The first time I ever felt excited about a pair of sweatpants was in 2003. Juicy Couture’s signature $200 velour tracksuits with JUICY sometimes emblazoned across the butt were the new errand-running uniform of paparazzi targets such as Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez, and the look had reached a few of the most popular girls at my high school. I was 17 years old, and that combination of endorsements was enough to make me covet basically anything.
Soon, cheaper knockoffs of the brand’s sexy, stretchy wares filtered down to stores such as Old Navy, where I used my meager teenage wages to buy a matching set in black. Parents, tabloid columnists, and seemingly every other manner of responsible adult hated the look. One critic called the snug-fit tracksuits, which paired low-slung bottoms with shrunken hoodies that exposed a few inches of naked torso, “soft-porn sweats.”
Since sweatpants were introduced into the casual American wardrobe in the 1980s, scolds have always found them revolting. Perhaps the two most frequently cited quotes on the style come from disparate sources but express virtually identical sentiments. “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” Karl Lagerfeld, the late Chanel designer and fashion icon, once sniped. “You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” On his eponymous television show, the comic Jerry Seinfeld once upbraided George Costanza with the same concern. “You’re telling the world, I give up,” Seinfeld said. “I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.” Sweatpants, the conventional wisdom holds, are slovenly. You must be hiding failure under all that terry cloth.
Juicy Couture, in embracing bare midriffs and exposed thongs, prospered by making sweatpants revolting in the exact opposite way. “It’s not sloppy,” assured Angela Ahrendts, then an executive vice president at Liz Claiborne, which owned the brand, in 2003. “You don’t feel like you’re in an old pair of sweats.” Juicy’s success was the opening salvo in a nascent athleisure trend, which pushed lots of other garments ostensibly meant for the gym—yoga pants, running tights, bike shorts, cropped sweatshirts—into casual attire that embraced and molded the body instead of obscuring it. But sweatpants, through it all, have maintained a whiff of low-classness or physical desperation in the popular imagination. Juicy’s tactics got one thing exactly right: Recasting sweats as something other than tragic requires desperate measures.
As it turns out, desperate times will also do the trick. Nine months into the pandemic, sweatpants and other soft, stretchy loungewear have become a bright spot in America’s otherwise suffering apparel market. Slimmed down and rebranded as “joggers,” sweats are now everywhere, targeted at people who might have turned up their nose at soft pants during the Juicy Couture days. Although I have a prodigious collection of sweatshirts both fashionable and functional, I began searching for the perfect pair of sweatpants too—all my athleisure compression leggings just didn’t do the trick for 12 hours on the couch with my laptop.
But as sales have risen, the old warnings have reemerged. “Enough with the WFH sweatpants,” fussed an April editorial in the Los Angeles Times. “Dress like the adult you’re getting paid to be.” In July, Vogue advised opting for silk instead of thick cotton-polyester blends. In the middle of a genuine disaster, lots of people seem to have the energy to fret about the temporary retirement of hard pants. With their body-hiding heft and embrace of comfort over all, sweatpants have endured as the bogeyman of the modern American wardrobe, even during a pandemic.
Listen to Amanda Mull discuss this piece on The Experiment, The Atlantic’s new podcast about our unfinished country.
At least at first, sweatpants followed a common sartorial route. They were developed in 1920s France as training gear for athletes—their thick, nubby-interiored material chosen for its ability to encourage and then absorb sweat. Items of clothing tend to become divorced from their origins as they become wardrobe staples, and the pipeline from sports to everyday life has been a fruitful one for our closets. As my colleague Derek Thompson wrote in 2018, much of what Americans now consider everyday or even professional dress—blazers, polo shirts, sweaters, rubber-soled shoes, shorts—first entered the mainstream through college sports, much to the consternation of those who found young people’s casual attitude toward dressing scandalous.
This cycle has repeated itself over and over again, with clothes from sports, manual labor, and beyond: People with cultural cachet decide to violate expectations by wearing something comfortable and casual outside of its normal context, some people get mad, and then everyone gets used to it. Marley Healy, a fashion historian and curator, mentioned a famous portrait of Marie Antoinette in a simple (by the era’s baroque standards), diaphanous gown as an example of how this process starts. Next to the ornate, restrictive clothing courtiers usually wore, the gown was basically loungewear. “She was usurping a garment and an idea from the lower classes that was fiercely oppositional to what was expected at the French court,” Healy told me. While many people fumed at the young queen for having the gall to act poor, lots of other Frenchwomen clamored to mimic her style. What had been a shocking moment of class treason soon became the norm, because it was what young women wanted, and someone high-profile had stepped forth to give them an opening, respectability be damned.
Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez were the Marie Antoinettes of sweatpants. Certain ways of dressing are forbidden until they’re not, and professional and formal dress have been getting more casual for hundreds of years, as cheaper, more comfortable fabrics have provided people with a glut of alternatives—to corsets, to three-piece suits, to jeans that don’t stretch. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which Juicy’s dominance was all that was needed to make velvet, cashmere, and terry-cloth sweats as ubiquitous as jeans for years to come.
Except that’s not what happened. Despite the short-lived Juicy Couture breakthrough of the 2000s, sweatpants largely retained their stink of desperation, eclipsed by sleeker athleisure offerings such as yoga pants and leggings, as well as pants that looked like jeans or khakis but stretched like leggings—their comforts hidden, lest someone realize sweatpants had slipped past a stringent office dress code. Sweatpants’ broad cultural adaptation has long stalled out in this final phase—the transition to noncontroversial ubiquity—even as all the trends swirling around them have indicated that people are desperate to slide their tired, jeans-dented body into something a little bit more forgiving.
Clothes don’t come from nowhere, and neither do ideas about how to dress and who’s allowed to wear what. Sweatpants were a bit slow on the mainstream uptake after the 1920s, but they finally crossed over in the 1980s, as the decade’s fitness craze pushed people to find clothes that would give them a fuller range of motion in the gym and an association with exercise outside of it. Quickly, though, fabrics with a slinkier, lighter, sportier feel, such as those used in the Adidas tracksuits made famous in the ’80s by the rap group Run DMC, usurped much of cotton sweatpants’ momentum toward legitimate coolness. Other garments were better at displaying a commitment to fitness or an understanding of street fashion’s nascent power, so sweatpants were left for those with something to hide.
“There is an element of fat-shaming in the dislike for sweatpants,” Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told me. She pointed to comments by people such as Lagerfeld, the Chanel designer, who fought to stay thin his whole life and was vocal about his hatred for fat women, even publishing a book about the plan he followed to become skinny enough to wear designer jeans. The same logic bubbles up all over the place. The actress Eva Mendes once told an interviewer that abstaining from sweatpants was a key to her marriage. People on Reddit get into lengthy discussions about whether elastic waistbands encourage excessive eating. Over the summer, The Wall Street Journal implied that a WFH-sweatpants habit might be why you gained the “covid 15.” In a nation with an abstemious Protestant cultural heritage, self-indulgence—and comfort for its own sake—will always find hackles to raise.
Steele thinks that, ultimately, the larger opposition toward sweatpants comes from a dynamic that has long caused problems with dressing. Sweatpants agita often pops up in situations where people have asymmetrical expectations about social norms. Clothes are a central way of communicating that you understand how you’re supposed to act in particular settings: Adhering to certain levels of formality is a way to telegraph respect. “If you were going on a date, I think many women would be really offended if the guy was wearing sweatpants,” Steele said. “That would be seen as really, really insulting.”
Now that lots of people aren’t having any interactions in which they need to communicate a nuanced understanding of social codes, the sweatpants scolds may consider giving it a rest. The powers that be at high-fashion brands such as Burberry, Givenchy, and Stella McCartney are way ahead of them—they read the market and made sweats part of their repertoire long before the pandemic hit. Even Thom Browne, a designer famous for his ultra-restrictive suiting, has incorporated the style into his line, and Juicy Couture has already laid the industry-approved groundwork for its latest comeback effort.
Clothes change to reflect the people buying them, and even before the pandemic, plenty of evidence showed that the sweatpants bogeyman was already nearing its death. American shoppers are becoming more diverse, more interested in casual clothing, and less concerned with meeting rapidly antiquating ideas of appropriateness meted out by their bosses. The hip-hop-inflected revival of the sweats maker Champion was a strong pre-pandemic indicator that sweatpants were ready to make their final push past the straggling cultural stereotypes weighing them down. Sweatpants are bottom-up in a culture in which standard-bearers are uncomfortable with things that aren’t top-down.
The reality that the world has moved on without them might not stop sweatpants haters from feeling hostile toward people who dress down. But a lot of people who consider themselves bastions of good taste for things such as their opposition to sweats are actually just a little behind the times, even if they don’t realize it. “The more street fashion is adopted by fashion brands, the more it becomes commonplace,” Carolyn Mair, a behavioral psychologist and the author of The Psychology of Fashion, told me. “Some people are slower than others to adopt fashion trends and continue to make associations that no longer seem relevant to the more fashion-minded consumer.” Lagerfeld, for all his famous hatred of sweatpants, was photographed in Vogue with Juicy Couture’s founders during the brand’s 2003 ascent. He might have hated corporeal comfort, but he hated being out of the loop even more.
For those wondering where this leaves their wardrobe of high heels and expertly tailored suiting, don’t worry. “There will always be a place for party clothes for people who want to add a bit of glamour to their lives,” Mair said. “We’ve all been short of this for a long time.”