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Dressing for success these days means "Athleisure"

The coronavirus pandemic has boosted Americans' love of comfort wear, accelerating a trend toward wearing athletic attire — also known as "athleisure" wear — at all hours of the day. Since the beginning of the pandemic, sales of formal attire have slumped as stuck-at-home workers prioritize how they feel over how they look. 

"We have really converged around this idea of having 'one wardrobe,'" Matt Powell, sportswear analyst at market research firm NPD Group, told CBS MoneyWatch. "We used to have a wardrobe for work, working out and the weekend. Now it's all one, and basically that's activewear." 

These preferences are showing up in retail sales. Between March and July, overall apparel sales were down 34% compared to a year ago, according to Maria Rugolo, apparel industry analyst at NPD Group. By contrast. sales of activewear items, including leggings, sports bras and exercise shorts, rose.

Smiling woman using laptop on couch at home
Americans are wearing active wear at all hours of the day now that remote work is the norm. Getty Images / Westend61

Sales of active shorts were up 3%, while sweatpants were also a hot seller, rising 2%, according to NPD's data. Sports bras were the biggest winner, with sales up 7% year. 

"We see active categories are doing well and gaining dollars, while other categories have been put on the back burner because we are leaning toward an at-home, active lifestyle and using activewear for everyday purposes," Rugolo said. 

Sweatpants, not suits

With offices still shuttered and events cancelled, formal wear — think suits and cocktail dresses — has plummeted in popularity. Sales of suits, dress shirts, dress pants and dresses were all down more than 50% from March through July this year compared to the year-ago period, according to NPD.

Tailored suiting, whose popularity has been on the decline for years, is one of many dressier categories seeing deep discounts as retailers try to clear their shelves. Suits in stock in the U.S. were discounted by an average 64% this month. Belts, jewelry and high heels are also widely available at bargain prices, according to Kayla Marci, market analyst at Edited, a retail market intelligence company.

"Even before the pandemic, interest in suiting and tailoring started to wane already, as offices were becoming more casual. These categories associated with going out to events are starting to bear the brunt of the reduction," she said. 

Sweatpants, on the other hand, "are in a really attractive position," she said.

Comfort here to stay

With many employees sticking with remote work for the foreseeable future, athleisure clothing is expected to remain hot. And when Americans finally go back to office work and in-person gatherings, experts are betting that many more of us will be doing so in sports bras, athletic shorts or sweatpants.

"Looking around at how there is huge focus on comfort, that puts athleisure in such a good position," Marci said. "Comfort is growing and especially now, wellness and staying motivated in uncertain times is the message retailers are pushing, and they really complement each other and I don't see how it can slow down at this point."

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