As the world takes its hesitant steps toward normalcy, and more people return to the workplace, we need to accept the fact that the era of sweatpants may be drawing to a close. And yet, do we really want to abandon the freedom and comfort we have found during this otherwise grim time? I know I don’t. And apparently, I am not alone.
Two years turns out to be just enough time to convince many of us, especially women over 40, that we need never again suffer physical discomfort for fashion.
“I don’t have any patience for uncomfortable clothing,” said Shira Lander, 59, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “I got rid of most of my dry-cleanable clothing, and I don’t worry about a travel steamer anymore!”
Faced with a frightening outer world, who doesn’t long to burrow under the covers, draping oneself in poofy, flowy, lounge-y garb that, while meant for waking life, looks and feels like sleepwear, and sometimes even like actual bedding?
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I don’t have any patience for uncomfortable clothing.
The kinder, gentler side of women’s fashion has been visible across the spectrum, from Zoom screen up to runway. Back in 2020, Anna Sui showed floaty prairie-style dresses, and even had some models carry matching comforters. Prada offered puffy, cocoonlike jackets and belted capes resembling bathrobes. Jason Wu whipped up airy caftans.
“I love that loungewear has become a prevailing new category,” said Barbara Lippert, 65, a writer. “During the worst part of the pandemic even jeans seemed like an overreach, requiring that complex button and zipper action. And cardigans were too much work.”
Many women interviewed for this column brought the conversation around to shoes and the eternal quest for style and elegance for feet no longer able or willing to contort themselves into unnatural positions. “I refuse to wear shoes that either hurt my feet or look dowdy,” said Anne Higonnet, 63, a Columbia University professor of art history. “So, I resort to the great old elegant English and French flat lace-up shoe brands – Crockett; Jones and Paraboot.”
During the worst part of the pandemic even jeans seemed like an overreach, requiring that complex button and zipper action.
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Jody Sperling, 51, a dancer and choreographer, favors shoes that permit movement, pointing out that with her go-to style of clogs, “you can go outrageous with colour, and they’re still comfort shoes.” Silver Danskos are her current favorite.
Lippert said that she had been wearing lug-soled boots, but even they “started feeling too restrictive,” so she switched to “step-in suede booties with faux-shearling linings.”
“No more heels,” echoed Angela Cason, 61, a digital agency owner who has also succumbed to the charms of shearling. Once you wear Uggs, she said, you’re ruined for anything else.
High-end designers have been conceding this point for a while now. Witness the endurance of the fluffy or fur-lined flat sandal craze – most recently, the collaboration between Birkenstock and the former king of pain himself, Manolo Blahnik, which blended both partners’ DNA to produce wide, flat, hippyish sandals in jewel-toned velvet, embellished with rhinestone buckles. Other name-checked labels for shoes included: Madewell, Aerosoles, Arche, Aquatalia, Blondo, Fly of London and, for kitten heels (the only heels anyone mentioned), Isabel Marant.
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No more heels.
Looks inspired by loungewear offer the additional advantage of pared-down choice. Even at its most upscale, relaxed fashion tends toward solid colours (no patterns to mix or match), easier sizing, fabrics that work well together and far fewer “levels” to fuss with (casual, professional and dressy all sort of meld together). In other words, relaxed fashion offers low-stress “uniform” dressing for women.
There’s an undeniable appeal to a civilian uniform, a way to cut back on the myriad decisions imposed by our wardrobes (sexy or serious; skirt, dress, or pants; tight or loose). Men avail themselves of uniforms whenever they choose a suit for work, a tux for evening or slacks and a polo shirt on weekends.
For more than a century, women’s fashion has cycled through various attempts at uniforms – from the Rational Dress Society of late-19th-century London (which decried whalebone corsets and promoted the voluminous cycling trousers known as “bloomers”) through Coco Chanel’s swingy separates, the unisex jeans and T-shirts of the 1960s, to the power suits of the 1980s, which offered armor to women newly entering the corporate battlefield.
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It strikes me that the loungewear trend is a reverse empowerment of the ‘power suits’ for an earlier generation of working women.
Lippert sees a direct correlation between today’s lounge-y looks and those early suits. “It strikes me,” she noted, “that the loungewear trend is a reverse empowerment of the ‘power suits’ for an earlier generation of working women.”
Sperling recounted buying up a series of soft cotton jumpsuits, in multiple colours and fabrics, all made in Thailand. “I like to wear clothes I might be able to dance in,” she said. She also cited “leggings and a tank top with a built-in bra” or a “men’s style linen button-down shirt” as favourite uniforms.
Alys George, 45, a cultural historian, favours a similar uniform: Leggings and a long, tunic-like sweater or top, all in black. The height of pandemic lockdowns coincided with George’s recent pregnancy, which only increased her desire for bodily comfort. Post-pregnancy, she remains attached to her new look, a bit to her own surprise.
At its heart, relaxed fashion is democratic, accommodating changes of mind, body and culture. It can be gender-neutral or nonbinary; and it’s body inclusive, flattering diverse shapes, weights and sizes. It’s also potentially a way to do more with less. Many women mentioned relying on the same limited number of items kept in steady rotation. Cason returns routinely to the same five pairs of Eddie Bauer pants in various colours, she said.
In this, relaxed fashion feels very much in keeping with some of today’s most urgent political and social movements. “What you wear reflects your values,” Sperling said.
Relaxed fashion’s appeal extends beyond the over-40 crowd. Several women said that their daughters loved this genre. Faith Stevelman, 61, a law professor at New York Law School, described her 24-year-old daughter’s style as “effortless” and sent a photo of her looking chic in sweats and Doc Martens, adding that both mother and daughter now shop at Madewell. Cason said her 25-year-old daughter prefers simple clothes she can move in, favouring men’s shirts from J Crew and classic items from vintage stores.
Finally, while this trend clearly skyrocketed during the pandemic, it didn’t emerge ex nihilo. Christine de Lassus, 58, a fashion stylist, noted in an email that she “adopted a long time ago the sportswear/streetwear/oversize/minimalist/comfortable and practical fashion that seems to be the new norm.” De Lassus suggested that relaxed fashion finds its roots in prepandemic times, as a response to “the excesses of many high-end designers” and recalled seeing the earliest glimmers of it back in 2008, when Phoebe Philo arrived at Celine “with her minimalist, oversize designs and her glorification of sneakers.”
And if relaxed fashion now seems more street than runway, haute couture is definitely feeling the vibe. Rick Owens is known for his flowing garments, but for fall 2022 he veered toward an outright bedding vibe, featuring what Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic at The New York Times, called “puffer boleros” – pillow-like tubular jackets that encircle the upper body, lending wearers the look of sleepers nestled under down comforters. Dries Van Noten showed inflated jackets and a glamorous sequined bathrobe-like coat. And the Row sent models down the runway in coats so voluminous, they resembled walking sleeping bags.
It’s hard to say how long we’ll stay nestled in our cocoons. Fashion is cyclical. But relaxed fashion was a long time in coming and responds deeply to both the current political moment and some of our innermost desires – for comfort, space and freedom from pain. As a result, I suspect this cycle will be with us for a long time, for women of many ages.
I myself am now in love with my first-ever hoodie (Tahari, black, silky jersey). And Sperling said that her 10-year-old daughter, Evie, recently announced: “I will never suffer pain for beauty.” From the mouths of babes.
By Rhonda Garelick© The New York Times Company
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.