To mid-aughts celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they were high fashion. To the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Eva Mendes they’re a sign of defeat; they declare to the world, as Jerry tells George Costanza in the Seinfeld pilot, “I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.”
And since the start of the pandemic, sweatpants have become perhaps more ubiquitous than ever.
“A lot of people who had been going to offices stopped going to offices for the foreseeable future,” Amanda Mull, a staff writer for The Atlantic, says. “I think people were forced to decide what it is they want to wear for this new circumstance they’re in.”
In this episode of the new podcast The Experiment, Mull and the host, Julia Longoria, trace sweatpants through U.S. history and debate an age-old question: Do they symbolize laziness, or freedom?
Further reading: “America’s Most Hated Garment”
Be part of The Experiment. Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen and subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts
This episode was produced by Julia Longoria, Gabrielle Berbey, and Alvin Melathe, with editing by Katherine Wells. Fact-check by Stephanie Hayes. Sound design by David Herman.
Music by Ob (“Grot”), and r mccarthy (“Learning English”), water feature (“with flowers”), Laurie Bird (“Jussa Trip”), Column (“｢The Art of Fun｣ (Raj)”), infinite bisous (“The Past Tense”), and Nelson Bandela (“561 Mac D 10,” “011 HareDoe 019 8396,” “GLU EEE 86”), provided by Tasty Morsels and Nelson Nance. Additional audio from DigitalPimple, Glamourdaze, International Fitness Center, The Richard Simmons Show, Jane Fonda, Hudson’s Bay, Atelier ID, Breakin’ in the USA, WABC, Dance Centre, Adidas, Seinfeld, watchFashionNews, Extra, Vogue, and X17online
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
(Dramatic, nostalgic music from a mid-20th-century PSA plays.)
André Baruch: (From the 1950s film Fashions for the Office.) She’s looking for a job, and she’s dressed for it too! Tastefully, not expensively.
Host of a 1970s fashion PSA: You know, clothing is actually the first visual impression other people have of us. Some say it’s a key to how we appear to others. It, uh, communicates!
Baruch: They not only look nice to us—they’re a good investment.
(Music echoes, swells, and then subsides.)
Julia Longoria: Hi, Amanda. This is Julia.
Amanda Mull: Hey, Julia! How are you?
Longoria: Nice to meet you! [Hesitating.] Not to be a complete creep right now—and we’ve never actually met in person, because of the pandemic—but my first question for you is “What are you wearing?”
Mull: I am wearing, um, a sort of shapeless dress-slash-top … (Continues under narration.)
Longoria: Amanda Mull is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She tries to explain who we are as Americans through material things like beauty products, kitchen appliances, and the clothes we wear—or don’t wear.
Longoria: Like, there’s no way to say this without sounding creepy. [Both laugh.] Are you wearing pants?
Mull: I am not. I am not wearing pants … (Continues under narration.)
Longoria: And lately she’s been spending a lot of time thinking about pants. Or not pants, per se, but what pants have to say about us.
Mull: I think that fashion is a social language.
(Slow percussion plays, growing weirder.)
Mull: When I was in high school in 2003, it was the first time that I had had a super steady paycheck. What I wanted to do was buy a Coach bag.
(The music becomes louder and wackier, more whimsical.)
Mull: I wanted to be the type of person who carried a handbag that costs a couple hundred dollars. That just seemed like the most sophisticated, adult thing that I could do, based on my conception of what sophisticated adults did in suburban Atlanta.
(A light, reverb-laden horn riff plays.)
Longoria: It’s so funny: The Coach bag was so the thing in suburban Miami, Florida, as well. It was, like, the—the pinnacle.
Mull: Yeah. At some point, it was sort of like, “Oh, I have psychoanalyzed myself. I understand that my desire for these things …” It was definitely a striving impulse.
(A quick moment of music before the narration resumes.)
Longoria: It’s the kind of the thing you know, even if you haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about stuff like this. Clothes speak. They can at least try to tell people things, like “I’m rich.” Or “I’m at a funeral.” We’ve set up almost, like, these laws in American life about who gets to wear white at certain events, or what it means to wear pink. But, in this time when many of us are barely seeing each other, Amanda’s been thinking about how the rules change—which brings us back to pants.
Mull: I think the, uh—the clothing item of the pandemic is sweatpants.
(A clip from Seinfeld plays.)
Jerry Seinfeld: Again with the sweatpants? (Audience laughter.)
George Costanza: What? I’m comfortable!
Seinfeld: You know the message you’re sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You’re telling the world, “I give up. I can’t compete in normal society.” (Fades out.)
(The Seinfeld clip ends.)
Mull: I think that sweatpants have been painted, over time, as an aesthetic indicator of laziness.
(A clip of an Extra interview with Eva Mendes plays.)
Eva Mendes: (Indignantly.) Sweatpants?! No—no, no, no.
A. J. Calloway: (Shocked.) Never?
Mendes: No, no.
Mendes: You can’t do sweatpants. [A beat.] Ladies! No. 1 cause of divorce in America: sweatpants. (Calloway laughs.)
(The clip ends.)
Mull: And that made me more and more interested in how differently they could be painted. Like, are sweatpants laziness, or are they freedom?
(Music dramatically changes tone, becoming soft and graceful, piano-driven.)
Longoria: Sweatpants. Not the most pressing issue facing our country, I know. But when you walk through the long and winding history of this pair of pants—the complicated relationship it’s had with mainstream culture—a story emerges about who we are and what we value.
This week, Amanda Mull unwinds the relationship we didn’t know we had with sweatpants and makes the case for how embracing them might just set you free.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment, a show about our unfinished country.
(The sound falters, then cuts out.)
Mull: To embrace sweatpants as freedom, you have to understand why people oppose them so vociferously in the first place.
Sweatpants came from the same place that a lot of the modern American wardrobe came from, which is athletics. They were invented in the 1920s in France by a French, uh, sportswear brand for French athletes, so I think mostly tennis players, at first. The material that they’re often made of is French terry.
Longoria: What is French terry?
Mull: It’s sweatshirt material, is what you think of. The inside of sweatpants feels sort of like a towel because that was really what they were for: to absorb sweat. And they were once considered intolerably casual and disrespectful to wear in polite company.
Longoria: Sweatpants began their life humbly as a sponge for French sweat. Definitely unsophisticated—also, honestly, a little gross. But they didn’t stay that way. Half a century later, when they made their way to American shores, they slowly tiptoed their way into the mainstream.
Mull: So they started to enter the wardrobe in the 1980s, uh, when, culturally, the United States was having a boom in fitness.
Richard Simmons: Okay, give me that wonderful music.
(The music of an ’80s-style exercise video plays, reveling in the synthesizer.)
Simmons: (Emphasizing each word.) Here we go! Inhale!
Mull: You get the rise of exercise celebrities: Richard Simmons …
Jane Fonda: Are you ready to do the workout? (Video participants cheer and say, “Yeah!” excitedly.)
Mull: Jane Fonda…