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Dressing to Exercise

David Coggins considers the perilous state of sporting clothes

Exercise should be simple, but inevitably it becomes complicated. Sportswear SketchYou want to go out and run in the sun. What could be easier? But how much should you stretch? How much arch support do your feet need? Or do they, in fact, need any at all? Barefoot marathoners say one thing, sneaker cartels another. Theories conflict, and we begin to fear that in trying to improve our physiques, we are courting muscular disaster. Perhaps this is why runners always look so aggrieved.

In New York, where space is limited and everybody is a judge, the implications are magnified. It’s not only which gym you go to, it’s what type of yoga you practice, which park you run in, whether you box or row, play squash or faux mountain climb. There are infinite considerations, but one question trumps the rest: What are you going to wear?

When we exercise, we shouldn’t compose an ensemble with the attention required to attend the Costume Institute gala. Exercise is supposed to be liberating: You’re supposed to care about your heart rate not your hemline. What we wear when we sweat is revealing, because it shows how we perceive ourselves in a more natural state. Some insist on formality: Chloë Sevigny’s character in Whit Stillman’s film The Last Days of Disco runs in Central Park in a trench coat and looks lovely.

Others allow nature to have its way: Men who should know better wear tube socks of dubious provenance and malodorous sweatshirts they should have abandoned back in college. That’s the same thinking that has caused people on airplanes to look as if they’re attending a slumber party. Classicists know better, and there’s no reason not to look dashing on the playing field.

The most natural form of exercise is swimming, and the most natural way to swim is in the nude. Even that’s getting harder to do. This was common practice at the Racquet and Tennis Club, the New York Athletic Club and other Gilded Age clubs around New York—until the 1980s, when they were forced to admit women. A 2005 article from the Times described consternation among male Racquet and Tennis Club members who had to abandon their natural prerogatives and don their trunks. They felt they were failing to uphold a tradition dating to the Greeks.

But it’s not lack of clothes that afflicts us, it’s too many. Too much technology promising too many things. I say, if a fabric is trademarked, you should raise an eyebrow. You’re told that squeezing into some engineered shmata will make you more aerodynamic, move heat away from your body, and improve your performance by a fraction of a second. That makes sense for Olympians, but it makes the rest of us look ready for space travel to the unstylish side of the galaxy. And the colors, oh, the colors! Rental car burgundy, sports arena turquoise, searing tangerine.

The irony is that traditional active sportswear looked very smart—from rugby shirts to polos to boat shoes. Old-time baseball players looked terrific in loose-fitting flannel jerseys, while their managers wore great shawl-collar cardigans. Tom Landry dignified the Cowboys’s sideline in coat, tie and hat, but then the NFL demanded “official gear,” and suits were banned. Now, coaches sport team windbreakers and visors on the sidelines, like Vegas dealers. The corporate logo, once found inside a shirt, is now the entire shirt. Even golfers, once sport’s nattiest dressers, are as logo-plastered as a NASCAR driver.

Capitalism will naturally intrude into sport, but it can be done with style. When René Lacoste, elegant in his tennis whites, adorned his shirts with a large crocodile, he was credited with creating the first logo, but subsequent generations have sadly failed his standard. Now, tennis players wear colors like those worn by highway crews trying to avoid oncoming traffic.

When I was growing up, my father wore a white cricket sweater with pink-and-black-trimmed collar to our weekly tennis match. He carried his racquet in a canvas carpenter’s bag. That nuance was lost on me as a teenager, but now it strikes me as just the right balance of dash, irreverence and unpredictability, which, incidentally, recalls my dad’s tennis game as well.

There’s still hope for a higher standard. Speaking of sport coats, the Italian designer Luciano Barbera says: “Any time I see a man playing tennis or golf in his jacket, I know he and I can be friends.” That’s the spirit. For more inspiration, it’s instructive to stop by the tennis courts in the Luxembourg Gardens to see what the Parisians are wearing. In trousers and canvas sneakers and with an air of panache, they make little concession to the fact that they’re exercising at all. It looks as if they are more likely to head to a café afterward than a power cleanse. It’s true that France no longer ranks as a great tennis nation, but the French still have their priorities in order.  BG

David Coggins considers an acceptable workout wardrobe