Reader Request: Wonderful Workout Wear

stylish workout clothes

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Reader Carolyn submitted this question:

How to look good in workout clothes. Whenever I go to one of those classes like zumba, it’s full of these women in their coordinating gear and I just flail around in the back of the room in yoga pants and a t-shirt and feel out of place. How do you style workout clothes without just buying whatever the mannequin is wearing at lululemon?

First, a quick word about spandex, designer gym wear, and peer pressure: People have gotten serious about their workout attire, which is fab. There are some really beautiful designs out there and they can be fun to wear. But just because the people around you are wearing skin-tight $80 wicking tanks doesn’t mean you should feel obliged to do the same. Or that wearing anything less makes you a gym schlub. You can wear anything you damn well please to work out, so long as it isn’t uncomfortable or prone to getting caught in your pedals/jump rope/weight machine.

Also some of these fancy brands size their clothes extremely small and make women who are sized out of them feel unwelcome. Which, as you might imagine, infuriates me. Gyms are intimidating enough as they are – places where people stew in anxiety and feel judged and compare themselves and worry about looking awkward in the studio mirror – and when you add another layer of size-based elitism you’re making it harder for people who want to exercise and get healthy to push past their hesitations.

Lulu is NOT your only option, and the first step toward feeling chic in your gym wear is to expand your search beyond the trendy brands. This post on modest workout tops includes some super stylish size-diverse brand recommendations, but I’ll call them out here, too:

NOW. After broadening your search, look for workout clothes that share design elements you seek in your regular clothes: V necklines, longer length tops, empire waists, cap sleeves. The current standard seems to be a tight tank or tee worn with running tights. I would feel unbearably self-conscious in that combo, and opt for skirt capris and wicking tees instead. I’m most self-conscious about my butt and hips, so skirt capris are a great alternative to both loose pants and tights for me. Since most workout tops are cut super long, I’ve actually had a few of mine shortened at the tailor so they look proportional when worn with the skirt capri. Another alternative is a tunic top worn with running tights – perhaps not ideal for body pump, but totally fine for spin classes, yoga, pilates, weight-lifting, and lots of other activities. Athleta has some cute tunic options.

Next get a couple of coordinated outfits. Part of what makes those other gals look so great is that they’ve taken it a step beyond black pants and something on top. You don’t necessarily have to buy multiple outfits of tops and bottoms, but think about buying a bottom and a few coordinating tops from the same collection so they’ve got some visual unity.

Then take a hard look at your shoes. Even if you don’t want to wear the fancy outfits you see around you, you’ll likely feel a lot more chic if you ditch the puffy, dirty, or outdated shoes. Find a sleek or colorful pair that you love, and incorporate them immediately.

Finally – and this is the biggie – try not to worry about it. You’re there to make your body feel loved and invigorated, to build muscle and to have fun. How you look is not nearly important as how you feel. And so long as you feel great while you’re at the gym – and you should, because you’re in the midst of some fan-freakin-tabulous self-care – wear anything you want.

Except black-soled shoes. No black-soled shoes on the gym floor, please.

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13 Responses to “Reader Request: Wonderful Workout Wear”

  1. Shevvi Crowley

    Don’t forget old navy. Pretty, functional and affordable up to a 4x.

    • Natalie

      yes! I have lots of nice, expensive Athleta and Patagonia workout gear, but my absolute favorite workout pants are a pair of black capris purchased from Old Navy 8 years ago. They just fit perfectly and they were 1/3 the price of anything at Athleta.

  2. Hannah DeLisle Stall

    The Zella line at Nordstrom is comparable to Lulu, with similar high-tech materials. Still pricey, BUT, I just found that Nordstrom RACK has the new “Z by Zella” line in-stores and online that is the discount version. Makes my heart sing. Uniqlo also has some great tech-fabric base pieces of you are a cold weather runner – on par with UnderArmour for a quarter of the price.

    The Danskin line at WalMart is also priced great and has some excellent pieces. Only thing is that the sizing is all over the place, so try before you buy 😀 Frankly, this may be a good thing, as some of the weirdly-sized pieces (XL fits like a Medium, what) go on clearance for next to nothing.

  3. Amy

    I’ve struggled with this for years and finally found a few styles I love (as well as learning to blow off the cloths snobs). I have two pairs of Prana pants very similar to this that work for biking, hiking, yoga, aerobics classes – pretty much anything – and nice if you don’t want to wear skin tight leggings, but still want enough range of motion and light fit to do everything. (worth the price because they last forever) I’d disagree about tunic tops for yoga – the worst thing in yoga is a loose top that rides up over your head when you downward anything. (having the fabric up over your head and staring at your belly fat – not a way to stay confident…) I look specifically for longer style tops that have clingy features (not super tight) to fight this (even though I’m short). Something like: You can also get good name brands for much less at places like Ross, TJ Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory.

    • Natalie

      I’ve found some great tunic tops at Athleta that are tight in the bodice/have built-in bra but loose elsewhere. They’re the best of both worlds for me, because they don’t ride up when you bend over but they’re also flow-y and hide the belly. I hate t-shirts for yoga because every. single. downward. dog. has my shirt sliding over my face.

  4. K Magill

    If you’re willing to splurge, I’d highly recommend Oiselle for women’s tights, sports bras, and running shorts. Gorgeous women-specific gear but a bit on the pricy side. Not quite Lululemon pricy, though! For budget options, I’ve had really good luck with Uniqlo — they’re workout tights and sports bras are usually in the $20 range (they have sales often) and the fabrics are thick and substantial, really good quality basics for the price. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Under Armour’s outlet section — you can often snag great deals. I especially love garments made of their “Studio Lux” fabric.

