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The Lycra Legacy of Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Physical’

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A funny thing happened when Kameron Lennox revisited the music video for “Physical,” the 1981 pop megahit by Olivia Newton-John, who died on Monday.

For most of the video, Ms. Newton-John bounces around a gym, training and terrorizing out-of-shape men while wearing a white leotard. In true 1980s fashion, that leotard was layered over magenta leggings and under a robin’s-egg blue shirt, cinched with a belt and accessorized with thick socks and a sweatband.

As a Hollywood costume designer preparing to work on the Apple TV+ aerobics dramedy also called “Physical,” starring Rose Byrne, Ms. Lennox saw something she hadn’t noticed when first watching the silly-sexy music video as a child.

The white leotard was “bunching in the groin area,” said Ms. Lennox, who wondered whether it was a leotard or one made from a large T-shirt. “The bottom kind of looks like a diaper. It looks very homemade. It looks like the fashions, actually, that were about to happen.”

Thanks to the video, which coincided with the dawn of MTV, “Physical” is remembered as a kind of anthem of the aerobics era — despite lyrics that are really more about copulation than cardio. Ms. Newton-John’s ensemble, too, has become a sartorial symbol of that era — despite the rudimentary construction of the leotard, which “definitely isn’t a workout outfit,” said Ms. Lennox, who ended up taking her costume design inspiration from lesser-known aerobics instructors like Bess Motta.

In that sense, the “Physical” ensemble is also an early example of athleisure, a term originally used to describe not exercise clothing but casual clothing that resembled exercise clothing.

As Ms. Newton-John explained in a video posted to her YouTube channel in December, the video “really helped kick off the entire fitness and aerobic craze of the time. It was the birth of the ’80s headband fashion craze. I should have started a headband and leg warmer company or made fitness videos. Jane Fonda beat me to it.”

It is true that no one popularized aerobics and the ballet-inspired aesthetic of aerobics more than Ms. Fonda, who opened a workout studio in 1979 and published the best-selling “Jane Fonda’s Workout Book” in 1981. But “Physical” came close, taking an aerosol hairspray can to a fitness trend — dance exercise — that was already poised to light up the decade. Not just because of the dance-centric pop culture phenomena of the decade (“Fame” in 1980, “Flashdance” in 1983,“Footloose” in 1984) but because of the re-emergence of a textile invented in 1958: Lycra, known generically as spandex.

Ms. Newton-John’s video “crystallized, in a short couple of minutes in visual form, what was happening across culture, manufacturing and consumer habits,” said Sonnet Stanfill, senior curator of fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum and editor of the 2013 book “80s Fashion: From Club to Catwalk.”

In the 1970s, the textile industry began using Lycra — previously used as a substitute for rubber in women’s girdles — to create wardrobes around exercise. And so women attending classes or watching videos from Jazzercise or Jane Fonda were exposed to “a whole wardrobe they could buy to feel great when they were exercising,” Ms. Stanfill said, citing leotards and tights in a range of “almost-violent color tones.” Running bras had been invented and close to a decade had passed since Title IX increased the participation of women in sports — the options felt limitless.

“The last quarter of the 20th century in the U.S. was this kind of groundswell of celebrating the benefits of exercise and creating a wardrobe to go along with that,” she said. “Oftentimes changes in fashion are, particularly for women, connected to moments when sport has changed lifestyle.”

In high fashion, the designer Azzedine Alaïa was also using stretchy materials for his body-conscious designs — giving women a new opportunity to show off their toned bodies, Ms. Stanfill continued.

While the 1980s aerobic aesthetic mostly feels dated today, certain elements of that era have briefly come back into fashion. In the 2000s, before the spectacular fall of American Apparel’s founder, the company had reintroduced bright leotards and shiny leggings, with marketing that was more ironic and grungy-sexy than energetic and silly-sexy.

Yet the use of spandex never really went away, readapting as trendy yoga pants and leggings, then shapewear-as-outerwear. “The lasting legacy is that elasticated fiber that allows the body to move and can be quite flattering and form-fitting if you’re wanting to show off your figure,” Ms. Stanfill said.

But as Ms. Lennox discovered while trying to track down 1980s leotards for the show “Physical,” most of the Lycra of that era “did not stand the test of time.” Still, the playful spirit of Ms. Newton-John’s “Physical” continues to inspire clothing and culture (as seen in the Apple TV+ series or the 2020 Dua Lipa song, both of the same name).

When Outdoor Voices designed its first studio collection in 2019, it was influenced by the leotard-over-leggings look (punctuated by ballet wraps and skirts) pioneered by Ms. Newton-John and Ms. Fonda, said Ty Haney, the company’s founder and former chief executive.

But the inspiration went deeper: Outdoor Voices helped popularize athleisure in the 2010s by promoting movement outside of traditional exercise, favoring “doing things” (its tagline) over doing reps, blurring the lines between gym spandex and gardening spandex. Does a leotard have to be a performance leotard, or can it be one made for a wacky music video?

