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To mid-aughts celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they were high fashion. To the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Eva Mendes, they’re a sign of defeat; they declare to the world, as Jerry tells George Costanza in the Seinfeld pilot, “I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.”
And since the start of the pandemic, sweatpants have become perhaps more ubiquitous than ever.
“A lot of people who had been going to offices stopped going to offices for the foreseeable future,” Amanda Mull, a staff writer for The Atlantic, says. “I think people were forced to decide what it is they want to wear for this new circumstance they’re in.”
In this episode of the new podcast The Experiment, Mull and the host, Julia Longoria, trace sweatpants through U.S. history and debate an age-old question: Do they symbolize laziness, or freedom?
Further reading: “America’s Most Hated Garment”
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Julia Longoria, Gabrielle Berbey, and Alvin Melathe, with editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by Stephanie Hayes. Sound design by David Herman.
Music by Ob (“Grot”), and r mccarthy (“Learning English”), water feature (“with flowers”), Laurie Bird (“Jussa Trip”), Column (“｢The Art of Fun｣ (Raj)”), infinite bisous (“The Past Tense”), and Nelson Bandela (“561 Mac D 10,” “011 HareDoe 019 8396,” “GLU EEE 86”), provided by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional audio from DigitalPimple, Glamourdaze, International Fitness Center, The Richard Simmons Show, Jane Fonda, Hudson’s Bay, Atelier ID, Breakin’ in the USA, WABC, Dance Centre, Adidas, Seinfeld, watchFashionNews, Extra, Vogue, and X17online
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(Dramatic, nostalgic music from a mid-20th-century PSA plays.)
André Baruch: (From the 1950s film Fashions for the Office.) She’s looking for a job, and she’s dressed for it too! Tastefully, not expensively.
Host of a 1970s fashion PSA: You know, clothing is actually the first visual impression other people have of us. Some say it’s a key to how we appear to others. It, uh, communicates!
Baruch: They not only look nice to us—they’re a good investment.
(Music echoes, swells, and then subsides.)
Julia Longoria: Hi, Amanda. This is Julia.
Amanda Mull: Hey, Julia! How are you?
Longoria: Nice to meet you! [Hesitating.] Not to be a complete creep right now—and we’ve never actually met in person, because of the pandemic—but my first question for you is “What are you wearing?”
Mull: I am wearing, um, a sort of shapeless dress-slash-top … (Continues under narration.)
Longoria: Amanda Mull is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She tries to explain who we are as Americans through material things like beauty products, kitchen appliances, and the clothes we wear—or don’t wear.
Longoria: Like, there’s no way to say this without sounding creepy. [Both laugh.] Are you wearing pants?
Mull: I am not. I am not wearing pants … (Continues under narration.)
Longoria: And lately she’s been spending a lot of time thinking about pants. Or not pants, per se, but what pants have to say about us.
Mull: I think that fashion is a social language.
(Slow percussion plays, growing weirder.)
Mull: When I was in high school in 2003, it was the first time that I had had a super steady paycheck. What I wanted to do was buy a Coach bag.
(The music becomes louder and wackier, more whimsical.)
Mull: I wanted to be the type of person who carried a handbag that costs a couple hundred dollars. That just seemed like the most sophisticated, adult thing that I could do, based on my conception of what sophisticated adults did in suburban Atlanta.
(A light, reverb-laden horn riff plays.)
Longoria: It’s so funny: The Coach bag was so the thing in suburban Miami, Florida, as well. It was, like, the—the pinnacle.
Mull: Yeah. At some point, it was sort of like, “Oh, I have psychoanalyzed myself. I understand that my desire for these things …” It was definitely a striving impulse.
(A quick moment of music before the narration resumes.)
Longoria: It’s the kind of the thing you know, even if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about stuff like this. Clothes speak. They can at least try to tell people things, like “I’m rich.” Or “I’m at a funeral.” We’ve set up almost, like, these laws in American life about who gets to wear white at certain events, or what it means to wear pink. But, in this time when many of us are barely seeing each other, Amanda’s been thinking about how the rules change—which brings us back to pants.
