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Sweatpants & the Limits of Freedom: What Working From Home Attire Says About the Nature of Leisure

Posted on: March 12, 2021

By Alison Suen, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Iona College, New York, and author of the Routledge book, Why It's OK to Be a Slacker.

What does our pandemic attire say about leisure? Is dressing like a slob going to deliver us from the tyranny of a turbo-charged work ethic? What happens when “not caring” about fashion becomes fashionable? Drawing from my book, Why It’s Ok to Be a Slacker, I give an account for why dressing like a slob, while liberating at first glance, may very well be co-opted by capitalism.

Pre-pandemic, I spent at least 20 minutes trying to decide what I should wear on the days I teach. While my deliberation invariably yielded the same unimaginative all-black uniform, I felt compelled to make an effort to look “presentable.” After all, I want to feel confident and at ease while I teach. My teaching outfit, however boring, is both armor and costume, a material reminder that I am now performing my role as an educator.

But that was pre-pandemic, when teaching involved traveling to campus, going into a physical classroom, and interacting with students in the flesh. Now that we are in the era of Zoom teaching, it feels a little silly to get all dressed up when I am just commuting 20 feet from my bed to the living room, sitting on my couch, and talking to the faceless black squares. Why should I care about how I look when I can’t even see my students’ faces? And judging from the few students who do have their videos on, they are even less inclined to make themselves look presentable. One student kept coming to class half-naked, despite my repeated emails imploring him to wear a shirt. Most of my students who have their video on are kind enough to attend class fully clothed, but it is clear that many of them see no reason to change out of their pajamas.

Why should that be bothersome? Why shouldn’t my students dress down in the comfort of their own home? In the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, our anti-hero “the Dude” canonizes the bathrobe as the official slacker attire. The very first time we meet the Dude, he is shopping for a carton of half-and-half in his bathrobe at a grocery store, sloppy and out of place. The scene establishes the Dude as the quintessential Hollywood slacker—an unmotivated individual who has no ambition for self-betterment. In my book, I argue that slackers are individuals who do the bare minimum to get by. They could have done and achieved much more, but they don’t bother to go above and beyond. A slacker such as the Dude dresses sloppily because they don’t care to make an effort. Why put on pants and a nice shirt when you can just throw on a bathrobe? Who are you trying to impress at a grocery store anyway? Perhaps it is the idea that many of my students have turned into the Dude—someone who doesn’t care—that gives me unease. I worry that, like the Dude, my pajama-clad students have stopped making an effort. And if they can’t even bring themselves to care about how they dress, can I still expect them to care about much more difficult issues like the problem of evil, or mind-body dualism?

Of course, students (and professors!) are not the only people who have stopped dressing up. Working from home, many people have started to live in their sweatpants and whatever they wear to bed. The sales of pajamas skyrocketed in the first month of the lockdown (up 143% between March and April, 2020), while the sales of pants plummeted. To be fair, it’s not just a matter of “not caring.” Pre-pandemic, we had more definite boundaries between work and home, public and private. We worked in the office and unwound at home. We dressed professionally at work, leisurely at home. But when our kitchen becomes a makeshift office, when our bathrooms double as classrooms, the public/private demarcation becomes fuzzy, if not invisible. Furthermore, there are concerns far more pressing that occupy our minds: What if my family or I get sick? How would I pay rent if I lose my job? Is the campus going to stay open? Given the gravity of the pandemic, “What should I wear?” seems like a trivial matter.

While some people stop “making an effort” about how they look because of mental exhaustion, others see wearing comfortable—albeit sloppy—clothing as a path to freedom, a form of rebellion. In a GQ magazine article, John Ovans claims that he finds it “liberating to walk around looking absolutely hideous the whole time.” Thus, he encourages his readers to “embrace” their “inner slob.” Or, as Amanda Mull at the Atlantic argues, we scoff at people wearing sweatpants because they “violate expectations by wearing something comfortable and casual outside of its normal context.” In a more recent podcast, Mull asks whether sweatpants symbolize laziness or freedom. She contends that the sweatpants haters are actually hating “other people’s freedom.” They hate the slob for embracing a comfort that they “have not allowed themselves to have yet.” She further contends that, for the sweatpants haters, “discomfort is necessary.” By choosing comfort, the slob is flouting a Puritan virtue that is foundational to the American work ethic. As such, sweatpants are liberating not just because they have an elastic waistband, but also because they emancipate us from the kind of work culture and expectations that many find oppressive and suffocating.

Are sweatpants the key to our deliverance then? Not so fast. As we know, leisure has long been appropriated by corporations and employers to improve productivity. Time off is given to boost morale, a sabbatical is granted to academics to encourage book-writing, while a power nap is taken to improve concentration. Such policies make clear that leisure is not an intrinsic good but an instrumental one, valuable only to the extent that it ultimately benefits the larger business. 

Leisure has also been commodified as goods or services. Nowadays we think of leisure primarily in terms of things we can buy or consume, like a cruise vacation and getting a massage. It seems that even our sweatpants liberation is also at risk of being co-opted by capitalism and reduced to mere consumption. There is no shortage of online articles rebranding comfort attire (once associated with slackers and slobs) as a luxury. As we saw, even the fashion magazine GQ sanctions being a slob, calling it “the art of giving up.” Meanwhile, a New Yorker article coins the term “slob chic,” furnishing its readers with recommendations of high-end pajamas, sweatpants, and bathrobes. (“Slob chic” is not the same as “pajamas rich,” the latter typically describing individuals who are so excessively wealthy that they can get away with wearing anything at any time. Think of a slovenly Jack Nicholson at a Laker game.) Slob chic is the cultivation of effortlessness, for we all know that it takes work to appear effortless. The message of these articles promoting luxury comfort attire is clear: we can be slobs and still be fashionable. Don’t settle with your threadbare t-shirt, do your research and embrace the chic world of 300-dollar pajamas. Be a slob who looks good—be a slob who cares.

There is of course something oxymoronic about a caring slob. The very idea of slob chic or high-end slob fashion turns slobbiness into a purchased privilege, a calculated endeavor. As such, slob chic is not a lack of an effort, but quite the opposite. However, when “not caring” becomes the new caring, is it still liberating to be a slob? When slob-wear is the new luxe that we all chase after, is it really rebellious to walk around in your designer pajamas? If what we find appealing about a slob is the attitude of “I don’t care,” is it not ironic that we now have to hunt for the trendiest pair of sweatpants?

Leisure must not be appropriated by corporate and capitalist interests, if it’s to liberate us from the cult of productivity. And sweatpants must not be appropriated by high-end fashion, if they are to remain carefree and effortless.