Men's Style Inspiration  / Casual Style  / A Brief History of the Sweatpant

A Brief History of the Sweatpant

Is this the dawning of the age of the loungewear?

men in sweatpants and gym shoes
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The world as we know it has turned into one big remote office, taking traditional work-life balance and turning it on its head. But the work-from-home phenomenon isn't all bad. The daily commute has been shortened to the few steps it takes to get from your bed to your laptop (assuming there are any steps at all). The coffee is (hopefully) to your liking. Best of all, the dress code is amazing.

Check out everybody you follow on social media: They're all wearing sweatpants. Even those guys with executive polish on that video conference call are actually sporting a “business on the top, comfort on the bottom" look—a designer shirt and swacket, but sneaking a pair of sweats for their off-camera comfort.

In general, sweatpants have gotten a bad rap. They're shapeless. They're baggy. They're derided by the fashion cognoscenti.

“I was congratulating myself on wearing blue jeans while working from home," says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “I told myself, 'At least I'm not wearing sweatpants.' But today, I gave in and changed into a pair when I got back from the grocery store. Go online and they're showing pictures of Hollywood stars, and they're all wearing sweatpants. It's hilarious. Karl Lagerfeld said, 'Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.'"

Back in the 1990s, Jerry Seinfeld echoed Lagerfeld's lament, advising his friend George Costanza, “You know the message you're sending out to the world with these sweatpants? You're telling the world, 'I give up. I can't compete in normal society. I'm miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.’"

Jerry, we disagree. Today's sweatpants are kind of amazing, and they come with an excellent pedigree.

Gray men's sweatpants

L'histoire du sweat

Like so many wonderful things—the Statue of Liberty, Champagne, Marion Cotillard—the French gave us sweatpants. The design is credited to Emile Camuset, the founder of clothing, footwear, and sports equipment brand Le Coq Sportif. His simple, knitted gray jersey pants were created for athletes in the 1920s. They kept muscles warm and comfortable, and offered stretch for ease of movement. By the late 1930s, the French dubbed the sweatsuit “the Sunday uniform." In 1926, Russell Athletic came up with the idea of replacing the itchy wool jersey that was used for most sweats with soft, comfortable cotton. About a decade later, Champion created the Reverse Weave sweatshirt, turning the fabric's grain 90 degrees, thus eliminating vertical shrinkage. By 1952 the brand introduced its Reverse Weave sweatpants.

Sweatin' to the oldies

Throughout post-war America, jocks from Ivy League sports teams to back-alley boxing gyms were wearing sweatpants for their warm-ups and workouts; but the pants didn't quite get the respect that sweatshirts did. “Sweatshirts were a big part of Ivy League style because, like T-shirts, they'd have the name of the college or university on them. College men might wear their Yale sweatshirt instead of a sweater with khakis or jeans," says Steele. "But at that point, they weren't wearing full-on athletic gear when they weren't actually in the gym." After all, the 1950s—while not exactly Victorian—still had high standards for dressing, especially for work.

Champion sweatsuit, gym shoes and workout accessories

“It really wasn't until the 1960s or '70s that comfort took precedence over issues of respectability and appropriateness in terms of what you were wearing. Back then we were really supposed to dress for other people, not just for our own comfort and pleasure," says Steele. “Wearing sweats became acceptable in part due to the incredible prestige that athletes enjoyed in the late 20th century. They were hypermasculine, so as the rules about dressing started to break down—which they did rapidly in the early seventies—people said, 'I'm going to dress like I'm athletic, even if my only exercise is running to the refrigerator.’"

Mens dark gray sweatpants

The athleisure evolution

In 1976, Sylvester Stallone re-ignited our passion for sweats as he wore them on his runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in “Rocky”. A few years later, womenswear designer Norma Kamali was using the fabric for suits and dresses. The artists of the emerging hip-hop culture made athletic apparel the foundation of their wardrobes. Fast-forward to the age of social media when classic gray sweatpants truly come of age, where hyper-fit guys would wear them as the ultimate “thirst trap" uniform. The athleisure movement ushered in a whole new era, with more fitted versions that offered technical performance characteristics. In 2013, Sweatpants was even the name of a Childish Gambino song (which doesn't ever actually mention sweatpants).

From cotton sweats to high-tech joggers

Today men can choose from a range of updated styles, from those offering stretch, wicking, and cooling to joggers with a more refined look. Retro styles hearken back to those from the 1920s. For the designer enthusiast, Thom Browne's sweatpants are made in Japan. A super-baggy Gucci pair offers retro-futurism in shiny stretch jersey. For the sophisticate, Brunello Cucinelli creates luxurious lounge pants, while Rhone's jogger comes in a super-lightweight, stretch blend. Like color? Check out Entireworld's French terry version. Finally, yes, you can still get a pair of Champion Reverse Weave sweatpants for an iconic statement.

Man in athleisure wear on his walk

How to style your sweats

Once you've chosen the perfect pair, sweatpants are as easy to style as they are to wear. Layer them with a classic white T-shirt and a preppy button-down Oxford for that Ivy League look. Pull-on a dark neutral polo with a trim-fit zip-up cardigan for a more sophisticated take. Throw on a colorful striped jacket with a solid tee for a night on the town—even if that night is a virtual one spent with your buddies on FaceTime.

Know that once this is all over, you'll still be able to wear your sweatpants with pride. They're perfect for casual days, travel, and—oh yeah—your workout. Get started by taking our style quiz, then work with one of our stylists to tighten up your sweatpants game today.

Find your new favorite must-haves with personal styling.