America’s Most Hated GarmentHistorians in the News
tags: fashion, cultural history, clothing, COVID-19, consumer culture, material culture
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.
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.
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.”