We’ve witnessed a truly breathtaking amount of innovation amid the pandemic, as firms of all descriptions found themselves diving toward digital commerce in an attempt to keep at least some of the economy’s lights on. Digital commerce, expanded local delivery, buy online pick up curbside, contactless payments and more all moved from the margins of consumers’ transactional lives to center stage. And yet, that list leaves out one frontier of human progress that for some reason has gone largely unsung: sweatpants.
We are truly living in the golden era of the American sweatpant. Once only worn by recently dumped boyfriends and girlfriends on ice-cream binges – or by those completely unconcerned about other peoples’ opinions – the sweatpant has undergone a remarkable evolution. It’s enjoying new life among white-collar workers who have abandoned their offices and relocated to their bedrooms and kitchen tables to work via Zoom meetings.
Realizing that their co-workers can only see them on Zoom from the waist up, people simply stopped buying pants. Adobe Analytics, which tracks transactions from 80 of the top 100 U.S. retailers, found that pants purchases fell 13 percent in April. (Bra sales declined 12 percent, too.)
But sweatpants have bravely bucked the trend – on the back, we would argue, of the innovations of Americans who have expanded the horizons of what a sweatpant can be, and where it can be worn.
In fact, while sweatpants are certainly attention-grabbing amid our sudden adversity, they represent a wider shift in the fashion world – and a new sliding scale for how we evaluate what’s fashionable.
A Google search of the world “sweatpants” turns up millions of articles on the subject – including an entire front page of trends and listicles breaking down the best possible sweatpant choice for any occasion.
That’s because there are suddenly lots of different kinds of sweatpants out there. Need a comfortable yet sophisticated sweatpant that can be dressed up for a night out or dressed down for a night on the couch social distancing at home? According to the experts at Bustle, you need these velvet joggers for the modern day-to-night look.
To quote one reviewer: “I can’t stop petting my legs when I’m wearing them!” The reviewer also complimented the velvet sweatpants for their versatile drawstring waist and functional front pockets.
For the worker who’s going back to the office but isn’t quite ready to get back into real pants, there are 100 percent cotton sweatpants that Bustle said look like “tailored but slightly relaxed slacks.” Suitable for both a morning at the office and a quick gym hit, Bustle said the ankle-length pants can pair perfectly with “chic white sneakers or stylish leather flats.”
But if such mass-market sweatpants lack the right “going-out” feel, designer options also abound. For instance, Saks has a $1,495 pair by Balmain, while Bergdorf Goodman carries $1,500 track pants by Gucci. Or for the value shopper, there’s always the discount option of $850 Balenciaga Jersey track pants from Neiman Marcus.
We imagine it would warm the heart of Emile Camuset, the French inventor of the modern sweatpant, to know that his creation has achieved its full potential as a high-fashion item, pushed by pandemic-fueled innovation.
And while sweatpants’ progress has been impressive, their gains point to the bigger trend in the changing definition of high style. Ultra-high stiletto heels, tight fits and a “dry-clean-only” aesthetic is taking a backseat to flats, loose linen clothes and a look that’s more “Green Acres” than “Greenwich Village.”
Consider opera singer and consummate New York fashion plate Nora Graham-Smith. She’s removed herself from her Manhattan apartment for a limited engagement at her mother’s Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home – and has been forced to match her personal style to her new, more rural surroundings.
“I went from Prada over-the-knee boots to L.L. Bean rubber boots because I’m doing a lot of gardening,” Graham-Smith recently told The Wall Street Journal.
She’s just one of many urban refugees who have relocated to less densely populated areas to ride out the pandemic and found that their city wardrobes needed a bit of modifying to suit their new lifestyles.
New York City therapist and doula Rebekah Rosler told the Journal that among the jobs of starting fresh in her new suburban locale is reinventing herself – starting with a new look. “I wouldn’t mind starting fresh, getting [not] a whole new wardrobe, but a capsule with pieces that allow me to start this next chapter,” she said.
Is This a Permanent Shift?
Americans’ wardrobes were already trending toward the casual before the pandemic, as seen in the rapid rise of athleisure wear. But for a now-dedicated nation of elastic-waistband wearers, the question is whether our old fashion sense will return once COVID-19 makes its final exit – or whether the definition of high fashion will be permanently altered for a now-casual U.S. consumer base.