Out of Control in Sweatpants

Close up of a couple wearing sweatpants
Image credit: Tim Samuel on Pexels

“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”

Karl Lagerfeld

As I write this, I’m a few days away from having spent a full year at home. COVID-19 has made for many changes in the world, and the realm of clothing is no exception. One garment has become the spearhead of fashion during these times: Call them sweatpants, track pants, tracksuit bottoms, joggers, whatever you like — they’re probably what you’ve got on as you read this and they’re certainly what I’m wearing as I write it.

If the facemask is now a totem of our scary new lives outside, sweatpants have come to symbolise isolated domesticity and working from home. It’s in this context that the Karl Lagerfeld line quoted above gains a new resonance. When humans around the world have lost control over their lives, this is the ideal garment to mark our (temporary) defeat. 

They have certainly gone viral thanks to the virus — cf. endless buyer’s guides, paparazzi photos, and Irina Aleksander’s ‘Sweatpants Forever’, probably the best piece of fashion writing from 2020 — but sweatpants have a century-long history preceding COVID times.

Originating in the 1920s, they were invented by Émile Camuset, the founder of French sports apparel brand Le Coq Sportif. In a time when people wore slacks on tennis courts and leather belts playing football, it’s no surprise that Camuset would want to create something you’d feel more comfortable sweating in. His new sporty trousers duly became popular among athletes and within a decade they were regular fixtures at sporting events like the Olympics. 

It’s this association with an active lifestyle that would lead to leisurewear becoming aspirational and eventually omnipresent. It might seem odd to consider sweatpants — until recently a sure indication of someone having let themselves go — as something akin to a rare pair of Jordans or a Louis Vuitton bag. But initially it was an association with sporting heroes and athletic body types that turned leisurewear into something people wanted to wear at all. You may have thought it was Mars Blackmon who first connected an athlete’s performance to what they wore, but people have bought sporty clothing hoping that the secret stuff might rub off on them from the get-go. 

Not until the 1980s, however, did sweatpants truly turn into a dressing staple. As hip-hop became a cultural phenomenon, attendant wardrobe fixtures like sneakers and tracksuits (both ideal for hip-hop mainstays like breakdancing) went mainstream. It similarly didn’t hurt watching the likes of Jane Fonda working out or seeing Sylvester Stalone run up those steps in Rocky.

The ‘80s were when personal fitness really caught on. People started jogging recreationally, they joined gyms, and, to go with it all, they bought sweatpants. As fitness became a lifestyle — heck, as having a ‘lifestyle’ became a concept at all — a general decline in formality in clothing coincided with an ascendancy of newly hip athletic clothing. Hey presto, you have sportswear becoming streetwear.

It didn’t take long though for sweatpants to attain a shabby reputation. It’s all fine and well to wear joggers if you literally run for a living, but if you’re a regular, unathletic Joe, the sheen can come off all too quickly. Hence Lagerfeld’s aforementioned reprimand, Seinfeld dissing George, or the Mean Girls banning them on Mondays

But around the turn of the millennium, premium sweats made by the likes of Lululemon brought back that initial glam. ‘Athleisure’ was in its ascendancy and sportswear had become more desirable than ever. Think of the velour Noopsie getup worn by Julie Cooper in The O.C. or literally anyone you’ve seen walking down the street with a yoga mat. Sweatpant-adjacent clothing was cool again, and more expensive than ever. If you find it puzzling that someone might spend over a hundreds dollars on a pair of tights, consider Childish Gambino’s reasoning in calling his 2013 song ‘Sweatpants’: ‘Rich people wear whatever they want’.

Close-up of sweatpants
Image is my own / All rights reserved

And then the pandemic happened. Pre-COVID, my own sweatpant collections comprised the following: An ancient pair of synthetic Adidas pants I was given at age 15, some joggers I picked up from a charity shop because they had ‘Slytherin’ printed across the front, and this flowy olive number I got when I lived at the beach and planned to restyle myself as a windswept bohemian in recklessly unbuttoned shirts. It was, of course, a ridiculous notion and the weird olive pants languished in my closet alongside their peers for years.

When the pandemic hit though, in the now celebrated tradition of hate-wearing, I dug them out and put them on almost daily, if not gleefully, certainly with a kind of resolve that brought its own satisfaction. I’ve subsequently bought other pairs from Amazon and Uniqlo, and was even regifted some that didn’t fit their intended recipient (romance, even in COVID times, is not dead). Now sweatpants have worked their way into virtually every outfit I wear indoors.

While things are looking up, I’m still not sure exactly when I’ll properly leave my house again. But I do know that when that day comes, my secret sweats stash will once again be relegated to the deepest recesses of my closet. As a sign of our momentary collective defeat, I fully intend to defeat sweatpants in return.

Man floating wearing sweatpants
Image credit: Nextofederjco on Pexels

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