This cycle has repeated itself over and over again, with clothes from sports, manual labor, and beyond: People with cultural cachet decide to violate expectations by wearing something comfortable and casual outside of its normal context, some people get mad, and then everyone gets used to it. Marley Healy, a fashion historian and curator, mentioned a famous portrait of Marie Antoinette in a simple (by the era’s baroque standards), diaphanous gown as an example of how this process starts. Next to the ornate, restrictive clothing courtiers usually wore, the gown was basically loungewear. “She was usurping a garment and an idea from the lower classes that was fiercely oppositional to what was expected at the French court,” Healy told me. While many people fumed at the young queen for having the gall to act poor, lots of other Frenchwomen clamored to mimic her style. What had been a shocking moment of class treason soon became the norm, because it was what young women wanted, and someone high-profile had stepped forth to give them an opening, respectability be damned.
Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez were the Marie Antoinettes of sweatpants. Certain ways of dressing are forbidden until they’re not, and professional and formal dress have been getting more casual for hundreds of years, as cheaper, more comfortable fabrics have provided people with a glut of alternatives—to corsets, to three-piece suits, to jeans that don’t stretch. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which Juicy’s dominance was all that was needed to make velvet, cashmere, and terry-cloth sweats as ubiquitous as jeans for years to come.
Except that’s not what happened. Despite the short-lived Juicy Couture breakthrough of the 2000s, sweatpants largely retained their stink of desperation, eclipsed by sleeker athleisure offerings such as yoga pants and leggings, as well as pants that looked like jeans or khakis but stretched like leggings—their comforts hidden, lest someone realize sweatpants had slipped past a stringent office dress code. Sweatpants’ broad cultural adaptation has long stalled out in this final phase—the transition to noncontroversial ubiquity—even as all the trends swirling around them have indicated that people are desperate to slide their tired, jeans-dented body into something a little bit more forgiving.
Clothes don’t come from nowhere, and neither do ideas about how to dress and who’s allowed to wear what. Sweatpants were a bit slow on the mainstream uptake after the 1920s, but they finally crossed over in the 1980s, as the decade’s fitness craze pushed people to find clothes that would give them a fuller range of motion in the gym and an association with exercise outside of it. Quickly, though, fabrics with a slinkier, lighter, sportier feel, such as those used in the Adidas tracksuits made famous in the ’80s by the rap group Run DMC, usurped much of cotton sweatpants’ momentum toward legitimate coolness. Other garments were better at displaying a commitment to fitness or an understanding of street fashion’s nascent power, so sweatpants were left for those with something to hide.