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Jun 27, 2023


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By David Mack

Mr. Mack is a writer.

Less than three weeks into the March 2020 lockdowns in New York City, my boyfriend turned to me with a revelation he was having while in the snug living room that had become our co-working space, wine bar and prison chamber.

A finance lawyer who used to wear suits, he lately had found himself toiling in a series of baggy sweatpants and sweaters. (No judgment: I wore the same crusty, forest-green hoodie and gray sweats for over three days straight.) As we prepared to throw on some jeans to head to the grocery store, he told me he couldn't remember the last time he had put on a pair of "hard pants."

I shared his utterance on Twitter, the site on which I have wasted much of my life, and "hard pants" went viral. Dictionary.com even credited us with popularizing the term, although it's been around in some form since at least 2009. It was probably my greatest cultural contribution to the pandemic — it may prove to be the most influential piece of writing I produce in my career.

Three years on, while I have mostly stopped wearing masks, my soft clothes remain. All the pieces I gravitate toward feel more … casual. If a set of pants has an elastic waistband, I’m sold. On an ideal day, you shouldn't be able to tell if I’m going to the club or to my couch. Think airport chic.

I don't think this makes me or my fellow softies slobs. We haven't given up, per se. We’ve merely let go of what was previously expected of us. If anything, it takes a certain grizzled hardness to emerge from the chaos of Covid and embrace softness. It feels liberating, both for my spirit and for my legs.

The divider between formal and informal spaces, between the professional and the unprofessional, has become as thin and faint as the line on a Covid test. I spent much of the past few years looking at my colleagues’ bedrooms and seeing their toddlers crash Zoom calls — something that was once so unimaginable that when it happened in 2017 on the BBC it became international news.

We had no choice but to allow others into our private spaces. And as days turned to months turned to years, any pretense of formality went out the window. Please recall that someone once seemingly flushed a toilet during audio oral arguments for the Supreme Court — whose members, it should be pointed out, have been enjoying loosefitting robes for over two centuries.

The opportunity to re-evaluate longstanding social norms has been one of the few positive side effects of Covid. And saying goodbye to hard pants is just another way that the pandemic has altered the fabric — quite literally, in this instance — of our lives.

It's no secret that, for many of us, clothing preferences changed during the pandemic. While Americans’ spending on apparel dropped 19 percent in 2020, sales of sweatpants rose 17 percent, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.

Indeed, now that we’ve emerged into a new era, as evidenced by the U.S. state of emergency designation for Covid expiring on Thursday, comfort still remains king.

"People want to dress up after the pandemic," Daniel Grieder, chief executive of the luxury apparel brand Hugo Boss, told The Business of Fashion in November. But, he added, "they don't want to wear something that is not comfortable anymore."

To meet this demand, Hugo Boss has focused on what Mr. Grieder called "dressletic" fashion, "performance suiting" that's comfier than jeans and which he said has proved so popular it's routinely sold out in the brand's stores. Hugo Boss also revamped its visual identity to something more casual and, dare I say, grungier. A $228 black hoodie emblazoned with a white Boss logo has become Hugo Boss's best-selling item ever, according to Mr. Grieder. Comfort sells — and evidently for a lot.

I came of age in an era when we were all supposed to be buying "going-out tops," as if our regular clothing would offend eyeballs after dark. This carried into my work life, too. Going into the office at BuzzFeed, I religiously wore a self-imposed uniform of Oxford button-downs and chinos or jeans. I couldn't say exactly why I felt the need to keep up a pretense of professionalism as I wrote stories about clouds that resembled male genitalia, but I suppose there was something nice about maintaining a distinction between who I was at work and who I was at home (where I talked about clouds resembling male genitalia without being compensated).

When, as the pandemic waned, I joined the huddled masses venturing back into Midtown a few days each week, my uniform changed. I wanted the colleagues who for years saw only my top half in video chats to marvel at how relaxed I look in resort wear or shorts. (Of course, this was until the surprise announcement last month that BuzzFeed News would shut down.)

For those who want to hold on to a degree of decorum, the newest thing is sweatpants that don't look like sweatpants. Rag & Bone sells a "Trompe L’oeil Cotton Jogger" that is designed to resemble a pair of jeans and retails for $225. Lululemon sells a fleece-lined pair with a pleat in the front for as much as $148.

This downfall of hard pants at work, while certainly accelerated by the pandemic, was brewing years before. The term "workleisure" appears to have entered popular usage around the end of 2016, when the lifestyle website Well+Good claimed to have invented it in an article predicting trends.

It's not surprising we emerged from 2016 seeking comfort and the sensation of being swaddled. After that presidential election, you probably needed a hug. After 2020, you probably felt you needed a lobotomy.

Enter pants. Or rather, exit pants.

In many ways, I feel as if we are now demanding from our pants attributes we are also seeking in others and in ourselves. We want them to be forgiving and reassuring. We want them to nurture us. We want them to say: "I was there, too. I experienced it. I came out on the other side more carefree and less rigid. And I learned about the importance of ventilation in the process."

David Mack (@davidmackau) is a writer and a former reporter for BuzzFeed News.

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