At L.A.'s fitness centers, dress for sweat success

The etiquette surrounding gym dress codes
Leave the baggy clothes at home. If you want to fit in, spandex and tank tops are your new uniform.
(Talitha Shipman/ For the Times)

I walked into my first-ever spinning class at the Burn Studio in Burbank recently, and immediately felt like the kid who brought carrot sticks to the slumber party. Slender women sailed around the room -- adjusting their bikes and pulling their hair back into neat ponytails -- clad in a sleek uniform of capri-length spandex pants paired with form-fitting athletic tank tops or midriff-baring sports bras. The few guys were outfitted in mid-thigh-length athletic shorts and fitted, solid-colored T-shirts. One and all were shod in those crazy spinning shoes that lock into the bicycle pedals, ensuring that should your bike spontaneously become unstationary, you’ll be going down with the ship.

My outfit -- a faded, baggy Rolling Stones concert T-shirt, worn American Apparel hoodie sweat shirt, battered Asics running shoes and what I naively assumed were obligatory bike shorts -- which had felt so smartly utilitarian when I left the house, suddenly seemed solely suited for gathering garbage on the side of the 101 (“1998 called, and it wants its bike shorts back,” quipped one friend, when I told her of my minor humiliation).

Having never set bum to a stationary bike before, I was already anxious about attending a spinning class. But feeding my discomfort was how loudly my get-up announced my status as a neophyte. Was I mocked, gaped at or stoned for not dressing like a spin-bot? Certainly not. But the pain of climbing imaginary hills might have been soothed (slightly) had I felt that I looked the part of a regular.

There are unofficial dress codes everywhere in L.A. -- check out the sea of Uggs at Whole Foods and the skinny jeans skulking through the halls of every area high school -- but few places are as tricky to navigate, fashion-wise, as fitness classes.

I got the lay of the land recently when, on my quest to find a regular class or two to commit to for 2009, I toured a handful of studios and gyms around the city -- and found that though trends in workout wear shift more gradually than those on the street, unstated uniforms abound.

The (form-fitting) basics

Generally, spandex full-length or capri pants (in a matte finish, never disco-shiny) are de rigueur in the majority of fitness classes I attended, including spinning, yoga, core strengthening and Pilates. And tops are almost always fitted -- baggy T-shirts have gone the way of cassette tapes.

“We went through a trend where everyone was wearing baggy clothes,” said Madonna Grimes, group fitness director for the Hollywood Crunch outpost. “But now baggy is dead. You can tell when people haven’t been in class a while -- they walk in with all this big stuff on.”

Solid, neutral colors have been the rule for years, but printed spandex -- stripes, florals and polka-dots -- is on the rise in L.A. (trend-setting yoga wear brand Lululemon is leading the charge. “We’re doing more prints and patterns, and playing around a little more,” said Deanne Schweitzer, director of design and innovation.)

On the mat

When it comes to dressing for yoga, it’s prudent to note the style of yoga being taught. Ashtanga is rigorous, so pouring yourself into high-performance Lycra, designed for movement, makes sense. Yogis at Crunch and City Yoga on Fairfax Avenue pair stretchy bottoms with matching spaghetti-strap tank tops -- with the most chic women toting their mat in a drawstring tote and arranging their hair into a gently mussed braid, J.Crew style.

And there’s a reason Bikram yoga devotees show up for class nearly naked. It’s practiced in a room heated to equatorial temperatures, and by mid-class, the commingled sweat in the air makes you feel as if you’re working out in a sauna.

At a recent class at Bikram Yoga, a studio in Atwater Village, women sported spandex hot pants (they refer to them as “micro-shorts,” but let’s call a spade a spade) and tank tops or sports bras, while guys wore short-shorts paired with tanks or tees. Dressed in spandex pedal pushers, I lasted through 30 minutes of melting in front of a space heater before groping for the door.

The hatha style of yoga is the most forgiving -- in practice and in dress code. At a beginner’s class at Silver Lake Yoga, which specializes in the hatha style, students were clad in a motley amalgamation of baggy sweats, spandex pants, roomy printed T-shirts and ribbed tank top undershirts. (At long last, my people.)

Loose was also the rule at Mind-Body Fitness Pilates Studio in Los Feliz, where most students show up for class in billowy drawers or sweat pants. “I think it’s an Eastside thing,” one regular noted. “You don’t see baggy pants west of Vermont.”

In the studio

You can certainly ditch the prim yoga pants for hip-hop class at Millennium dance studio. Street style rules at this North Hollywood adult dance center, where Britney Spears perfected her rump shakes. At a recent beginning hip-hop class, girls and guys alike channeled ‘80s Brooklyn via vibrant-hued Nike high-tops, supremely baggy sweat pants with one leg hiked up, baseball hats cocked to the side and -- for the women -- huge “door knocker” gold earrings and sexy deconstructed T-shirts (the instructor wore a video-ready ensemble of a striped bikini top peeking out of a barely-there shredded T-shirt).

Grimes said donning street style in hip-hop classes helps students and teachers feel the vibe. “I always get all ghetto when I teach hip-hop,” she added. “I put on the big gold hoops and everything.”

Still, the most specialized workout gear in town has to be at the popular pole-dancing class at Crunch in Hollywood -- where toned women with long, loose tresses pair hot pants with, well, hooker heels. “You have to be in shorts so you can hold onto the pole,” Grimes explained. “People walk into the class and try to roll up their pants, but they can never get them high enough.”

Get our Essential California newsletter