In a 2013 interview with the BBC, Kanye West angrily laid claim to the garment that was defining the moment. “[We] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi and they said ‘No,’” West ranted. “How many [people who’ve done something contrary to God’s law with their mother] you done seen with a leather jogging pant?”
Since one is too many – too many.
A lot of people might claim to have stylistically defined the past decade, but West combined more of the conflicting strands of the time than any other tastemaker. Verbose, inscrutable, visionary, troubled, simultaneously seeking and shunning attention. One assumes that when the man is locked in Howard Hughes-ian seclusion at home, he still speaks as if he’s talking into a camera.
But West’s real contribution to the age is jogging pants. He wasn’t the first to wear them, but he was the first truly accomplished person to turn what had been a visual indicator that you’d given up on life into his personal uniform. He took the inside you and the outside you and merged them into a singular you.
Until quite recently, North Americans had two modes of dress. The self you were in the world – professional, put together, ready for your close-up – and the one you were inside your own four walls – slovenly, unkempt, unwilling to go to the grocery store because that would mean having to take a shower.
Sex and the City, whose obsession with costume defined the decade after the millennium, exemplified the idea. Carrie Bradshaw pulling off her ballgown to loll around in bed in a grubby tank top and write about the sorts of things you do in ballgowns.
The line between those two selves is jogging pants.
To be seen in jogging pants outside your home is a mark of failure. Or it once was. Now most of us have confected rules about such things: “I can wear jogging pants in the car and go to Tim Hortons, but I must not enter. It’s only seemly if I use the drive-thru.”
Or there’s a rough radius around your house that is a jogging-pants-permission zone. Say, two or three blocks. If there’s a Shoppers inside the JPPZ, you can go there. But quickly. And only to pick up essentials. If someone from work spots you, you have to buy cough syrup – whether or not you need any – so that you can use the excuse of being so sick you were incapable of buttoning jeans. But if someone you know sees you, you will still be mortified. They know, you know and you know they know that you’ve surrendered.
But by fully embracing jogging pants this decade, we all gave up. Not on life, but on bothering to project some perfected version of ourselves into it. Now we do that online it’s too exhausting to do it in the real world as well.
Think back to Jersey Shore. It arrived in December, 2009, just in time to ruin the next 10 years. It was a catalogue of “real” life with a bunch of crude stereotypes who spent most of their time hammered out of their minds or fist-fighting each other. Often both. In their sober moments they attended to their gruesome Malthusian hierarchy of needs – gym, tan, laundry.
The gym part caught on and is still going strong. Every Instagram fitness model – and there are about a billion of them – is the cultural heir of Snooki and Pauly D.
The tan part went out of fashion quickly. Sun worship in general now has the faint whiff of climate-change denial.
But the laundry lasted. Since the most outrageous set pieces in Jersey Shore were filmed inside their frat house, the cast were most often seen in what might charitably be called fancy pyjamas. This is where the wall between the indoor self and the outdoor self began to break down, taking place in concert with the merging of the private and public self.
If you’re going to allow yourself to be filmed with your arms wrapped around a toilet bowl or trying to kick your way out of a nightclub – and be rewarded for it – what you’re wearing at the time is beside the point. You’re post-dignity.
Turning your indoor-private self into your outdoor-public self is the emerging-from-the-chrysalis moment of the 2010s. This was a new sort of famous person – stupid (yes), real (no) and authentic (absolutely not).
All of a sudden it was no longer cool to covet a $5,000 purse that looks like a leather version of the bag you stuff corn chips into at Bulk Barn. Aspiration became suspiciously aspirational. The economy had gone to hell, hope hadn’t panned out and the times were darkening.
And what does one do once it gets dark? Change into jogging pants.
None of this was going to work if we stuck with old-school joggers. They were formless, unflattering, unbranded and – this part is important – cheap.
But even when they’re broke, nobody wants inexpensive luxuries. The same people who routinely lose their minds because Starbucks charges five bucks for a latte would not consider paying less than a grand for a parka.
Overcharging by a little is an outrage, but overcharging by a lot must mean you’re getting quality. And that’s how jogging pants became the pillar of athleisure.