There was a “joyous perspective they brought to moving your body,” Ms. Haney said of Ms. Newton-John and Ms. Fonda. “Freeing fitness from performance!”

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Love Letter: A Mysterious Delivery

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After Charlotte Maya lost her husband to suicide, she and her young sons were used to unexpected visitors. But when her doorbell rang one mid-December evening, nobody was there.

Instead, on her doormat was a kit to make a gingerbread house with a note that only said, “On the First Day of Christmas. … ”

In this week’s Modern Love essay, “When a Doorbell’s Ring Means Hope,” Ms. Maya describes how a series of mysterious deliveries buoyed her family during their darkest days.

Join the 7-Day Happiness Challenge.

Research shows that the single most important driver of happiness is the strength of our relationships. Sign up for a week of exercises from the New York Times Well desk that will help set you up for a happier, more connected year.

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How One Japanese-American Designer Is Revitalizing Vintage Kimonos

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In her Brooklyn studio, designer Sara Sakanaka keeps a small drawstring bag that her grandmother made for her decades ago. Sewn from textile scraps, the striped pouch is one of Sakanaka’s oldest keepsakes, an heirloom representing a generations-old philosophy. “My mom used to tell me this story. It was about how if we treat objects with love and care for one hundred years, they can obtain a soul,” she shares as pours each of us a cup of Mugicha, a Japanese Barley tea that she grew up drinking. We met at her studio on a gray Tuesday morning, where a collection of silk separates, each made from reclaimed Japanese kimonos, hangs neatly. On a shelf, folded piles of salvaged textiles wait for her to sew them into something new, just like her grandmother once did as a hobby. “There’s this whole idea that objects have lives,” she says. “I like to see every piece as a true considered object in that way.” 

Nick Krasznai / courtesy of Considered Objects 

It makes sense then that Sakanaka would name her own label Considered Objects. The 39-year-old launched her line—a collection of hand-sewn jackets, dresses, and shirtings that are made entirely from reclaimed Japanese kimonos and textiles—just two years ago. “I never had the dream of starting a business,” she shares. “I was happy working toward someone else’s vision. But at some point, there’s this part of you that wants to explore what you want to say. It took time for me to be able to discover that.” 

Sakanaka has a lot to say. With 20 years of experience under her belt, she has developed a design philosophy of her own. “I have no interest in buying new materials or producing with mills,” she says while showing me the intricate, hand-stitched panels of a vintage summer kimono. As she points out its cotton lining and hand-painted family crests (her own paternal and maternal family crests are tattooed on each of her arms), it becomes clear that she is not just making clothing; she’s stitching age-old stories into contemporary garments. “After years of working at different fashion brands, I found that you can get stuck on this hamster wheel. What has always grounded me was the question, ‘how can I not only find true meaning in these things, but how can I offer connection through these pieces?’”

Nick Krasznai / courtesy of Considered Objects 

Nick Krasznai / courtesy of Considered Objects 

An FIT graduate, the apparel designer previously worked for fashion label Imitation of Christ, luxury line Ports 1961, bespoke womenswear collection Honor, and the Japanese fashion house Foxey. In 2020, after spending nearly four years traveling back and forth between New York and Japan for work, she felt she was ready for something new. “I started to wonder how I would mentally, physically, and creatively sustain. I was burnt out.” she tells me. Around that time, her grandmother, the one who gave her the collaged drawstring bag and taught her how to sew, passed away. “This was during the pandemic, so I wasn’t able to attend her funeral in Japan. I had previously inherited her collection of kimonos and rediscovered them during that time. I had completely forgotten about them, but learning about them became part of my grieving process. Having those made me feel close to her,” Sakanaka reflects. 

It was then that she took a page from her grandmother’s book. “Studying these shambled garments and giving them new life through reconstruction was a way for me to heal while reconnecting with myself and my culture,” she says. Preserving the original rectangular panels and stitching style from each kimono, the designer began dismantling and reassembling each one. Her first design? A classic, collared, button-down shirt. Inside each shirt she constructed, Sakanaka sewed a layered patchwork flower made from leftover silk scraps. “That flower, that mark, it was sort of my way of memorializing the whole experience of my creation and of finding closure. It was a way of bestowing my honor upon each piece.” 

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Here’s How to Style 5 Luxurious Loungewear Sets This Winter

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All products featured on Vogue are independently selected by our editors. However, we may earn affiliate revenue on this article and commission when you buy something.

Cozying up for the winter has never looked chicer courtesy of luxurious loungewear sets from The Row, Wardrobe.NYC, Éterne, and more. Crafted from ultra-soft cashmeres and sultry silks, these matching sets are as indulgent as it gets and can be worn in the comfort of your own home or out and about for casual coolness. As the newly appointed foundation of your winter wardrobe, styling a luxe loungewear set properly can offer both ease and elegance at the same time. 

