are expensive. If you can exercise outside, then you must live in a safe neighborhood or have the means to travel to public recreation spaces. If you have a gym membership, then you must have enough money to meet all your basic needs too. Symbolic fitness doesn’t communicate that we actually exercise frequently, but rather, it communicates that we understand the social value of fitness and have the means to afford to live a fit lifestyle.

AthLeisure & Conspicuous Consumption

While Thorstein Veblen (1965) was not a symbolic interactionist, his classic text, The Theory of the Leisure Class, examined how people demonstrated their social power through consumption. Social power can be thought of as the ability to get what you want from others, even if they do not want to give it to you. The higher an individual is within a social hierarchy, the more social power they tend to have. Veblen identified three ways that people communicated their social power: conspicuous consumption, conspicuous leisure, and conspicuous waste.

To be conspicuous is to stand apart from a group in a clearly visible way. Veblen thought that socially powerful people were using their consumption, leisure, and waste to communicate how much time they could spend being unproductive (i.e. not at work making money). An example of conspicuous consumption could be driving a fancy car, living in a giant mansion, or owning white clothes (because who could afford to wear something so easily stained other than someone with the money to replace it). Conspicuous leisure occurs when we post photos of our vacations on social media or bring back trinkets with the name of the place we visited clearly written on them. Conspicuous waste could include things like throwing away perfectly usable goods, or needlessly replacing things (e.g. buying this year’s iPhone, even though your current one works fine).

Veblen argued that socially powerful people in a modern capitalist society used their consumption of goods and leisure and the waste created by both as a socially appropriate way to communicate one’s class location. For instance, it’s rude to say, "I am a very rich person who makes far more money than most people. However, it’s socially appropriate to drive an expensive car, wear designer clothes, live in a mansion, and take vacations to exotic locations. In the modern U.S., we let our things and our experiences tell all those around us who we are and how socially powerful we are.

Conspicuous AthLeisure

Taken together, we can view AthLeisure as a modern form of conspicuous consumption and leisure. These clothes tell the world who we are, who we aspire to be, and ultimately our place in the social hierarchy. It is a costume that says to those who pass by, I can afford the fitness lifestyle, I can afford to be fashionable, and I want you to know it.

Dig Deeper:

  1. A reader might say, “I wear athleisure because it’s comfortable.” While this is no doubt true, pajamas are comfortable, walking around naked is comfortable, and we don’t see nearly as many people wearing their P.J.’s or their birthday suits out in public. What role do social norms play in what we feel is comfortable?
  2. What are some other clothes people where to “costume” themselves? That is, what other articles of clothing do people where to tell the world who they are and where they fit within the social hierarchy? List at least three and explain your answers.
  3. What do you think of wearing athleisure to work? Should that be allowed or should people be expected to dress formally at work?
  4. Check out this article on how what you wear to work can affect your performance. Does this article change how you think about athleisure wear being allowed in the workplace?


  • Veblen, Thorstein. 1965. The Theory of the Leisure Class. Transaction Publishers.

  1. Not for everyone. I still rock my $8 Hanes sweats on a cold winters morning when only my wife and child are there to judge me. Sorry for that mental image.  ↩