Mull: I think the, uh—the clothing item of the pandemic is sweatpants.
(A clip from Seinfeld plays.)
Jerry Seinfeld: Again with the sweatpants? (Audience laughter.)
George Costanza: What? I’m comfortable!
Seinfeld: You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, “I give up. I can’t compete in normal society.” (Fades out.)
(The Seinfeld clip ends.)
Mull: I think that sweatpants have been painted, over time, as an aesthetic indicator of laziness.
(A clip of an Extra interview with Eva Mendes plays.)
Eva Mendes: (Indignantly.) Sweatpants?! No—no, no, no.
A. J. Calloway: (Shocked.) Never?
Mendes: No, no.
Mendes: You can’t do sweatpants. [A beat.] Ladies! No. 1 cause of divorce in America: sweatpants. (Calloway laughs.)
(The clip ends.)
Mull: And that made me more and more interested in how differently they could be painted. Like, are sweatpants laziness, or are they freedom?
(Music dramatically changes tone, becoming soft and graceful, piano-driven.)
Longoria: Sweatpants. Not the most pressing issue facing our country, I know. But when you walk through the long and winding history of this pair of pants—the complicated relationship it’s had with mainstream culture—a story emerges about who we are and what we value.
This week, Amanda Mull unwinds the relationship we didn’t know we had with sweatpants and makes the case for how embracing them might just set you free.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The sound falters, then cuts out.)
Mull: To embrace sweatpants as freedom, you have to understand why people oppose them so vociferously in the first place.
Sweatpants came from the same place that a lot of the modern American wardrobe came from, which is athletics. They were invented in the 1920s in France by a French, uh, sportswear brand for French athletes, so I think mostly tennis players, at first. The material that they’re often made of is French terry.
Longoria: What is French terry?
Mull: It’s sweatshirt material, is what you think of. The inside of sweatpants feels sort of like a towel because that was really what they were for: to absorb sweat. And they were once considered intolerably casual and disrespectful to wear in polite company.
Longoria: Sweatpants began their life humbly as a sponge for French sweat. Definitely unsophisticated—also, honestly, a little gross. But they didn’t stay that way. Half a century later, when they made their way to American shores, they slowly tiptoed their way into the mainstream.
Mull: So they started to enter the wardrobe in the 1980s, uh, when, culturally, the United States was having a boom in fitness.
Richard Simmons: Okay, give me that wonderful music.
(The music of an ’80s-style exercise video plays, reveling in the synthesizer.)
Simmons: (Emphasizing each word.) Here we go! Inhale!
Mull: You get the rise of exercise celebrities: Richard Simmons …
Jane Fonda: Are you ready to do the workout? (Video participants cheer and say, “Yeah!” excitedly.)
Mull: Jane Fonda.
Fonda: … This is a beginner’s workout. (Fades out.)
Mull: Some of those people emerged in the ’70s to begin with, but the ’80s is where things really ramped up.
(Music has cut out, and is replaced by dramatic, punchy commercial music.)
Commercial voice 1: (Dramatically.) Winter warmth!
Mull: It was suddenly very, very popular to be a person who exercised and who wore clothing that indicated that you exercised.
Commercial voice 1: Jogging suits for winter workouts …
Commercial voice 2: … Activewear designed to fit your routine!
Mull: Which means that you had people who wanted to buy sweatpants.
Commercial voice 3: Worn by the country’s hottest stars …
Mull: They were a status indicator.
Commercial voice 4: (Singing.) I’ve got international flair, making him know I care!
Mull: And then you also get the rise of hip-hop culture.
(Hip-hop music plays underneath the next section.)
Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, homeboys, homegirls: the New York City Breakers!
Mull: Break dancing, things like that were very popular, and those, those are athletic activities.
Carlos De Jesus: Break dancing is a little bit like jazz, where, uh, you improvise around some basic moves.
Mull: They require a range of motion.
Break-dancing voice-over: Bring your right leg under and your right arm over.
Mull: It’s much harder to do that in jeans than it is to do it in a pair of sweatpants.
