Body by Bland : Workout enthusiasts don't sweat it these days when they're dressing for the gym. Just about any old thing that sops up perspiration goes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chantel Street used to dress up to sweat. Before setting foot in the gym she'd color coordinate her workout clothes, down to her socks.

Today, she wears gray bike shorts, a gray tank leotard, a purple sweatshirt tied around her waist and a black baseball cap, backward. The outfit speaks strictly to practicality: The shorts and leotard allow unrestricted movement, the sweatshirt wards off a chill, and the cap absorbs perspiration.

"I used to be into Liz Claiborne a few years ago," said the 22-year-old hairstylist as she vigorously pumped the pedals of a stair machine at Bally Total Fitness in Pasadena. "I've been working out for four years now. I used to try to look cuter. But once you get into it, I don't think [what you wear] matters."

From the ultra-chic five-star Sports Club L.A. to the hard-core Gold's Gym Hollywood, female gym rats have abandoned their head-to-toe matchy-matchy outfits for pieces that stop just short of shlubbiness.

Gone are the leg warmers, the elastic belts, the coordinated hair scrunchies and the skintight shiny Lycra that trickled down from disco-era glitz. In their place are baggy jersey shorts and pants in neutrals and muted colors; either oversize or scissors-cropped cotton T-shirts; plaids worn with stripes; men's boxers over bike shorts; bandannas as head wraps; and the accessory du jour: a sweatshirt tied around the waist. The only hints of style appear in bra tops or leotards with back detail or zippered fronts. And an exposed tattoo is the most likely source of bright color or pattern.

The trend of dressing down in the gym mirrors the move toward more casual workplace wardrobes, where black is the ubiquitous element. For many men and women, being turned out just took too much time. Plus, for the latest popular no-frills sports like spinning, kick boxing and sport climbing, a flashy leotard and leggings won't always cut it.

"I think women got tired of the outfit look," said fitness guru Martin Henry of the eponymous West Hollywood gym. "That was when disco was very popular. But we're not selling any shiny stuff in our boutique. It's a lot of natural fibers and very comfortable."

Even Henry has converted. "I love big, baggy, comfortable shorts and sweats and huge T-shirts," he added.

But don't the results of working out get lost in all that bulk? "If you have the goods, baby," he answered, "you can see that through a potato sack."

Even at Sports Club L.A., arguably the city's most elegant (and pricey) health facility, members don't dress to impress.

Surveying the crowd on a recent night, co-founder and executive vice president Nanette Pattee Francini said, "People have gone to dressing comfortably. They still look decent, but it's not a fashion show. . . . About five years ago I used to see these women and think, 'How long does it take them to get dressed?' It was always a new outfit. They did look very cute, but boy, it was more time than I had."

Her typical workout ensemble consists of leggings hacked off below the knee and a high-neck leotard with a sweatshirt tied around her waist.

She added the sweatshirt, she said, "not because my body's any less good than it was a few years ago," but because she felt too conspicuous in just leggings and a leotard.

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Even Carushka, the L.A.-based line of workout wear known for cutting-edge style, is getting back to basics. While previous collections incorporated 10 or 11 colors, the current Essentials line is black, white, heather gray and red, said assistant designer Kim Speth. There are also loose-fitting thermals in natural and roomy flannel fleece pieces in charcoal.

Explaining the change, Speth said, "I think the '80s was a really revved-up decade. In the '90s we're more into reduce, reuse, recycle, taking care of the environment--we're more spiritual."

A revolution is what Michael Levinson called the shift to low-key dressing. The president of the San Diego-based Weekend Exercise Company Inc., which produces Marika workout wear, said, "We are definitely seeing a trend away from coordinated prints and color and a huge increase in solids, which are black, black, black, white and heather gray."

That's reflected in a spring collection of looser shapes: drawstring-tied baggy shorts, roomy cropped T-shirts and tanks layered over bra tops. The toned-down palette is brightened with some colorful floral prints and accent stripes.

"As bland as it is," he said, "it's a little healthier. People are not fussing so much over matching their clothes. Should it matter that much in a person's life?"

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Still, workout wear designers haven't totally given up on women who have it and want to flaunt it.

Thong leotards continue to be popular. Carushka offers a "wonder halter" that's "guaranteed to increase you one bra size," according to the catalog, although most probably wind up as streetwear. And its butt-grazing "micro short" is popular, Speth said, along with a cinch-front cummerbund short that dips at the waistline to show off a belly ring and well-toned abs.

When it comes to color, New York-based Danskin breaks rank with a spring line filled with vibrant abstract designs and florals. "Bright colors are definitely on the rise--you see it in spring ready-to-wear," said Laura Preskin, director of merchandising. "Next year, women will be incorporating brights back into their wardrobes."

Yet it's difficult to picture Southern Californians trading in their black for perky prints.

Said Francini of the Sports Club L.A.: "Now, if you see somebody with a belt on her leotard you just go, 'Where has that person been?' Isn't that amazing, something as simple as a belt looks so corny."

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