Every now and then, I’ll read that the pandemic might make a comeback. If I’m being honest, the thought can be a little comforting: that chance to retreat into a fleece-lined tunnel, the judgment-free zone of a blank-screen Zoom meeting, getting to walk on the beach at 2 on a Tuesday afternoon.
But it’s over now, right? Ridership on the L.I.R.R. is outpacing pre-pandemic levels, as it is on the L.I.E. during peak hours. We’ve emerged full-faced to the world for so long now that there’s a little nostalgia when we think about Solo stoves and heat lamps. And yet we are reluctant to relinquish these days of sloth, with one leg in the real world and the other still ensconced in sweatpants.
As the polar bear is to the climate change movement, the sweatpant is to the borderless, post-pandemic world. The very garment is devoid of definition. It can blend in to the couch, accept a Cheetos stain, and still be taken out into the marketplace or even the workplace. With its wide legs, its shapeless backside, its expanding waistline, it is the official garment of loose boundaries. It is as close as we can get to wearing the couch.
In April of 2020, clothing sales fell 79 percent in the United States. Sweatpant sales, however, were up 80 percent. Lululemon and Athleta drove the booming athleisure market, which is expected to grow from $155.2 billion in 2018 to $257.1 billion by 2026. GQ declared, “The sweatpant has supplanted the blue jean in the pants-wearing American imagination.”
Defenders of these loose leg-socks will cling to fruits of their womb-like comfort: “I wear sweats because I’m dressing for myself.” “Jeans are not as casual as people say they are.” There is a certain manifesto involved here, though if its army were planting the flag on Iwo Jima, what would it stand for?
Karl Lagerfeld, the late Chanel designer and fashion icon, quipped, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” Jerry Seinfeld snarked on the drawstring-waisted George Costanza: “You’re telling the world ‘I give up. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.’ “ Against this backlash, sweatpants remain the de facto choice on campus or at the shopping center.
To offset this legacy of defamation, the garment’s nickname shoulders great aspiration: “sweats.” As in, “You will wear these in order to sweat.” Rocky Balboa, then, wore your standard-issue grays quite aptly in “Rocky II,” when he mounted the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
And, as all labels seem compelled to evolve in the 2020s, there is even a rumbling to supplant the term “sweats” with the yet more aspirational “joggers.” If so, John Travolta would have been an exemplar when he ran around the track in “Grease.” But the reality is that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend over 90 percent of their time indoors. It’s more likely, then, that the beers are sweating, and that these are what the sweatpantsed are curling.
Yes, there is a time for the drawstring pull of sweatpants, to let oneself go every now and then, around the holidays or on vacation. But during these days of blurred private and public spaces, we have to uphold pants as the Mason-Dixon line. There is too much loose fabric right now — test scores are flagging and grades are getting higher, the air keeps getting worse and we’re spewing more pollutants. DoorDash keeps bringing the onion rings faster. We need to get a grip, and that grip needs to be stronger than an elastic waistband.
Slipping into the tailored contours of legwear — as we enter Jack’s or White’s or even the I.G.A. — ought to be as common as the handshake. It’s a code that says, “I respect that you have curated your wares. In turn, I will respect you by not looking like I just woke up from the couch.” And so we walk with cuffs and creases even, in an allegiance not just to ourselves, but to the civic good.
We can rouse our common comity to do better than the lumps, the bulges, the untoward hair, the wardrobe malfunctions that brim with sweatpants. We may never return to Audrey Hepburn’s tweed suits or Cary Grant’s fedora. But please, can we at least find some pants?
Tim Donahue has a house on Napeague. He teaches high school English in New York City and writes about climate change, education, and endurance sports.