Break-dancing voice-over: Kick your left leg and return. Kick your right leg …
Mull: And they also were cool … [The sounds of a helicopter taking off play.] because Run-DMC liked them.
(The Run-DMC commercial for Adidas plays underneath the narration.)
Mull: Okay, this is the iconic Run-DMC Adidas commercial. You see them coming in over New York City in the branded Run-DMC–Adidas helicopter. They’re stepping out.
(Run-DMC members say, “My Adidas!” before the commercial cuts.)
Mull: They’re wearing sweatpants treated with some sort of, like, reflective treatment. Very sort of athletic-inspired, but clearly not meant to be doing anything particularly athletic in that moment besides being a rap star. What qualifies as a sweatpant can be, uh, a sort of capacious—uh, capacious thing. [Longoria and Mull laugh.] Sweatpants contain multitudes.
(The music comes back in for a brief flourish.)
Mull: So you’ve got these two sort of disparate groups: one mostly Black and younger, one mostly white and older. Both sort of started to circle around this same type of garment at the same time. And those two things came together to make sweatpants a really cool, fun thing to wear.
Longoria: Sweatpants hadn’t just entered the mainstream. They’d beamed their way up to the very pinnacle of cool in American society. But Americans are notoriously fickle, and sweatpants couldn’t hang on for long.
Mull: So just as sweatpants were sort of getting their moment, all of these better options that would literally just show people your body—which is what leggings do, which is what spandex does—all of these better options came online. So sweatpants, then, sort of shifted in the popular mindset because they were baggy, because they didn’t show your shape at all. So they—they went from being a sign of athleticism to being a sign that you just wanted to wear a pair of shapeless, stretchy pants. That’s how sweatpants sort of got laundered into this narrative of laziness, of giving up.
Mull: You get this cycle happening again and again and again, of something that seemed uncontroversial in some way for a long time will suddenly become lame … [Both chuckle.] will suddenly become something your mom does or something that doesn’t feel culturally relevant to you at all. And they stayed like that for about 15 years.
Longoria: Throughout the ’90s, sweatpants went back to being just sweatpants. Something comfortable to wear. Basic. Utilitarian.
They were waiting for something—or someone—to pick them back up again. Like we’ve seen over and over in fashion history, someone with power can take a basic garment and make it go viral.
Mull: The past several hundred years of fashion have seen this happen over and over again. Um, an example of this from fashion history is Marie Antoinette.
(Slow, echoing pipe-organ music plays.)
Mull: Marie Antoinette’s court was known for being extraordinarily formal. People wore enormous, ornate gowns, finished with the finest fabrics, with jewels.
Longoria: They had the Coach bags of their day, I guess.
Mull: Yes, they had the Coach bags of their day. But there’s this one famous portrait of Marie Antoinette wearing what was called, at the time, a robe de gaulle.
(The music picks up, becoming bouncier, airier.)
Mull: It’s this gauzy, white dress, tied at the waist with a ribbon. And there’s no corset. It just looks sort of diaphanous.
(Music halts abruptly.)
Longoria: Diaphanous! What a wonderful word. [Both laugh.] What does diaphanous mean?
Mull: It’s one of those words you learn writing about fashion.
Longoria: Yeah. (Laughs.)
Mull: It means sort of, like, something that is light and skims the body—relatively comfortable to wear. It was, by the time’s standards, and especially for someone of Marie Antoinette’s social class, basically underwear.
And this was, you know, really controversial at the time. But the young women of France suddenly wanted to dress like Marie Antoinette, in this sort of unencumbered, delicately feminine way. So that is, like, a real turning point—I think—in history that you can see repeated again and again as people decide that they want to wear something that’s a little bit more comfortable than what they’ve been asked to wear.
(The music becomes lush; a harpsichord-esque synthesizer plays in.)
Mull: Wearing corsets and finery and dresses that weigh God knows how many pounds every single day has to be a little bit much. [Longoria breaths as if to indicate understanding.] It would be annoying to me. I don’t even, like, wear, um, real pants.
