It seems as though the pandemic has changed the way all of us dress in one way or another. In my case, there have certainly been a good few surprises along the way. When I think about my own clothing during the time of Covid, though, there’s a single garment that stands out, one that represents my changing and unexpected dressing habits better than any other. For me — odd as it may sound — it’s been all about carpenter pants.
That’s right, not sweatpants, or shorts, or even pyjama bottoms, but a pair of unwieldy and (arguably) uncomfortable work trousers. These have been the pants I’ve reached for day after day, whether I’m popping to the shops, heading out on a hike, or just lounging around my house, with the latter option being by far the most likely.
If this doesn’t seem like a strange choice, perhaps you’re also a convert, or maybe it’s unclear exactly what I mean. I’m using the term ‘carpenter pants’ here in pretty broad terms. You might think of them as utility trousers, painters pants, double knee- or double front jeans, or something else entirely — the nomenclature can be a little nebulous. In truth, each of these would have its own unique set of specs: utility pants are probably the most heavy-duty (the kind of thing you would wear while operating a chainsaw, say), painters pants are probably the thinnest, lightest in colour, and most comfortable, while the double front variety obviously implies an extra layer of reinforcement around the knees and thighs, which not all of these would have. Really, you can take your pick. All I have in mind is a roomy kind of work trouser with a hardy build and an overabundance of pockets.
Now, since I’ve done very little carpentry, painting, or tree felling in the last year or two, I grant you that these are not the obvious choice for a life spent mostly sheltering in place. I typically pass my days at a desk or on a couch, with most of my physical activity being limited to kettle-boiling. Which is to say that drinking builder’s tea is about the closest I come to manual labour at any given time.
It’s not just that I haven’t been living a particularly active lifestyle lately, though, it’s that my favourite pandemic pants are actively inconducive to sedentary, homebound living. They’re hard and scratchy, they have no give whatsoever, and, thanks to a circular band of fabric just below the hip of the garment known as a hammer- or brush loop, it often gets caught on doorknobs and stray corners, which sends me flailing around my house unexpectedly, cursing the fixtures, furniture, and everything else within earshot (everything, that is, except the obvious culprits: these damn pants and my idiotic insistence on wearing them).
It’s gotten to the point where my choice of trousers has started affecting the other people in my life. The aforementioned flailing and profanity notwithstanding, I’ve had friends and family ask me several times in confused tones why, exactly, I was wearing ‘those things’ and whether I wouldn’t be more comfortable changing into something a bit more…rational. That is to say, my pants are so poorly catered to my everyday life as to distress the people around me.
I have soldiered on regardless, however, and I’ll tell you why. Firstly, they are roomy. There’s little mystery as to why skinny jeans have gone the way of the dodo during Covid. Along with elasticated waistbands, raglan sleeves, and the like, consumers have flocked en masse to larger fits as comfort has become a greater consideration in clothing than perhaps ever before. And, speaking of comfort, for my money they fit the bill perfectly. Sure, I had to break mine in for a bit, but once they’ve been thoroughly worn in and sent through the wash a few times, just like any vintage T-shirt or a well-travelled pair of jeans, they’re hard to beat comfort-wise. Then there’s the utility. You don’t need to be painting a house in order to enjoy their wide-ranging handiness. Having devolved at various points during quarantine into a state of slobbishness, it has been liberating wearing pants that not only handle stains and other abuse well but in fact benefit from them. The more miles they have on the clock, the better they look, so all the better to splatter them with olive oil in the kitchen or cover them in mud while gardening. The pockets too come in handy more often than you might think, being ideal for stowing away any number of mobile phones, wallets, masks, and containers of hand sanitiser, all within easy reach. After I took my double fronts out for their first spin, frankly all of my other trousers felt wanting in their wake for a while.
Still, I realise this is hardly a no-brainer. Which is why I’ve been heartened to discover others who have taken the same path. Writing for InsideHook, Charles McFarlane wrote a whole piece about his preference for wearing painter’s pants, which he called ‘the perfect trouser for our quarantined summer’ (an equally fitting declaration for any quarantined season, I might add). Meanwhile, over at GQ, Noah Johnson wrote a piece entitled ‘In Defence of Hard Clothes’, in which he makes the following case:
‘Let me suggest something controversial: Hard clothes are better. Clothes with texture and structure and weight are better. Clothes that make you aware that you are wearing them, that’s what I like — natural fibers that itch a little, dense fabrics with a calming heft, a dry, crisp hand.’
He adds that ‘true comfort develops over time’, a sentiment which I heartily second.
There is historical precedent too. Brands like Dickies started selling their painters pants around the 1920s and while Carhartt has been making their double knee pants since 1939, but starting around the 1970s, utility trousers have been worn as items of fashion and leisure. They were particularly popular among women at first, worn in some cases as a political statement, in others (as documented in Anatole Broyard’s record of chic New Yorker women in 1977) as ‘a canvas for incongruity’. Read Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads, a novel both written during the pandemic and set in the 1970s, and you’ll find that every second hip youth in the book is clad in pair of carpenter jeans.
They were no less popular in the ’80s among a GORPy, rock-climbing set, who prised their hardiness for the same reason they did the hard-wearing rugby shirts popularised by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. Their true heyday came in the 1990s, however, when street style made them cool enough that everyone from high fashion labels to mall-based flagships wanted in.
As a result of their decades-long popularity on and off the job site, you’re spoiled for choice if you’re looking to buy a pair. There are the OGs, of course: Carhartt, Dickies, Lee, or Stan Ray, as well as countless trendier takes by places like Todd Snyder, Engineered Garments, and even J. Crew.
I went with a pair of Carhartts myself, specifically the 12-ounce duck cotton B01 double-front work pants. It was partly down to their legendary hardiness and partly because I’d seen that photo of Daniel Day-Lewis walking around in the same model too many times to be expected to make any rational decisions. Hell, Jason Mamoa loves his so much he made a short film about them. While I doubt mine will ever become quite as raggedy as Aquaman’s, I’ve certainly enjoyed wearing the seams out of them every chance I get. And, despite their somewhat attention-grabbing look, I’ve been surprised by how versatile they are. I wear them with a lot of the casual things you might expect — sneakers, workboots, and Wallabees, plus T-shirts, fleeces, sweatshirts, that kind of thing — though I’ve been surprised by how well they can pair in the right context with knitwear or a nice coat (my balmacaan being a particular favourite).
I’ve written before about how wearing workwear during the pandemic (which I’ve done a lot of) seems to stem from an unfulfilled urge to be helpful or productive. There’s definitely some of that going on in the case of my incongruous double-fronts. There’s something else too, though, something deeper-seated, more figurative, and not at all incidental to pandemic life. On some level, I think the idea of a garment that starts out being rough and uncomfortable which then improves with every wash and wear — getting more manageable and familiar, in other words — seems particularly apropos. It feels somehow symbolic: A thing that literally starts out being hard only to get better with time. If that isn’t the perfect fit for pandemic life, I don’t know what is.
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