Lululemon Athletica, a trendy athletic-wear retail company founded in 1998, has recently had a surge in popularity. Its red and white circular logo, stylish and eco-friendly shopping bags, and fashion-forward, yoga-inspired workout apparel have become commonplace both on the city streets and at the gym. It seems to me that the increase in popularity of fashionable exercise apparel, in this case Lululemon merchandise in particular, can be examined in terms of two aspects relating to representation: the idea of representation to the viewer, and representation for the wearer.
Representation through fashion has these two distinct elements. On one hand, representation involves presenting and conveying an idea deliberately to the viewer. On the other hand, representation through fashion can be expressly for the wearer, in that she can portray through her clothing an idea she wishes to instill or reinforce in herself.
One way in which representing to the viewer occurs is through Thorstein Veblen’s idea of “conspicuous consumption.” When the wearer purchases a Lululemon product or carries a Lululemon shopping bag, she is consuming conspicuously. The brand’s prominent logo, characteristic design features, and loud shopping bags have become status symbols, “a means of reputability” (Veblen 47).
The wearer of Lululemon exhibits her financial status, unabashedly displaying that she can afford to purchase workout clothes produced by a relatively pricy name brand rather than wear an old T-shirt from her drawer and Target gym shorts. Lululemon does not offer better function than the alternatives; a basic T-shirt and Target shorts are just as functional for a jog or a Zumba class as a Lululemon tank top and leggings. The value of the conspicuous label, as well as the “stylish” workout-wear certainly seems to take priority over affordability and basic function for the brand’s clientele.
In addition to exhibiting wealth, the wearing of Lululemon also represents to others “cultural capital.” Most Lululemon shoppers presumably have the cultural awareness and savvy to note that Lululemon is currently trendy, and they sees value in that. Pierre Bourdieu discusses the “mastery of a…code,” which distinguishes between the knowledgeable and unknowledgeable, those with cultural capital and those without. Lululemon merchandise can be said to have “meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code…” (Bourdieu 2). In other words, someone wearing Lululemon is relays their cultural capital—their knowledge, and therefore status—to others on their same social plane, who have the same “cultural competence” and understand the “code.” Nonetheless, this is representation to the knowledgeable viewer who understands the meaning and implications of the Lululemon apparel, i.e. the fashion value and high price.
Aside from financial status and cultural capital that the wearer represents, or expresses, to the viewer via her Lululemon merchandise, the wearing of Lululemon apparel can, quite simply, be assumed to represent that the wearer is heading to or from some active exercise. Interestingly, whether this is the truth or not, this would be the most obvious assumption, or perception, to gather from the representation.
This is part of the difficulty of representation through fashion. While the wearing of Lululemon apparel might very well convey the accurate truth—that, say, you neighbor is returning from a great workout at the gym—it may just as well be the case that your neighbor is neither headed to nor returning from the gym, and may have no intention of exercising at all. Viewers and passersby can assume any infinite number of things about an individual based on her clothes, and they may not be remotely true. Mary Ellen Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher point out in their chapter in Fashion Theory: “[j]ust as verbal language can be deceptive, so can the language of dress. Individuals can assume disguises to deceive the observer” (112).
Because of this nature of clothing—the fact that anyone can wear what they want, regardless of its original or seeming purpose—the meanings of fashions change. Laura Portwood-Stacer explains in her book Lifestyle, Politics, and Radical Activism that “[s]ince just about anyone can adopt the symbolic marks of a subculture, the markers may eventually lose their semiotic linkage to that subculture…as the ‘poseurs’ become indistinguishable from the ‘authentic’…” (6). This is how Lululemon apparel can come to lose its purely athletic connotation. Anyone can wear it, so individual pieces (like leggings or tank tops) or even entire outfits can come to be worn by anyone, including individuals who are not using them for their original meaning. So, not only can people masquerade in their Lululemon workout apparel, pretending to be gym-goers and flaunting their wealth and cultural capital, but in turn, Lululemon’s exercise apparel has actually lost some of its original, “authentic” meaning. As Lululemon apparel becomes more common in and out of the gym environment, what it represents widens to include any number of meanings to the viewer.
All of the above pertains to the element of representation that is focused towards the viewer. The other element, representation for the wearer, is also pertinent to Lululemon. One way in which representation works on the wearer is that it serves to connect the wearer to a certain community or group of people. Roach and Eicher discuss this in reference to structured communities, such as the Amish and the Hasidic communities. These groups dress alike and with specific uniform style in order to identify with their particular doctrines and insular communities so that a shared vocabulary of clothing “symbolically [ties] a community together” (118). However, the idea can be applied to a more abstract community as well. In a way, exercise and organized workout classes have become trendy, creating almost a global community of people who make going to the gym a ritualistic or social component of life. (Without dwelling on this idea, I do believe the recent surge in private gyms, athletic-wear companies like Lululemon, and exercise trends like Yoga, SoulCycle, and Zumba have created a sort of subculture, or community of people for whom working out is a way of life. This is not to say that any person who ever exercises is a part of the community, but a person who dresses the part on a regular basis and lives a certain lifestyle that supports active exercise and regular gym-going might be.) In this way, walking in the street in gym clothes associates the wearer with a certain type of person, and in turn, a particular group of people.
This self-identification relates back to both types of representation. Like a Hasidic Jew dresses in Hasidic garb in order to represent to others that he is a part of a certain community, someone wearing Lululemon portrays herself to others as a middle or upper class, health-conscious person, part of a community of people who care to look and live this way. This is representation for the other. Additionally, part of the reason a Hasidic person dresses so distinctly is to instill within himself and serve as a constant reminder of a distinct ideology and model of living. Someone wearing gym clothes, specifically outside the gym, may deliberately do so to identify herself with the masses of gym-goers, perhaps as a means of self-encouragement and promotion of that routine for herself, and aligning herself with a certain lifestyle.
A sign I saw posted on a Lululemon window last summer speaks to this aspect of representation. It read: “Fake it till you make it. This slogan suggests a way to make a change in one’s lifestyle starting from one’s clothes. The implication is that a person should wear exercise clothes that make her want to exercise—clothes that fit well, make the wearer feel and look good (squeezing them in, pushing them up, whatever needs to be done)—until she achieves the lifestyle in which exercising comes easy. Essentially, the phrase tells the reader to “fake” being that person who works out until she becomes that person who works out.
In this way, Lululemon’s fashionable workout apparel can reflect and bolster a mentality or ideology in the wearer. On the other hand, we’ve seen how the apparel has also become just another label for upper-middle class individuals to add to their repertoire of name brand possessions and flaunt on the streets, with no significant functional advantage over more affordable brands.
Representation through fashion differs for each individual. Some may choose to purchase Lululemon clothing to represent their wealth and awareness of current trends, while others wear Lululemon as a representation of their motivation and devotion to exercise—so much so that they are willing to splurge on the clothing.
The problem with representation is that it is a double-edged sword; because an outfit can just as easily be a façade as a genuine representation of a person’s identity, attitude, ideology, beliefs, etc., the viewer can never be sure of what she is seeing. Additionally, a viewer’s own biases, experiences, and associations skew everything she sees, so we can never represent, or convey, a message accurately because it will always be construed by the viewer’s own perception. Try as we might to represent ourselves through our clothing or analyze someone else based on his or hers, I’d argue it’s impossible to accurately perceive a representation through fashion as it is intended to be conveyed by the wearer.
Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984. Print.
Portwood-Stacer, Laura. “I’m Not Joining Your World;” Performing Political Dissent Through Spectacular Self-presentation. Print.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2007. 109-121. Print.
Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Consumption.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, 23-70. Print.