Longoria: After the break, sweatpants get their Marie Antoinette.
Mull: And then you get to the 2000s, where so much about culture went … weird. (Both laugh.)
(The music slows, then quiets just as a bell rings to signal the break.)
Paris Hilton: Let’s talk about the Juicy Couture tracksuit.
Mull: Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are, to a certain extent, the Marie Antoinettes of sweatpants.
Hilton: I wanted to be comfortable and cute.
(The sounds of a gaggle of paparazzi and a voice saying, “M’kay. Bye, Britney!”)
Mull: In 2003, paparazzi culture meant that this group of women was sort of inescapable.
Paparazzo: (Over the sound of cameras clicking) Britney, tell us what you’re gonna be for Halloween!
Britney Spears: I don’t know!
Mull: All of a sudden you had roving bands of photographers out, looking to photograph stars doing their errands, going to the grocery store.
Hilton: I literally could not leave my house without being mobbed every single day.
Spears: I just want my Starbucks, y’all. He’s taking forever.
Mull: Before that period, there were also always gossip rags, but with paparazzi, you could see stars just sort of wandering Los Angeles.
Spears: Why are you so close to my car?
Mull: And a lot of them were wandering Los Angeles in none other than Juicy Couture tracksuits.
Hilton: (Over light music.) I have an entire closet that’s only Juicy Couture. It’s somewhere I go in every single day and just put on my Juice.
(A bell dings and the music and background noise go quiet.)
Mull: Which is a company that I think most people are probably well familiar with now that started in California with two sort of youngish women.
So they, uh, designed this sweat suit that was extremely tight. It really hugged the body. The pants portion was very low rise, so, you know, if you were a true mid-2000s babe, you could let your thong strap peek out of it a little bit, which upset a lot of people’s parents.
(Longoria and Mull laugh.)
Mull: It was really like someone went into a, uh, clothing factory and went, “What if sweatpants, but sexy?” (Both laugh again.)
Gretchen Mol: They’re just comfortable and feminine.
Gela Nash-Taylor: It makes people happy.
Sarah Michelle Gellar: My first Juicy item was a black sweat suit, matching pants and jacket.
Abigail Breslin: I love Juicy! I, like, wear their clothes all the time.
Nash-Taylor: Everybody loves Juicy.
Mull: And those tracksuits sold like hotcakes. They were the biggest thing going for years.
Longoria: I remember, like, seeing those, and just being like, “How are people paying this much money … [Laughs.] to—to have ‘Juicy’ in, like, little diamonds across their butts? Like, how did we get here?”
Mull: Right, right. And back in, like, 2003, 2004, paying $200 for a sweat suit meant even more in that era than it would right now. And it’s still quite a lot of money to pay for a sweat suit right now.
Longoria: And so what happened? I mean, I—you know, I seem to remember that Paris Hilton and Britney Spears kind of faded from the popular consciousness, and so did sweatpants, right?
Mull: Yeah. It was sort of similar to what happened in the 1980s with sweatpants. Some better options come along.
So people moved on—first, to yoga pants. And then, after yoga pants, comes all of the athleisure that we have now, like very high-tech compression leggings.
Sweatpants, I think, sort of went back to their status as being for people who had given up. Sweatpants went back to being sweatpants, which are elastic-waisted, and baggy, and sort of shapeless, and a pleasure to wear while you’re sitting on the couch. But an aesthetic marker of—of things that people didn’t want to be accused of.
(Moderate-tempo, chilled-out music plays.)
Longoria: To the mainstream, sweatpants became sort of embarrassing. Something private that you’d wear to be comfortable at home, on the couch—but not in public. And definitely not at work.
But last year, all of that changed.
Mull: A lot of people who had been going to offices stopped going to offices for the foreseeable future—stopped going to restaurants, stopped going on dates. If you can stay home, which is lucky in and of itself, you sort of have to deal with the physical realities of staying home, which means a lot of sitting for extended periods of time. You might have to run after kids. You might have to get up and start cooking.
