It’s hard for anyone of an elegant bent to see the decline of dress among today’s youth. Not all of them, of course. Just those who have embraced sweatpants – often worn with matching sweatshirt, like some perverse mockery of the suit – as their trouser of choice.
Typically ash grey, typically in need of a wash, typically – inexplicably – found with a hand stuffed down them, as though their wearer is, given his dreadful attire, reassuring himself that his manhood is at least still literally intact, sweatpants have become the jeans of the 2020s, and all the more so as denim sales have taken a dive. Often devoid of pockets, such anti-stylists are forced to carry little nylon pouch bags. Truly, they have unmanned themselves through their clothing choice.
In part it’s the result of a decade of athleisure, its obvious ease and comfort pre-dating Covid lockdowns but only underscored by them. But in part it is also, as Jerry Seinfeld once joked, a sign that the wearer has given up on life. “Again with the sweatpants?” Seinfeld asks George. “You know the message you’re sending out to the world with those sweatpants? It’s ‘I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable. So I might as well be comfortable’.”
Eva Mendes once only half-joked that men wearing sweatpants was the number one cause for divorce. Forget your bold horizontal stripes or your broad arrow prints – not for nothing is the grey sweat two-piece often the uniform given to guests of His Majesty’s Prisons. They are the perfect way to anonymise and institutionalise its wearer, to say that you’re a number, not a man.
This isn’t to say sweatpants don’t have their place: at the trail or gym, for example. Maybe on a lazy Sunday. But not every day. And in many respects, they are a great piece of design – attributed to Emile Camuset, the founder of Le Coq Sportif, in the 1920s – logically taking the then fresh idea of the sweatshirt, a warm, durable, absorbent, heavyweight, easily washed garment to throw on after exercise, and translating all those benefits into something to cover one’s lower half as well. By the 1936 Olympics sweatpants had lost their novelty and were being worn by most athletes at the event.
There’s also no doubt that in the iconic training montage in 1976’s ‘Rocky’, Sylvester Stallone looks seriously cool – but he wearing sweatpants in preparation for a world title fight, not to vape outside a corner shop well past bedtime. The practicality of the garment for active duty hadn’t been lost in 1970s hip-hop culture either: sweatpants being good to break-dance in but, again, not for breaking out as a fashion leader.
Arguably the advent of track pants in the same decade – think Adidas and Run DMC, slinkier, more boldly coloured, in modern wonder synthetics – critically stalled the sweatpants evolution into the fashion canon. Instead, those individuals who stuck with them, and who have embraced them of late, seemed happy to semaphore a lack of respect, for themselves and for others. Harsh, but true.
Yet, remarkably, against all attempts to contain sweatpants in the world of sport – or, at least, for wearing when you want to proclaim your sportiness, to give the impression that you’re fresh from yet another hot pod yoga session – recent years have seen them become seemingly ubiquitous, if still not entirely accepted.
Of course, much of menswear has transitioned from sport – polo shirts, button-down shirts, blazers, plimsolls, baseball caps and so on – into mainstream wear, and give thanks for that. But attempts to provide a formal, even luxury, style of sweatpants – in wool blends, in cashmere, in velour, instead of the bog standard cotton-polyester blend – has been disastrous, given that everyone knows sweatpants with a tailored jacket and brogues may barely work on the catwalk but just looks plain stupid in the real world. Wear sweatpants with anything other than more sports kit and you’re in trouble.
That’s because sweatpants are inherently, irrevocably casual, even if, according to Childish Gambino and his song ‘Sweatpants’, one wears them to signal a certain social superiority. Why? “Because rich people wear whatever they want,” he has explained. That may work when you’re also sporting a Rolex and carrying your Louis Vuitton holdall. It does not work when your accessory of choice is a tired JD Sports plastic bag. Some might even argue that rich people wearing sweatpants – even ludicrously expensive ones – is just acting poor, in the way Marie Antoinette did, much to the French court’s bewilderment and then, of course, its imitation. Next stop: revolution.
That said, sweatpants’ forgiving ‘no restrictions’ ease of wear have been rebranded as ‘joggers’ – dodging that unappetising mention of sweat – and more successfully translated into semi-formal trouser styles with elasticised waists, slimmer cuts and tailored in jersey or stretch jersey. It’s an indication perhaps of where menswear is heading: if not quite to live permanently on the couch, then definitely towards ease of movement, and a pull-on-pull-off practicality enjoyed by all when we last wore nappies.
Indeed, perhaps that is what lies at the heart of sweatpants’ appeal: a kind of sartorial infantilism. Whatever next? A romper suit? Oh, wait, we’ve done that with the onesie.
But, crucially, it has taken this fairly radical reworking of the sweatpants into something bordering on looking professional for them to find any palatability outside of the gym, the Crips or, just occasionally, the Red Lion for a quick pint.
Is there a kind of snobbery in the sniffiness about sweatpants? There is. Is it a tad judgemental to pick on the Roadmen for, quite possibly, lacking the means to buy better, when sweatpants are cheap, plentiful and do the job? It is. But fashion is, at least at one level, all about snobbery and judgment. And it is, before this all gets out of hand, time to call an end to sweatpants.