Hello Soft Pants, My Old Friend

I was late to the soft pants party.

I’m mostly referring to athleisure wear, something invented by manufacturers to upsell their left-over stretchy fabrics. It’s a combination of workout clothes and loungewear doing neither of those jobs. You can also think about athleisure wear as an updated version of your Grandmother’s tracksuit: comfortable enough to have on for a walk around The Everglades Evergreen Retirement home with the gals while also being presentable enough to wear to Jolly Roger’s 3pm early bird dinner. The athleisure wear universe is populated with things like yoga pants and stylish hoodies and sweatpants. Wait, sorry GAP, I mean JOGGERS, which I have never seen anyone wearing while jogging for exercise or to evade law enforcement.

The pandemic was like that freaky gremlin creature that John Lithgow thinks he sees on the wing of the plane in The Twilight Zone movie. It ripped out the wiring of our daily routines and chased us out of offices and clubs and bars and bowling alley into our homes. We ate out of stress and anxiety and boredom. Some people burrowed under and stopped exercising. Most of us experienced some kind of depression, despair, or trauma and grief fatigue (or all of that combined) that the thought of fishing around in your closet for shoes to pair with a skirt that no one was going to see on your Zoom anyway was paralyzingly absurd. Enter soft pants. Stylish, comfortable, versatile—soft pants were the grab-n-go of clothing, the “of course I’ll have fries with that” of fashion. It was no assembly required wardrobe. I was cautiously optimistic.

I do not have a good relationship with fashion. It has never said “I love you first” or at all; it cheats, it lies, spends all my money, and constantly wants me to change. Worst of all, fashion knows I’ll inevitably text back. Such a jerk.

It’s been this way for as long as I can remember—me making earnest efforts to exhibit some kind of fashion awareness only to fall spectacularly short every time. From age 6 to 11, I was a polyester fever dream of pants with saggy waistbands. The closest thing I came to “designer” tops were shirts stamped with shiny, sticky cartoon characters on them like Care Bears, Smurfs, Muppets, which would crack and flake a little bit with each washing, in a distressing way, not in a “hip, distressed” way. I often wore thrift store clothes. In 1983, consignment shops were dirty secrets, wracks of shame, a mine field of cotton and denim items once worn by your classmates in higher income brackets. They were not the repositories of cool they are now where you can have your pick of which Halston dress you want to “ironically” wear to your friend’s baby shower.  

The tween and early teen years issued in a clothes-that-match frenzy. That period was extremely short lived because that takes EFFORT and MONEY (see Appendix A: thrift store and read for context). Fortunately this overlapped with the arrival of stirrup pants. For any young person reading this, I will save you the effort of screaming at Alexa “what are stirrup pants?” and then having to explain to your parents why you just paid $300 for some kind of equestrian equipment.

Now we call them leggings. But in 1989 they had loops that fit over the bottom of your feet and were made for girls with the bodies of Ukrainian gymnasts, not “real girls with real curves,” which was pretty much all of us. The look was thus: shove the cinnamon rolls of your pubescent body into the stretchy-ish stirrup pants that are now pulled so taut camel toe is a foregone conclusion. Pair with sweater (extra points if it contains some kind of loudly clashing color patterns that look like an Andy Warhol crime scene) that is also long enough to double as a dress. Try not to openly weep when you make it through most of the day feeling confident and “stylish” until lunchtime when a giant, greasy meatball from your hot lunch sub falls out and splatters sauce squarely across the doughy midsection you were trying so desperately to conceal with your loud finger-color painting sweater. Repeat several days a week.

The remainder has been a full-throttled embrace of denim, flannel, oversized sweaters, along with the anxiety-inducing piece of formal-wear thrown in for a baptism or conference or intervention. Every so often I’d spend time with someone incredibly fashion conscious I’d get some on me. I’d be so envious of how put together they were—Steph’s cute purse not only matches her dress, but it isn’t even a laundry bag with old Girl Scout badges sewn on it. Gee! I’d admire how easy they made it look that I would vow to get my shit together and find a style that wasn’t Mennonite Aunt Judith. I sounded a lot like someone “finally getting serious” about that masters or swearing to “never, ever, EVER drink peach schnapps again, like, for real EVER you guys.” Of course in two weeks (or less) when the fabric-high wore off and the weather changed, which meant making all kinds of new decisions about what to wear—I can’t pull off this trendy merino wool cape in July? What?—I’d be right back in the threadbare flannel and the denim not shredded by design.

One day I was doomscrolling through images of peoples’ sourdough starters and protest signs and noticed ad after ad for delicious, luxurious, promised-to-be-flattering-on-all-body-types, relaxed-fit soft pants. Some were part of the athleisure wear trend. Others were clearly trying to be corporate/professional friendly as evidenced by the beautiful, breezy model in her charcoal grey soft pants and black heels. See how she happily strides SOMEWHERE that definitely isn’t to her basement office or that bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned in a month! Look at her carrying that leather tote. Soft pants keep her looking and feeling great as she lives her best pandemic life! I felt the old sensation take hold, the warmth of possibility flood through me as sure as it did when I was fifteen wandering through a forest of taffeta and sequins picturing myself in one of those dresses going to the spring dance with the cute boy whom I already loved 4EVA. I clicked and clicked and clicked.

A few days later they arrived. High waisted, flowy and soft, perfect with sneakers and a cozy hoodie or ballet flats and that chunky, cable-knit sweater. Yes, they whispered to me, you could be relaxed, casually sexy even (!); don’t you want to be like the woman in the ad, dressed in these pants, ready to take on the world instead of crying in the shower every morning? How could I say no?

Comfort: 10/10. Mostly because they seemed less like actual pants and more like a pair of Afghan Hounds grafted to my legs. They were billowy, loose-fitting, and exquisitely soft as promised, but the pants did not complement my body. They enshrouded it, which I suppose could be taken as the other kind of compliment, albeit a back-handed one. Then again, that wouldn’t exactly be out of character for fashion because, as I said before: jerkface supreme. They did not make me feel confident or empowered or energized or successful. They made me extremely nervous going down stairs because of the way the swingy cuffs pooled around and nearly underneath my feet. I could not imagine having a grocery store “meet cute” in these things unless it involved the sentence, “I think my son is hiding underneath your pantleg.” I couldn’t believe I fell for it again. I believed the classic advertising and fashion lie that the fantasy of who you want to be—the cooler, prettier, happier, BETTER IN EVERY WAY you–exists on the other side of this handbag or that outfit. This seems to be a lesson we relish not learning. Why else would we make the same misjudgments over and over again like Charlie Brown trying to kick Lucy’s cursed football?

Still, I wore them. I had the delusional idea that they might somehow “become” more fashionable on me the more time I spent in them. I was doing the opposite of dressing for the job I wanted. I was trying to make the dress do the job I wanted. I schlubbed around the house in them. They looked and felt and fell on my body the same if I had on a sweatshirt or sweater, if I wore sneakers or slippers, if I had gained or lost. The fashion of surrender. They accepted me completely, just as I was, even without the tote.

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