Leggings – liberating dresses everywhere

29 Jan

I exercise twice a week, and on those mornings, it’s hard to know what to wear.  I don’t feel fully dressed wearing only gym clothes, but I would rather not lug an extra change of clothes around on the way to class. Lord knows moms lug way too much random stuff around already. (The back seat of my car usually contains enough random stuff to fill an entire shopping cart — kids’ jackets and hats, sippy cups, empty reusable grocery bags, books, crayons, twigs, stones and other “treasures” my son picked off the driveway).  So on my exercise days, I put on black stretchy pants and my cami that I will exercise in, and build the rest of my outfit from there.

Nowadays, I see a lot of young ladies wearing fitness type leggings in place of regular pants. Reminds me of how I used to dress in 7th grade. However, I (and my rear end) have long since graduated high school, and I feel comfortable with more coverage. For a while, I struggled to find a top long enough to cover the behind; even tunic-length tops feel like I am trying to pull off a miniskirt – which isn’t really the look I am going for. One exercise day, it occurred to me to try on one of the long-neglected dresses I had hanging in my closet. Revelation! An outfit is born.

Before kids, I always thought of dresses as reserved for special occasions. In grade school, I was the girl who wore shorts to school every day so I could swing on the monkey bars and turn cartwheels easily. At my first real job after college, I wore pants as often as I could to avoid a “Sharon Stone moment” while sitting at my desk.

Sharon Stone's famous miniskirt in Basic Instinct

It may be sexy in a movie, but sitting while wearing a skirt doesn't really work well when taking care of small children.

As a single woman living in the city, I chose black pants over dresses; they seemed too fussy, and I never really loved showing off my legs. After having kids, dresses only came out on special nights out with my husband. Even if I could find a washable fabric that had enough coverage, dresses seemed incompatible with essential mommy activities like nursing, climbing a playground structure, and sitting on the floor modestly.

Turns out, now that the nursing phase is over, dresses have found a place in my wardrobe, paired with leggings. Leggings address my below-the-waist modesty concerns, and also add a layer of warmth during the cooler months. They also make outfit picking totally brainless, since it’s a top and bottom in one. That comes in awfully handy at 6:30am when I have 5 minutes to put myself together.

Dresses have become much more mom-compatible, too; companies designing clothes for travel and athletics, such as Patagonia and Athleta, are making well-cut designs from stretchy, easy-care fabrics. (Athleta has even dubbed a category of clothing that works over leggings which they call “Yoga To Fro™.) My closet now contains at least 4 dresses that work well for active day with the kids.  So what do I look for when dress-shopping?

1) Coverage around the arms and neckline, and a skirt length to just above the knee, to make sure I am comfortable in all the athletic pursuits of motherhood – for example, lugging a toddler while carrying her baby doll and 2 bags of groceries, or bending over to pick up yet another toy off the floor without fearing that the nearest person can see down my shirt.

2) A flattering cut, comfortably executed. The dress should define my features (waist, arms, chest, hips, etc) without pinching or tugging. Ease of movement is a must. No Spanx required – it should make me look good without needing to suck in my belly.

3) A darker color (or a pattern) in a machine washable fabric – because I never know when a stray meatball in tomato sauce will land in my lap.

It turns out, quite a few companies are making dresses that fit the bill. My go-to stores at the moment are:

Patagonia, Boden, Garnet Hill,  Title Nine, and Athleta.

(If you have any other favorites, feel free to post them in the comments section below.)

The best thing about wearing a dress is that it feels like cheating – in a single piece of clothing, you have an entire outfit – no thinking required. If I can throw on a necklace or earrings, I can even manage to look “put together” with very little effort. And with a casual dress, finding shoes is easy because I can get away with boots, flats, or even lightweight, trendy sneakers.

My favorite toddler-compatible dress at the moment (which I happen to be wearing as I write this) is by Prana, a yoga clothing company that expanded into casual clothes.  I bought it at Title Nine in the Fall of 2010, but it doesn’t seem to be available anymore (the sales clerk said it was selling out quickly in the stores.) That’s ok, because there are plenty of similar ones out there.

 

Prana Moxie Dress from Title Nine

This stretchy dress by Prana is fun and easy to wear, and paired with leggings, can easily go from playground to civilized indoor pursuits.

This dress is super comfortable and stretchy, and the long sleeves add warmth. The pattern is plucky and adds a splash of color without any effort. It cost about $70, and will go from Fall to Spring without a problem.

Not so tight fitness pant from Title Nine

The "Not so tight fitness pant" from Title Nine costs over $50, but the easy, curve-hugging fit makes it my favorite pair of leggings.

Leggings are easy to find too – they are very trendy right now. I am wearing boot cut yoga pants at the moment for extra warmth, but slim, cropped leggings will work well with sandals as the weather warms up. They are available at a range of stores, from Target to The Gap to fancy athletic stores. I have found that the cheapest pants ($10 or less at Target or Old Navy) are not worth buying; they have a thin fabric which lose its shape faster. But after $20, it’s hard to tell the difference – the only difference between those and my $50 leggings is slightly better fit. If you want to add some leggings to your wardrobe that go from gym to playground, Title Nine or Athleta is a great place to begin your search. Both offer inexpensive of free shipping with minimum purchase. The Gap is a good option if you want to try on instead of buying online.

The only problem with wearing dresses at the moment is that my closet does not have enough room to acquire more. I guess it might be time to undertake another closet clean out, because there seems to be no shortage of cute, affordable and wearable dresses out there – and now that I can “childproof” them with leggings, I know I’ll keep putting them on in the morning, whether I am feeling dressy or just need to throw something on and get out the door.

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