This is the true magic of capitalism – that it can take a boring, crap thing and, by adding a zero to its cost, turn it into an amazing thing everybody wants.
Athleisure became to the 2010s what bell-bottoms were to the 1970s – the thing we all wore that, some day, our children’s children will laugh at us about.
Because even the word makes no sense. You cannot be athletic while also being leisurely. The two ideas are directly opposed to one another. Okay, maybe bowling is leisurely, but is it athletic? You see the problem.
Nobody buys a $500 tracksuit for purposes of exercise. That would mean sweating in it, which is ruinous to colouring. They buy it to wear pre- or post-exercise – exercise being very optional in the athleisure realm.
This new version of the tracksuit advertises to the world that you are an active person. Busy. Busybusybusy. Running around town doing chores. Ticking off a to-do list. Formerly a sign of the purest and most blissful form of laziness, jogging pants now signal the reverse.
Activity was once expressed by a sober suit and tie. A work uniform. A weekday look. The suit no longer does that. Because a suit sits behind a desk, telling lies and ripping people off. Bankers wear suits. Politicians wear suits. Have you seen what those sorts have been getting up to lately? It’s shocking. No one in chunky, overpriced sneakers ever fixed an election. That we know of. Yet.
A person in athleisure is a creative type, rootless, a traveller. Because if they weren’t, they’d have to wear a suit. This is why everyone you know needs – I mean, needs – a picture of themselves standing above Machu Picchu decked out tip-to-tail in Patagonia all-weather gear.
It’s not because everyone loves Peru or the Incas or exploring the marvels of our shared human history. But because it suggests you a) have the money to travel, b) are interested in things, and c) climbed up there. You are creative and active.
Truth is you needn’t be very active to get to Machu Picchu. There’s a bus that’ll take you up there and then a few flights of stairs. No crampons required. You can do it in sandals and board shorts. But the outfit is a signal of intent. You are out in the world, ready for all sorts of conditions, discovering things (along with the thousands and thousands of other active-creatives who are currently flooding Machu Picchu in such numbers that it is sinking into the ground).
More and more, clothes are not something you wear, but an accessory you are photographed in. Cellphone cameras and social media turned all of us into fashion models.
Twenty-five years ago, over the course of a lifetime, how many people might have seen a photo of you? Dozens? A couple of hundred? These days, the least famous of us has a potential audience of thousands. Far more people will have seen an average 21st-century person than ever laid eyes on any 19th-century king or queen. Thanks to the cloud, our image will outlive us all.
In such conditions, it’s important that clothes be utilitarian. That favourite sweater you once had? The one people recognized you in? Well, you don’t want to take too many photos in that. It pops a bit too much. Your friends will start to think that’s the only sweater you own. That you are poor and – this would be bad – inactive.
Best to have a basic palette of interchangeable items that are not so different they require much thought, but different enough they seem curated. Athleisure does that.
It’s suited perfectly to purchasing compulsively online. If you like the black one, you know you will also like the blue one, the grey one and the one with a camouflage panel along the thigh. The fit is forgiving and the silhouette never changes.
We used to think the science-fiction outfit – think the Star Trek onesie – was preposterously revealing. Now everyone hides in one. Eventually, we may arrive at an outfit that can be worn 24 hours a day, from bed to work to home to bed and so on.
But the urge for constant change is strong and the market cannot abide equilibrium. The elaboration of the 2000s gave way to the functionality of the 10s and will swing back the other way.
That is the stylistic moment we live in now – trying to figure out the middle ground between individuality and conformity. Of course, there is no middle ground there. You are either an individual or a conformist. There’s no shame in either, nor any glory.
Unless you’re making your own clothes, you are just as much a part of the system as the guy who bought everything he owns using the “you might also like” algorithm at J.Crew.
This then is the conflict of the aesthete as she or he enters the 2020s. How to balance your personal brand in such a way that what you wear expresses every single positive thing about you, while not looking too much like you stole your ideas from people you follow on Instagram. That you are the genuine you (as soon as the thought flickers across the viewscreen in your mind, it’s probably not that genuine).
How do you that? Jogging pants. Because how many people you done seen with them?