“For Nice Girls Who Like Stuff.” – Juicy Couture
“When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off.” – Amelia Bloomer
By Micah Card
You may be surprised to learn that, upon hearing of Juicy Couture’s sell-out and subsequent closure of its U.S. store-fronts in 2013, my heart skipped a sad, shocked beat. The once ubiquitous velour tracksuit has been lauded as…many things having to do with the imminent end-of-days, and I think it is safe to say that multitudes were looking forward to its demise.
I, however, have not yet gotten over the velvet sweatpants of old.
Flashback to the mid-aughts in California’s working class suburbs. I was transitioning from high schooler to “grown person” with emo bangs while the tracksuit/Ugg Boot combo was just gaining momentum. It took very little time for Paris Hilton-inspired velour outfits to gain a bad rap as the uniform for celeb wannabes and Starbucks-loving soccer moms. Naturally, since I planned to run away from said suburbs as soon as student loans could be procured, I detested the tracksuit as the symbol of all that awaited me if I couldn’t get away in time.
What, exactly, did I imagine would happen if I stayed in SUV-town, USA? Perhaps velour was contagious and I would be magically transformed into a Stepford Other Mother just from airborne exposure? Even after I managed to leave SUV-town, the idea still haunted me - that I might feel the preternatural urge to awaken at 3 a.m. one cold, dark Black Friday, dress in head-to-toe pink velvet and head to Kohl’s in search of discounted nonessentials, triple mocha cookie frappe in hand.
So I decided I had to inoculate myself by doing just that.
Indeed, I woke up early one Black Friday, outfitted myself in the hottest, pinkest, cheapest Juicy Couture knock-off I could find, swung by Starbucks and spent two hours in line at Kohl’s to buy an imitation down comforter at 7:00 in the morning. I even took pictures of every other track-suited person I saw. I saw ~so many~, at least 100 different people over the span of 4 hours. I thought it was HILARIOUS and SO WITTY…at first. But guess what? Not only was I being mean and kind of voyeuristic, but that ish was comfy. So comfy, in fact, that I bought a different colored knock-off tracksuit every Thanksgiving for the next five years. I kept acting like it was funny, but honestly, I just liked them so much. They were fun and flamboyant and stretchy enough to allow for all kinds of gross-motor movement! I even went so far as to save up for a pair of real outlet-shopped Ugg boots to wear with them (I love them–you shut up!). But alas, I have never been economically equipped to spend upwards of $200 for a real Juicy tracksuit. I could never justify spending that kind of money on one pair of sweats that I could only wear with a hipster smirk and some shame. Better to pay $10 for that at dd’s DISCOUNTS.
The irony of my velour adoration has never been been wasted on me. As a feminist and avid wearer of clothing, the whole thing got me thinking about what it means to sport a garment so wrought with cultural symbolism and, ultimately, ire.
What does/did the Juicy tracksuit say? The most obvious statement might be the trope of the insta-rich reality star/celebrity who need not do anything but be leisurely, a la Paris Hilton. But this view really doesn’t get to the heart(land) of it all. What does it say about the large population of middle and working-class women who indulged in this trend?
Popular clothing speaks to popular ideas. Let us consider first-wave feminism’s “Bloomer” dresses, unique as well as reviled for their comfortable design, expressly meant to allow women physical mobility. I’m not saying the tracksuit is specifically liberating anyone, but it is a notable comparison of notoriously comfortable women’s fashion, made more complicated by its relationship to turn-of-the-millennium consumer culture and reality tv fetishism. What does it feel like to be dressed like a laid-back Kim Kardashian? One can try that feeling on for size at nearly any price point…with a catch. There’s hell to pay for it in terms of being taken seriously, either as a fashionista or a grown woman in a hot pink velour suit, doing or not doing as she pleases. I think Juicy’s commercial death and reincarnation (at Kohl’s!) provide a rather poetic arc through which to think about where our clothing and identities intersect and live together.
There’s something interesting about the widespread adoption and simultaneous hatred of a garment coded so outrageously “feminine” (the colors! the rhinestones!), so comfortable, and that comes at such widely varying price points. I really did buy my fakes for $10 a set. It’s not like only rich, white suburban moms rode the wave of the tracksuit – look at J.Lo’s velour shorts ensemble in the “I’m Real” video. That look spoke to ladies who were potentially neither rich, like me, nor white – you know, just (CODED LANGUAGE ALERT) “real.” The tracksuit still implied a sense of fabulous comfort and mobility, literally and figuratively.
I can’t help but think that upward mobility is the name of the game here. Even as I was critiquing the tracksuit and it’s real life repercussions, I was still bothered by the fact that I could not afford an authentic Juicy suit. And I have to tell you that when I saw that the Juicy Couture of legend no longer exists, my first impression was genuine disappointment that I didn’t get to indulge in that most contentious of American pastimes: using certain objects (in this case a designer sweatsuit) to gain prestige as a consumer/person/(capital-W) Woman. This feeling of disappointment is unsettling but certainly not surprising, given that we live in a culture that is necessarily built around making us ~feel things~ about objects and appearances. That said, the point of being conscious is not to remove yourself from the world you live in, but to be critical and try see things for what they are/have been/can be/will be. What a gift that tracksuit has given those (probably few) who choose to dissect it! Juicy Couture has been a bright, glittering marker of a gendered, raced, and classed cultural phenomenon. It was like a rhinestone neon sign, blinking, “ISSUES TO BE THOUGHT ABOUT HERE!” However, to read more you may have to consult the back of some sweatpants now found only on eBay.
So, to end this eulogy, I tip my hat to the fake tracksuits that I wore, the original Couture I could never afford, and my complicated relationship with both.
Micah Card is a writer, and educator in Los Angeles, California. Her work has been published by Vagina::The Zine, Lummox Press, Aesthetica Magazine, and once in seventh grade via a by-mail poetry contest, the legitimacy of which she now questions.