(Bloomberg) — Sometimes Amy Mains wears black yoga pants to work. She adds a scarf, accessories, and a shirt long enough to cover her backside. “Just making sure everything is as crisp as it can be when you’re wearing tights,” she said.
Like many office workers, Mains, 31, wants three things from her workwear: comfort, convenience, and a professional look. Her go-to Lululemons meet two out of three, allowing her to switch from her San Francisco communications job to a studio without need of a gym bag: “It’s primarily for comfort, but I do a lot of yoga,” she said.
On the style front, though, a few bangles and a long shirt can’t distract from the fact she’s wearing clothing made for sweating, not working. Her yoga pants may be a welcome escape from the restrictive tyranny of shift dresses, but they still aren’t entirely office-appropriate. Mains knows this, reserving the stretch pants for days when she won’t see many other humans.
Companies selling “athleisure” want to change that. The gym and yoga studio don’t suffice for sporty clothing brands these days: They want their stuff worn all day, every day, as with the casual, basic button-ups, tees, and slacks found at Gap and H&M. Athletic clothes long ago spilled onto the sidewalk as streetwear and can even be acceptable for going out at night. Activewear sales increased 15 percent last year, thanks in part to such companies as Lululemon Athletica Inc., Nike Inc., and Athleta Inc., which sell workout clothes trendy enough to wear outside the gym. The sell is convenience: no need to change out of a pair of buttery leggings when making the transition from SoulCycle to the grocery store and then to a bar to meet friends.
A shift in workplace fashion spearheaded by brands isn’t unprecedented. In the ’90s, Dockers’s khakis became a business casual uniform staple (for men) because of a marketing campaign by parent company Levi Strauss & Co. “Everybody was trying to explain what business casual was,” said Edward Yost, a human relations business partner at Society of Human Resource Management, who, at 50, is a young baby boomer.
As offices started relaxing dress codes, Levi’s created “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” a pamphlet sent to 25,000 HR managers that showed a variety of business casual looks that all happened to feature Dockers. The retailer also held seminars, put on fashion shows, and maintained a toll-free number for those who had questions about business casual. “More so than anything else, it said: Ah! That’s what it is,” said Yost. “Levi’s defined it.”
While the masses have embraced yoga pants as today’s almost-anywhere pants, the boss still hasn’t.
“Even in casual workplaces, can people wear leggings? Probably not,” said Victoria Gutierrez, a 31-year-old consultant based in Atlanta whom one friend described as “a picture of well-put-together, modern work wear.” Most workplaces barely let employees wear jeans every day: Only 36 percent of companies surveyed by SHRM officially allow people to go casual more than one day a week. And even offices that allow casual dress often have explicit bans on leggings.