I don’t know how I feel about: Outdoor Voices’ Exercise Dress

Image via YouTube
Words by Maeve Kerr-Crowley

You can do anything, full stop.

I just fell down a bit of a hole. The hole was Outdoor Voices’ YouTube channel – more specifically, videos like this one advertising the brand’s bestselling ‘Exercise Dress’.

And despite having spent the better part of a busy morning watching and rewatching the ad, I don’t know how I feel about it.

My positive response is that the dress itself is really cute. It looks comfortable, and it seems like a lot of thought and care went into its design.

The ad is also beautifully produced. Sometimes you watch an ad and think, “Oh, someone on your team knows what they’re doing.” It’s aesthetically pleasing, the models look like they’re having a good time, and it knows the point it’s trying to make.

But Outdoor Voices lost me a little with the claim its dress is “flattering, empowering and versatile”. I’m a big supporter of all these things generally, but somehow in this instance, I’m unconvinced. So, let’s break that down, working backwards.

It certainly seems versatile. This is thanks to a little bodysuit lining that keeps all your bits in, and an outer layer that could almost pass for a classic American Apparel mini dress.

I’m very into the idea of being able to frolic, do yoga, go for a run, or even just lie sprawled on the couch without accidentally flashing anybody. But I can also do all those things in leggings and a T-shirt.

This brings us to the snappy one-liner attached to the Exercise Dress: You can do anything in a dress.

My question for Outdoor Voices is, why do I need to?

In 2019, I’m sure we’re all fully aware that not all women wear dresses, and some people wear dresses who aren’t women. So, with my foremothers having earned me the right to wear what I want, when I want, being told I can do anything and everything in a dress feels a little redundant.

I can only assume it all ties into the second selling point: this dress is empowering.

Of course, clothing can be empowering on an individual level. Something that makes you feel confident and comfortable can definitely help you take on the world.

But, assuming the ad is targeting women, it can be read as playing into the old ‘reclaiming things previously used to oppress you and calling it empowering’ gambit that’s prevalent in widespread, commercial feminism.

Makeup, for example, has been used as a tool throughout history to make people (and specifically women) feel bad enough about how they look to spend insane amounts of money ‘fixing’ themselves. But now, in a time when wearing makeup is seen as much more of a choice, we view choosing to wear it as a form of self-empowerment. We’re not being oppressed, we’re expressing ourselves and making ourselves happy instead of others.

The same logic tells us wearing workout gear that makes you look cute while you’re doing something good for your body and sweating like a pig is feminist because it makes you feel confident.

But this train of thought still relies on the world telling us that the key to feeling good is looking good. And the way to look good is to change your makeup, hair, clothes or diet – which usually requires buying things.

Brands are still all about making sales, so it’s important to think critically about these kinds of ‘feminist ads’ and remember that corporations often don’t have our best interests at heart. I’m not accusing Outdoor Voices of having impure intentions, but this ad is representative of a much bigger marketing trend that can be misleading and even harmful if left uncriticised. 

Which brings us to the third part of OV’s statement, which is that this dress is flattering. And, while the group of models in the ad definitely proves this true for a handful of different body types, I’m afflicted with the personal gripe of knowing that mine isn’t one of them. And, I’m sure, neither are a lot of people’s.

Size diversity is a huge problem in fashion, and one that is fortunately being discussed more and more. Which is why it’s sad to still see brands, even those shouting about empowerment, stocking only the equivalent of a size 12 to14 (Outdoor Voices’ XL), and no higher.

As mentioned, this particular ad put more of an effort into the diversity of its models than most brands bother with, and every step forward is worth acknowledging in my books. But again, it’s worth thinking critically about who this product and campaign empower, and who gets left behind.

At the end of the day, I still don’t know how I feel. We’re all just trying to get by, and I fully support boosting your confidence in whatever way works for you. This looks like a really good product, and for anyone in the market for new exercise gear that makes them feel carefree and fashionable, the Exercise Dress seems like a good investment.

But I’m of the opinion that while recognising progress, we should always ask for more. With that in mind, I’d like to manifest a future in which I can feel good about myself without the way I look even coming into the equation.

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