Smart Living

It’s about time we worked what we wear to the gym

Try as we might, we've not all got the bodies of models. So let's stop dressing like them

A few years ago on holiday in New York, I was working out in the Soho outpost of upmarket sweatbox Equinox (I said ‘holiday’ not ‘rest week’). On the gym floor, I saw a gentleman who I presumed from his physique and preening self-regard was a model. What had me staring was not his ‘bare gains’ but his clothing: a beanie hat, vest, thermal long johns complete with Y-front and old army boots.

While ‘wellness’ has become well trendy, and most boutique fitness studios have sound systems, moody lighting and waiting lists to rival nightclubs, going to the gym is not a fashion show. Nor however is it slobbing out on your sofa. Indeed, that’s kind of the point. (Even then, take your boots off.) You should, therefore, consider your appearance and the sensibilities of your fellow members.

An old band T-shirt is another duff note, even if you’re a midlife crisis-hit, newly puritanical member of said group. (See Anthony Kiedis, Trent Reznor, all of Metallica.) Speaking of faded glories, you should have graduated from university team ‘stash’ by now. With a spate of new athle-tailers such as The Active Man and Sporty Henri stocking fresh labels, there’s no excuse for excessively laundered or perforated attire that wasn’t designed to have holes. Replica kits are strictly for the playing or watching of that sport.

“However industrial the gym’s air con, headgear is unnecessary: if you’re really cold, consider warming up”

Go too far the other way, though, and you resemble some sort of space-age compression gimp. Huge box jumps have been made in sweat wicking technology, but humble cotton is perfectly fine for the average air-conditioned gym-goer’s needs. In fact, I’d recommend throwing a plain, retro T-shirt, hoodie or pair of shorts over your base layer (so they’re not even touching skin), or technical pieces that have that same old-school feel. The matte texture adds variation and refinement: too much shiny man-made material, and you’ll start a fire; too many logos and you’ll look sponsored.

However industrial the gym’s air con, headgear is unnecessary: if you’re really cold, try warming up. Sweatpants have become acceptable inside the gym and out, provided they’re neatly tapered and not baggy. Karl Lagerfeld called them ‘a sign of defeat’, which is perhaps a bit strong, but in the gym, they’ve always indicated to me a lack of effort or leg day attendance. They’re something you wear to travel there, over your shorts, which should finish above your knee to qualify. (You’re not Fred Durst. Thankfully.)

Buying your workout gear in exclusively black, white and grey meanwhile not only looks more grown-up, but it all goes together, giving you one less excuse to skip the gym. Save the neon for nu-raves, and the massive headphones for a silent disco. As a rule, avoid oversized anything: if you’re overweight, you’ll look bigger, and if not, you’ll hide your hard work. Be equally wary though of showing too much. I’ve yet to see someone wear a sleeveless top without looking like an exhibitionist.

Part of the appeal of tight sweatpants or leggings meanwhile is that they optically shrink your lower half, making your torso look bigger. Black tights and trainers together can get a bit Black Swan though. (No white tights, ever.) And in case you’re wondering when it became acceptable to wear skin-tight tops or – shudder – leggings without anything over them, the answer is that it didn’t. There’s a reason they’re called base layers.