  5. Lina

    I boycott lululemon because of the size issue (so not cool!), but I found similar nice-looking pants and shirts at TJMaxx and Target. Bonus: they don’t break the bank, like lululemon does! I tend to go with black pants and a colorful top, which gives me lots of easy mix and match options. Good for those early mornings where I’m not coordinated enough yet to put a clever outfit together 😉 all I need to do is aim for one pair of pants and one top.

  6. Lisa Wong

    Great tips, Sal!

    One thing I’ve noticed at my barre classes is some women take the coordinating outfits a step further with complementary tank tops and sports bras. For example, if you’re wearing a racerback or a tee with an interesting cut that lets the sports bra straps show, they’ll be matching or contrasting colours or patterns.

  7. Ruth Slavid

    I was wondering why this seemed so little of an issue to me, in terms of covering up the bumpy bits. And then I realised that my exercise is either out of doors, in a swimming pool (where you can’t hide much, just get in the water fast), or in church halls. And the unifying factor is … no mirrors! Sometime doing sit ups I notice how fat my stomach is and I think (apart from remembering to engage my abs) that the exercise is doing me good, so I certainly shouldn’t worry about how it makes me look. That said, I have bought some new gear, but since my ‘problem’ areas are stomach, hips and thighs, they are all on display. The most important thing I have found? Workout gear with adjustable/ well-designed waists so that it won’t fall down. Because that is really distracting and, at worst, embarrassing.

  8. Ginger

    This is a great read! Updated gear is a simple “non-essential” but it sure helps my mood. The Champion line at Target has a lot of options, lots of colors, good prices – and Tall sizes IN THE STORE. Amazing!

  9. Sonja

    Oh, I would like to say something about that.
    I don’t think that’s for everyone, but it has helped me a lot to feel better while I’m exercising.
    I basically apply the same „rules“ for my workout clothes that I apply to my daily clothes.
    To me it has been a revelation and very freeing to understand the principles of body
    types and flattering silhouettes, so I wear at the gym what I wear in the street.
    That means widelegged trousers (palazzo or harem pants) and a fitted tee or top. (I have an hourglass figure).
    For summer I have a collection of wide cotton and viscose pants (without a zipper) that are either from a normal clothes shop or from the loungewear section. These are pants that I DO actually wear in the street.
    For winter I either wear the same stuff with longsleeves or sometimes widelegged sweatpants.
    I know of course that widelegged trousers aren’t practical or even safe for every type of
    exercise, so I also have a pair of actual jogging pants. Those have straight legs, but they are not tight.
    I own a pair of sports shorts, too, that I use for running or hiking in summer. It was
    totally impossible to find women’s sports shorts that aren’t skin tight, so I bought a pair of loose basketball shorts for 14 year old boys.
    Many people prefer special sportswear that transports sweat, but I have always disliked the way they feel on my skin.
    I also dislike the usual aesthetics of sportswear – a lot of dark colours for menswear, a
    lot of baby blue and pink for women, and all those contrasting seams.
    Apart from that, the special sportswear is usually much more expensive than normal
    Although one should probably not skimp on shoes and sports bras …

  10. Monica H

    My go-to as a tall gal is JCPenney, although Athleta and Old Navy have some tall options. I presume they carry other size-diverse options as well, although I’ve never looked.

    I personally have not found much difference in more expensive gear – I’ve worn the same JCP capris and two Kohl’s tops to yoga for over 5 years. Of course, the yoga I do doesn’t entail getting very sweaty so I don’t wash them very frequently.

    As a yoga practitioner, one thing I’ve noticed is that some studios have a different ‘culture’ than others. One in my neighborhood has a very ‘see and be seen’ vibe, where it seems the main goal is to look cute and be cool because you do yoga. Most are young, slim, and it’s very cliquey. Another studio practically next door is completely opposite, with people of diverse ages and body shapes and all kinds of outfits. Gyms can have a similar difference. So, if you are feeling too much pressure from the fashionistas and don’t really WANT to change your outfits, you might consider changing where you work out!

  11. Natalie

    The biggest thing that helps me feel more fashionable in workout gear has been moving away from cotton t-shirts into moisture-wicking tops. I tend to sweat anytime I workout, including just light yoga, so wearing tops that don’t show big sweat stains makes me feel a lot less self-conscious. Also, life is more comfortable when not in wet cotton.

    I like strappy tank tops, especially tunic tops, over tight pants with a color-coordinated sports bra. It’s my workout version of Sal’s long-over-lean look. I tend to stick to one or two major color families (bright blues/blue-greens, with some purple thrown in), so I can easily pick any top and bra and they’ll coordinate but not match. My preference for tight pants stems from loving leg-lifts and crunches, and disliking flashing people by wearing shorts. I personally feel less revealing in tight clothes that I know won’t sag/bunch/gape and show skin. Plus, I’m self-conscious about my belly, and most spandex pants do a decent job of squishing that in, but in a comfy sort of way. Long tanks then make me feel taller and leaner. Plus, it’s an outfit that moves easily with my body no matter the kind of exercise I’m doing and doesn’t risk getting caught in gear, whether it’s running, cycling, rock climbing, yoga, aerobics, or weight lifting.