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I own exactly one pair of sweatpants. They’ve been worn in the gym and in the privacy of my apartment. Never in between. Even in a pandemic, I can’t bring myself to wear an elastic waistband in public unless I’m doing something legitimately athletic.
As anybody who knows me knows, I’m not a fan of our relentlessly casualizing culture where people wear sneakers, sweatpants and hoodies to just about anything. By the time we all locked down into quarantine comfort clothes, an audience at a Broadway show was already visually interchangeable with the crowd at a NASCAR race. The “I’m crushing it at work” statement garment had already downgraded from a tailored suit to a fleece zip-up vest. (See @midtownuniform on Instagram.)
And I don’t mean all casual clothes, like a good pair of jeans, a nice unstructured jacket or a handsome pair of sneakers. I’m referring to the pajama-like athleisure reminiscent of the clothes worn by humans in WALL-E. And I don’t have issues with mixing in the occasional hoodie or something, either. Weekends do exist, after all. But let’s not deny that many have fallen full-time into a proverbial beanbag chair with this, uninterested in getting up, immersing oneself from head to toe in comfy casuals.
Long before the pandemic, our explicit and implicit dress codes had already devolved into the sartorial equivalent of mashed potatoes. It’s all about bedroom/man cave comfort at all costs, no matter what, no matter where. The mission — and we’ve chosen to accept it — is to kill any hint of glamour, sophistication and maturity at every turn. When I see an ostensible adult in a yoga outfit or sweatpants nursing a coffee-based milkshake from Starbucks, I see a super-sized baby with a sippy cup. In terms of what we wear, what’s considered attractive or merely appropriate, we’ve reached peak toddler.
I understand that the pandemic has eclipsed many of the reasons and incentives for dressing with any sense of occasion. In my own lockdown before I went back to work in June, my daily uniform, which is also my dog walk drag, typically entailed a t-shirt, jeans (never sweatpants) and desert boots. A few times, just to give myself a lift, I actually put on a tailored jacket with jeans or a full suit with a pair of good shoes and walked around to run errands and get coffee. I have to admit it felt great, and I wish I did it more often.
Since our shutdown, sales of tailored fare have understandably plummeted while sales of comfort clothes and athleisure have boomed. Brooks Brothers, JoS. A. Bank and Men’s Wearhouse are as good as dead, while, according to a recent piece in The New York Times, March sales for ‘sweatleisure’ brand Entireworld were up 662% from the same month in 2019. And I get it, especially for people living in a sparsely populated area, rarely stepping out. In the city, for me, it’s a different story, where the urban jungle setting demands a different sensibility.
This brings up the issue of comfort and what is considered “comfortable.” What is comfortable for one person is not necessarily comfortable for me. Of course, lounging on a sofa or in bed while wearing the adult equivalent of a onesie is extraordinarily comfortable. Even I can get into that when no one is looking. But my concept of “comfortable” changes when I step out in public. Quite simply, I feel better when I look nice. I also think it’s nice to make a positive contribution to our visual landscape. A tailored suit or jacket with nice jeans and good shoes feels good to me. And as far as purely physical comfort goes, the idea that clothes like that are dramatically less comfortable than athleisure is a bit of a myth in my experience. The only physically uncomfortable clothes I’ve ever worn are clothes that didn’t fit or clothing made from bad fabric, like wrinkle-free cotton.
Then there is the thing about design and aesthetics. Decades from now, no one will look back at old Instagrams of today’s Lululemonade selfies and say “Wow, people looked so good then. How glamorous!” Nope. Not gonna happen. On the contrary, I think this is a time like some parts of the 1970s and 1980s where we cringe a little as we look back and wonder what we were thinking. Every decade or so, it seems as though people get bored or lazy and our collective sense of style, sense of occasion and sense of self go out the window. This strikes me as one of those times. Try to argue that a man looks better in drop-crotch sweats, an oversized hoodie and Crocs than the drastically different body types of Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock in their respective tailored fare, and I’ll call bullshit of the highest order.
Years ago, I wrote a piece floating the tailored suit as “the great equalizer.” I argued that only some men can fill a t-shirt or look amazing in a pair of jeans, while every man – regardless of his body shape or size – looks his unequivocal best in a tailored suit.
People may read this and think that I’m suggesting we all put on three-piece suits to go to Trader Joe’s. No. That’s stupid. What I’m suggesting is a hope that we might want a little more for ourselves in terms of how we look, especially at a time when life is tough enough. Dressing nice has an effect on us and on others. There’s a reason we love a colorful dandy or glamourpuss on Instagram. It brings us a little joy. Unless you’re built like an Avenger, sweats and athleisure are dowdy, dumpy and depressing. We’re fully stocked on those feelings these days. I’d like to think we’d yearn for something better — for ourselves and for the people, places and things we step out for.
With respect to the economics of it all, it’s tempting to say our casualization is money-related, as if regular-waisted pants are more expensive than elastic-waisted ones. (They’re not.) People are buying clothes online. They’re just buying adult-sized baby clothes. These days, $100 sweatpants and $150 tech hoodies can’t be shipped fast enough. But for the same money, you could get three pairs of handsome chinos and two nice cashmere sweaters at Uniqlo, yielding several different looks for many different occasions and situations.
As with most aspects of my life, I’m a bit of a loner on this. I’ve often heard things like, “Well, George, you’re you. You’ve always dressed like this.” That’s not true. In the decade from my late 20s to my late 30s, I didn’t own a suit. My uniform was t-shirts and the 1990s version of athleisure. I was frumpy and lazy. Then I hit a wall. I’d become really bored and sick of myself, and I wanted something better. Then I saw Daniel Craig’s 2006 debut as James Bond in Casino Royale and realized I’d lost sight of a certain level of masculine elegance and sophistication that should come with maturity. Like many men who love Bond films, I wanted to look more like that. It all sounds kind of cheesy, I know. There are many other influencers – alive and not – who continue to inspire my personal style, but it was 007 who slapped some sense back into me and inspired me to up my game. And I haven’t looked back.
When we ultimately crawl out of the Covid cave with bad beards that conceal bloated jawlines and farted-out sweatpants that forgive bloated waistlines, and after we get a much-needed Silkwood hose down, perhaps we might be a bit bored with shapeless chic and be ready to look like something again. Time will tell.
The idea of worrying about how one dresses during a pandemic may seem superficial. But speaking for myself, slipping on a crisp white dress shirt, a tailored jacket and a pair of polished wingtips is sometimes enough to get me through a day when I would otherwise rather stay in bed. It is just clothing, after all. But it’s a reminder to me that all civilization is not necessarily lost and maybe even still worth celebrating a tiny bit.
So on a day when I don’t feel like much — which happens more often than I care to admit these lonely days — I’ll run the steamer over a suit or jacket, brush a pair of bluchers and insert the collar stays on a fresh shirt before putting on the costume and assuming the character. Then I feel like something. Sweatpants don’t have that transformative power for me. They just don’t.