For an elevated errand ensemble, The Row’s ‘Jaspar’ hoodie and matching ‘Anton’ wide-leg pants are knitted from the softest of cashmere. The chic combination is so comfortable that you won’t want to change once you get home. Enhance the look with stylish sneakers from Nike, plush cable-knit socks from Johnstons of Elgin, and Nothing Written’s minimalist bag. Loungewear sets, like this cashmere turtleneck and midi skirt pairing from Altuzarra, also have the power to be dressed up for festive evenings out, especially when adorned in jewels from Missoma and Laura Lombardi. A matching activewear set from Sporty & Rich ensures that you arrive at any workout in style. Sofa-ready outfits from Wardrobe.NYC and Olivia Von Halle help curate the perfect night in this holiday season and beyond. 

This winter, investing in a loungewear set has never looked better. Below, here are five ways to style luxe loungewear sets that are as comfortable as they are chic. (Plus, also find a few more statement sets to add to your winter wardrobe.) 

The Elegant Errand Runner

Nothing says chic errand runner like this matching cashmere hoodie and pant set from The Row. Knitted from the softest of cashmere, it’s a chic combination so comfortable that you won’t want to change once you get home. Enhance the look with stylish sneakers from Nike, plush cable-knit socks from Johnstons of Elgin, and Nothing Written’s minimalist bag. Jewels from Mejuri are welcome embellishments. 

The Row Jaspar cashmere hoodie

The Row Anton cashmere high-rise pants

Johnstons of Elgin cable-knit cashmere socks

Nothing Written Ferry bag

Mejuri bold Croissant dôme huggies

The Cozy, Yet Chic Evening Look 

A loungewear set doesn’t have to be confined to the comforts of your own home or even resemble a traditional sweatsuit, for that matter. Case in point: find this dazzling skirt set from Altuzarra that is crafted from pure cashmere. Complete the elegant evening ensemble with Saint Laurent’s croc-effect pumps and Anine Bing’s minimalist handbag. Drip in gold thanks to Missoma hoop earrings and Laura Lombardi’s cult-classic necklace. 

Saint Laurent Blade chain croc-effect leather slingback pumps

Anine Bing Colette shoulder bag

Missoma x Lucy Williams chunky entwine hoop earrings

Laura Lombardi Calle gold-plated necklace

The Statement Sporty Attire

When it comes to activewear, a matching set, like this one from Sporty & Rich, will ensure that you arrive at any workout in style. Go one step further and tie the brand’s ‘Wellness’ sweatshirt around your waist for extra comfort. New Balance ‘Core’ sneakers are a staple in any workout wardrobe, as are these Bala Bangles and Stanley’s tumbler to keep you nice and hydrated. 

Sporty & Rich appliquéd cotton-jersey sweatshirt

Sporty & Rich cropped printed stretch-jersey tank

Sporty & Rich printed stretch-jersey leggings

New Balance 574 Core sneakers

Stanley Quencher H2.O travel tumbler, 40oz

The Luxurious Loungewear Set

Wardrobe.NYC x Hailey Bieber’s simple grey sweatshirt and sweatpants are prime examples of luxurious loungewear. Wear with a coveted pair of Birkenstocks—or even heels for an elevated athleisure look. But because we’re sticking with loungewear, cozy up even more courtesy of cashmere socks from Raey and Brunello Cucinelli’s alpaca-blend blanket. Loewe’s scented candle is an immediate ambiance enhancer. 

Wardrobe.NYC x Hailey Bieber cotton sweatshirt

Wardrobe.NYC x Hailey Bieber wide-leg cotton sweatpants

Birkenstock Boston shearling clogs

Raey ribbed cashmere-blend socks

Brunello Cucinelli speckled-jacquard fringed alpaca-blend blanket

Loewe Home Scents Honeysuckle medium scented candle, 610g

The Perfect Pair of Pajamas 

Olivia Von Halle’s ‘Coco’ pajama set is crafted from the finest of satins to create a soft-to-the-touch feel you’ll never want to take off. Meanwhile, Ugg slippers are the perfect accoutrement. Continue to wind down with the help of scented bath salts from Maude and Augustinus Bader’s luxurious face cream. Reflect on your day with The Five Minute Journal and finally get some shut-eye thanks to Brooklinen’s silk eye mask. 

Olivia Von Halle Coco silk-satin pajama set

Ugg Scuffette II slippers

Brooklinen Mulberry silk eyemask

Augustinus Bader The Rich Cream with TFC8® face moisturizer

Maude Soak No. 2 nourishing mineral bath salts

Shop More: 

Leset Lauren cropped stretch-knit cardigan

Leset Lauren stretch-knit wide-leg pants

Éterne oversized crewneck sweatshirt

Éterne classic sweatpants

Lisa Yang Jonny cap-sleeved cashmere sweater

Lisa Yang Sierra wide-leg cashmere trousers

Zara basic hoodie sweatshirt

Girlfriend Collective ReSet cropped stretch recycled top

Girlfriend Collective compressive stretch recycled flared leggings

Le Kasha Etretat organic cashmere sweater

Le Kasha Sumbal cashmere wide-leg pants

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