“Just being outside is a workout today,” Arianna Gaujean, 18, said while browsing the sale rack at Awoke Vintage in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was a scorching July evening and Ms. Gaujean, a student at St. Francis College, was wearing a short black racer-back dress — the ideal garment, she said, for doing just about anything in the heat.
In 35-and-under parlance, this was an “exercise dress,” an all-in-one outfit that, depending on your browsing habits, may be haunting your social feeds, with ads touting its comfort (stretchy nylon and spandex!), versatility (built-in shorts!) and universally flattering silhouette (who doesn’t feel good in an A-line dress?).
One of the most popular versions was released by Outdoor Voices, an athleisure brand, in 2018 and updated this year with pockets, elastic leg grippers and adjustable straps. Several other companies, including Reformation, Nike, Girlfriend Collective and Halara (a label seemingly built around the garment), sell their own takes, most of which are marketed aggressively on Instagram and TikTok.
Compared to last year, exercise dress sales nearly doubled, according to data from the NPD Group, a market research firm. In turn, the exercise dress, for those primed to notice it, has become something like the Amazon Coat: a quietly ubiquitous cultural object.
Indeed, over a two-week period in mid-July, not a day went by that this reporter didn’t spot one. The dresses were everywhere: on the dance floor at a rooftop party in Chinatown, at the laundromat in Greenpoint, navigating the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
“Prepandemic, I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten the dress. But now that we’re like, athleisure all the time, it feels more acceptable to always wear this,” said Amanda Hayes, 27, who works in marketing, while wearing a lavender Outdoor Voices dress at a picnic in Washington Square Park.
A growing feeling of sweatpants-induced ennui may be partly accountable for sales. “People are tired of wearing just sweatshirts and leggings,” said Jaehee Jung, a fashion psychologist and professor at the University of Delaware, adding that boredom tends to drive a lot of consumer trends.
Ease and versatility are also key selling points. “I love the simplicity of a dress, only having to think about one garment,” said Michaela Brew, 25, who lives in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park neighborhood and works in real estate banking. “I love how easy it is to just throw on.”
People also want to be able to dress for any event, all in one. “Several times I’ve dressed myself up in my exercise dress and gone to study then found myself pulled into a Spikeball game,” said Zoee D’Costa, 24, a medical student at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. “It’s nice to be able to combine things that make me look and feel good with being functional.”
Several people were reluctant to wear the dress for full-on exercise. “I don’t really wear it to work out work out,” said Brianne Sabino, 27, who works in media and was picnicking with Ms. Hayes. “I would not go on a run in this dress.”
“I wish there was a bra-like aspect, even just a shelf, maybe with removable cups because it provides zero support and therefore makes it difficult to actually exercise without a sports bra on,” said Ms. Brew, who owns the Outdoor Voices dresses. “I also wish there was a flap or attachment of some sort for the shorts so you don’t have to remove the entire dress while going to the bathroom.”
“It’s trying to be a workout garment, but it’s like this dirty little secret that people don’t really work out in it,” said Christina Nastos, who lives in Chelsea and is an account manager for Peerless Clothing, 24.
Well, maybe not everyone. Sarah Moser, 35, who lives in Sunnyside, Queens, and works in human resources, was wearing a navy Outdoor Voices exercise dress on the 7 train while on her way to a run recently. “They’re my go-to running outfit during the warmer months,” she said. She bought her first ahead of a half marathon. Now, Ms. Moser has them in a dozen colors and patterns.
She isn’t alone in owning so many of the same dress. On Reddit, one user posted a photo of their “exercise dress collection,” which included around 20 different colors and patterns. Ms. Brew and Ms. Gaujean both own three each.
And though most people spotted in these dresses tend to be Gen Zers and millennials, the marketing of these dresses emphasizes that they’re for everyone. In a TikTok sponsored post for Halara’s dress, for instance, an elderly woman says the dress makes her feel “30 years younger.”
“The impact of social media is undeniable for fashion companies and style trends,” said Dr. Jung. “It’s like everyone is eyeing on something at the same time wherever and whenever.”
“I think part of the appeal is also seeing influencers in them make them look great,” said Ms. Gaujean, who first learned of the garment on social media. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say seeing them on others via TikTok or Instagram wasn’t the biggest push to buy one.”
That’s not to say everyone’s been totally happy with the fit of these dresses. Molly Kipnis, 27, a social media marketing manager who lives in Chicago, wanted an exercise dress badly, but couldn’t immediately find one that worked for her. “I went to Outdoor Voices for the third time to try on this exercise dress that everyone had on, and for the third time, it just did not look good on me,” she said.
In an act of service, Ms. Kipnis ordered every version of the dress she could find then reviewed them on Instagram. She found that the Girlfriend Collective’s dress was best for her. “The material was really nice, compared to the other ones I tried on, and I thought the sizing was very inclusive. It was also ethically sourced, compared to some other brands.”
All qualms aside, the dress has been a smash hit this season. “Dress of the summer,” Ms. Brew said. “I was walking near my apartment the other day and, I kid not, 50 percent of the women I saw were wearing an exercise dress.”