The first thing I do when I get home — from work, after traveling — is change. Off comes the synthetic armor; on comes an amalgamation of soft, cozy fabric. My husband Jon likes to say that I go from professional to bum in a flash, and I suppose it’s true; the hair goes up, the work glasses are traded for my around-the-house glasses as I settle into yoga pants or sleepy shorts, T-shirts or hoodies. Sometimes I forgo the separates and throw on my full-length nightgown, causing us to sing, “it’s muumuu tiiiiiime.”
Thanks to therapy, I’ve realized there’s an element of safety in it for me. Growing up, home was so not the place I felt safe and comfortable; so not the place where I could remove armor. A child of drug addicts in the Rust Belt, I oh-so-carefully guarded all aspects of my life — including my clothes. When we lived in a home with a washer and dryer, I would smuggle my clothes to my room, folding and putting them away immediately in an attempt to stop the smell of cigarette smoke from burying into the fabric. As I grew up and relied on laundromats or the washers and dryers of my friends’ homes, I would leave my clothes in cars — my best friend’s, or my then-boyfriend, now husband’s — so I’d have them on hand, so they weren’t susceptible to chaos.
So when I finally reached a stage in life where home became an actual home, I leaned into what that meant: I decorated, bought candles and cutesy pillows, hung picture frames (like, with actual nails in the walls), and I let myself relax. Home was a place where I could release all pretenses, where I could let the walls down, where it was okay to not be put-together. Goodbye, wrap dress; hello, nap dress. I was safe.
The Great Sweatpants Debate of 2020/2021
Earlyish in the pandemic, we were treated to think pieces on loungewear. ASOS reports that tracksuits sales were up 200% in May of 2020; their $35 joggers sold out. Lists of clothes that performed double duty as comfy-and-professional-enough-for-Zoom were everywhere. “Loungewear is suddenly all-day wear,” Vogue reported. The New Yorker called it “slob-chic”. The New York Times made a connection between robes and confidence.
I was thrilled by this one ray of hope offered in the otherwise bleak landscape that was consuming me. Despite having a pretty well-stocked assortment of yoga and sweatpants, I bought more, even using a friend’s employee discount to buy name brand leggings and shorts and hoodies. JOIN ME, I would tell my friends delightedly. IT’S COMFY HERE.
And then, summer and fall of 2020 brought forth an unpleasant shift in the narrative. The love and wonder of comfortable clothing was replaced with an insistence on the opposite. Be professional, workplaces started to say, as they implemented work-from-home dress codes, and make sure your cameras are on, too. Actor-influencer-writer Busy Phillips took to her Instagram stories to tell us we needed to get dressed if we didn’t want to be sad all of the time (here’s an article about the idea, although what she shared on IG was way more. . .well, rude). My Twitter feed showed people middle-fingering the idea that any of this mattered because, hello, global pandemic. My Facebook feed showed the opposite: men — including someone I went to high school with — sharing that if the woman of the house is going to wear sweatpants all the time, they better at least be yoga pants.
What was a small saving grace in our apocalyptic world started to be held against entire groups of professional and pink-collar women. Finally, there was a moment when millions of women office workers could collectively take a deep breath, could abandon the practice of wearing heels to take up more vertical space in hopes of being taken seriously, could work without constantly shifting to alleviate the constriction of faux-silk blouses against bras, without being hyper-pooch-conscious when we sat. . .and society said not so fast. Not to the men, mind you; definitely not to the ones in my organization, who kept showing up with their ball caps and scruff (which, to be clear, I also support. No need for them to wear button-ups and collars at home. It’s just that nobody questioned their efficacy or professionalism when they didn’t).
The policing of middle class domesticity through the prescription to adorn uncomfortable fabrics inside the home recalls pervasive images of 1950’s housewives in skirts and heels as they vacuum. Here we are in 2022, many of us faced with cleaning, caregiving and working from the same place. . .and somehow, despite the fact that we are managing to Do It All™, our efficacy, our commitment, our mental health is questioned because it’s not getting done while wearing lipstick and shiny shoes.
Loungewear, Double Standards, and Second (and third and fourth) Shifts
In the early days of the pandemic, the idea of home as a safe space was threatened by the uncontrollable and unknown factors of COVID. A home itself could not protect us from mass reductions at workplaces across the country, small businesses shuttering their doors indefinitely, and, of course, the shortage of essentials like toilet paper. Early advice told us to sanitize our groceries and takeout containers, emphasizing just how much of the threat can permeate the walls of a house.
While the pandemic waged war against everyone, many women, especially working moms and those caring for family members, were in a particular place of vulnerability. McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace 2021 report shows an ever-increasing rate of female burnout, and not just because of the staggering lack of infrastructure in place for things like child-care. A lot of these women are also taking on the emotional labor in the workplace —supporting their teams’ search for work-life balance and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — at nearly twice the rate of men. And have we mentioned that for every 100 men promoted to manager, only 85 women make that same tier (and that’s on average, with the study showing a statistic of 89:100 white women and 84:100 women of color)?
So, forgive me, society, as I abandon your tips on dressing for success, like wearing a pretty gold necklace and $169 blazers and knee-length pencil skirts. The world is on fire, and I am just trying to survive. Sure, our comfy clothes aren’t necessarily solving problems, but if they make it a little easier for us to fight for social change, and support our colleagues, and get our work done, and take care of our families, and make sure we have groceries, and, I don’t know, maybe get some sleep, then where is the issue? And why?
When Busy Phillips posted her anti-sweatpants, pro-lipstick stance to her Instagram stories, one of my close friends reached out to me to rage. “If wearing lipstick and doing your hair makes you feel good, that’s GREAT!” We texted each other. “But we don’t need other women telling us we must,” we concluded. “Can’t we get a break — even, especially, now?”
“We are literally banished to our homes for our safety, and even then, society finds a way to threaten it,” I said.
Moving Forward in Pull-on Pants
Calendar year three into life-in-the-time-of-COVID, we’re still talking about women’s fashion. “Women are revenge shopping,” says Glamour. The New York Times encourages us to reintroduce ourselves to our closets; there’s a movement to shop more sustainably as we explore fashion in this new era. Some women are even looking to work as an excuse to dress up.
Admittedly, I’ve spent a significant amount on clothing over the past several months. Supporting small businesses for me often involved buying cute T-shirts from a friend’s design party, or online boutique shopping. Almost all of these investments have been of the comfy varietal: sweaters, oversized knits and leggings. Note what they are not: slacks, skirts, collared shirts, blazers. I’ve doubled-down on my comfy aesthetic as I’ve returned to the office, relying mostly on dresses and the infamous leggings-that-pass-as-pants. When I recently wore jeans, my boss remarked that it was the first time she’d seen me in “hard fabric” in a while. “It’s a laundry thing,” I told her. . .plus, they were pull-on, so the joke’s on her.
Still, though, when I get home, I make my way up the stairs, pulling my arms through sleeves before I even fully reach the second floor, actively deciding whether it’s pants or shorts (or muumuu!) time as I make my day-to-evening transition. I feel myself lighten as I change and make my way back downstairs, often narrating my thoughts or talking to myself, or the cats. Jon will tease me — “it was so quiet before you got home.” — and I will revel in the moment: Home. Comfort. Safety.Become a Patron!
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