So having something that is comfortable and versatile and not precious … to wear right now is, I think, ideal right now, for a lot of people. And everybody’s happy, and wearing sweatpants.
[After a moment.] Well, not everybody’s happy. Everybody’s miserable, but— [Laughter.] but at least they’re happy to be wearing sweatpants.
Longoria: In the pandemic, sweatpants are back in the mainstream. But this time, it’s not because an influencer made them cool again, not because people want to signify some sort of cultural cachet. They’re back because people working from home aren’t trying to signify anything at all.
Mull: I think the sweatpants are sort of, in some senses, a void. Where people built up identities to demonstrate to the outside world—built wardrobes to make themselves match their jobs or their social lives or the self that they want to project at their kids’ school meetings, things like that … When you’re at home, you’re not projecting anything to the outside world. And when you don’t have the opportunity to do that anymore, what do you wear? What do you value? What becomes important to clothing then?
And for a lot of people, I think it’s just comfort. It’s not having to think about what you’re wearing, because there are so many other stressful things to think about.
(The chilled-out music plays up for a moment as a voice, auto-tuned beyond recognition or comprehension, sings.)
Longoria: I don’t know. I guess, like, I appreciate that you’re leaning into the sweatpants, but I’ve got to say I’m … [Sighs.] For some reason, early on in the pandemic—it’s kind of gotten less so lately—but I would wake up and put on pants and put on makeup and put on, like, do the whole thing, put on my face, even though we were just in our apartments.
Longoria: And I guess I … There’s something about the ritual of that, of, like, putting on hard pants, jeans or whatever, that I really hold on to. Maybe you don’t want to be your full self at work, right? Like, your—your full self is private. Um, and—and that act of putting something on kind of separates work from life.
Mull: Yeah, I think that for a lot of people, that’s a very real thing. So I can understand wanting to get that back in some capacity. For me, it’s doing my hair. Even if nobody sees me, except my little dog, um … [Both laugh.] It is a way that I—that I hold on to the person that I am outside of my apartment. So I think that that will be a little bit different for everybody.
Longoria: In the pandemic, sweatpants have achieved something rare in fashion: They’ve become close to universal. But there are still haters out there. There are still people who think that, like a towel for French sweat, sweatpants are a little gross.
Mull: I think that people who still hate sweatpants after all of this time hate it because they hate other people’s freedom and they hate the comfort that other people have embraced that they themselves have not allowed themselves to have yet.
Longoria: What do you mean?
Mull: Because sweatpants are for when you need to be comfortable. They might be for when your jeans don’t fit like they used to, or they might be for when you just don’t want to shove yourself into a pair of super-structured pants, or they might be when you want to relax. And I think that America, as a country and as a culture, often has a problem with, like, comfort for comfort’s sake. You know, we have a hardcore, strict, Puritan background that still rears its head occasionally in—in the way people make assumptions about others and their intentions and what we should all value.
I think that being really upset when you see somebody else being comfortable comes from a belief that … discomfort is necessary. And that you deserve some sort of cultural credit for putting yourself through it. And that people who decide not to put themselves through it are somehow, in some way, inferior to you because of that choice. People who reject that, and reject the value of all the energy they’ve spent on it for their whole lives, can be really upsetting.
And I think that it doesn’t make sense to object to sweatpants, because aren’t there times that everybody wants to relax? To just enjoy their body as their body wants to be?
I think that’s fine. I don’t think that there’s a good reason to shit on that.
(Fluttering, dreamily ambient music plays.)
Mull: I don’t think people need to wear sweatpants if they don’t feel like wearing sweatpants. But I think that if that is what their heart tells them, then they should go for it.
Alvin Melathe: This episode was produced by Julia Longoria, Gabrielle Berbey, and me, Alvin Melathe. Editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by Stephanie Hayes. Sound design by David Herman. Music for this episode by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Matt Collette, Tracie Hunte, and Natalia Ramirez.
If you like what you’ve heard, please tell a friend to listen to our show. And be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listened to this episode.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thanks for listening.
(The music plays for several seconds after the narration ends. Then quiet.)