Brow Beat

The Groovy Aerobics Leggings That Got Simon Doonan Through the ’80s

The Lycra leggings.

Photo by Ally Lindsay. Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press.

All week on Brow Beat we’ll be presenting tales of special pieces of clothing as told by their wearers, excerpted from Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, out now from Princeton Architectural Press.

One by one my roommates, friends, and boyfriends in Los Angeles started getting sick from AIDS. It was very early on in the epidemic and when you went to the doctor, they couldn’t refer you to an expert. They asked you if you were religious, meaning, you were going to die.

Going to aerobics became an obsession. I have a low center of gravity and very strong legs, so I was instantly very good at following all the routines. I’d power through an hour of exercise and sweat a lot—so as not to get squat. My mother used to say to my sister and me, “Now you’re both short; you don’t want to become squat.” She always wore long-line girdles and smoked cigarettes so she wouldn’t get fat. I had aerobics.

I was working at Maxfield back then, which was the first groovy designer shop in L.A. Customers like Fleetwood Mac, Natalie Wood, Cher, Linda Ronstadt, and Joni Mitchell would shop there because it was the first place in L.A. where you could buy Alaïa, Comme des Garçons, or Versace. They also carried Stephen Sprouse. He did these Lycra cycle pant things for men that were orange and black with mirror graffiti writing on them, and I thought they would be great for aerobics. When I look at them now, I hear the disco version of Cats, lots of Pointer Sisters, and all the aerobics anthems that were so popular back then.

I decided to join a gym with a friend who had been diagnosed with AIDS. At least we could be healthy, we thought. We became members of Sports Connection, also known as “Sports Erection,” in West Hollywood. This was in the early 1980s during the aerobics heyday in Los Angeles, when Jane Fonda had her own aerobics studio and women walked around in pastel blue Lycra tights with pink leg warmers, white Reeboks, and sweatbands.

I went every day. In an attempt to do “healthy” things, I became addicted to the lights, the music, the endorphins. It was a very showbiz-y way to keep in shape, and many actresses would go to the class, like Madonna when she was starting to become well known. They filmed the aerobics movie Perfect, with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis, at Sports Connection about six months after we joined. Curtis had the ultimate aerobics body—legs, legs, legs, and very toned arms.

All that exhibitionism appealed to me. I always threw on my Lycra, strode into class, stood right in front of the mirror, and got into it. And I was the only one wearing these super New Wave, groovy Lycra leggings.

At the time, I was very into the New Romantic look. I had a lot of that Vivienne Westwood pirate clothing, and I’m in the “Bette Davis Eyes” video, by Kim Carnes. That look was big in L.A. and London. What’s noteworthy is that back then I could go out with my New Romantic friends in the evening and chuck on my leggings for aerobics the next day. There wasn’t this slavish desire to be cool. It wasn’t about sucking in your cheeks or money or table service or prestige. It was more about having fun, being fun, being stupid, being mad, being theatrical, being as naff as you wanted.

English people are acutely aware of what’s naff and what’s not, but we willfully embrace naff things. I knew that doing aerobics was one of the naffest things I could do, but I loved it because I was in charge of my own naffness.

The cult of aerobics was waning by the time I moved to New York in 1985, but with so many people getting sick, for a couple of years it was an antidote to this incredible malaise of melancholy that had been blanketing L.A.

Excerpted from Worn Stories by Emily Spivack, out now from Princeton Architectural Press.