The Slob-Chic Style of the Coronavirus Pandemic

With so many people homebound these past few months, indoors has become the new outdoors. It is where you exercise, digitally chat with friends, and, of course, work. But it is also still the indoors, where you sleep, eat, and putter. This can make for frequent wardrobe changes. Or you can give up and wear the same shredded sweatpants day after day. In April, a Florida circuit judge named Dennis Bailey sent a letter to local lawyers about proper attire during Zoom court hearings. “It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera,” he wrote. “We’ve seen many lawyers in casual shirts and blouses, with no concern for ill-grooming, in bedrooms with the master bed in the background, etc. One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers. So, please, if you don’t mind, let’s treat court hearings as court hearings.”

Parts of the country are slowly reopening, but for many of us our homes will still be headquarters. “I think unrepentant sloppiness is the new fashion-forward,” Robert Kraft, a record producer and songwriter, told me. Kraft, who lives in Los Angeles, keeps a Brooks Brothers button-down shirt on the back of his desk chair for Zoom meetings but otherwise dresses in Adidas sweatpants, an R.B.G. or Steely Dan T-shirt, and a baseball cap. Gena Feith, an artist in Washington, D.C., said, “If I put on non-pajamas, I feel a heightened sense of accomplishment, as if I’m Robert Caro.” (The biographer is known for wearing a jacket and tie to work alone in his personal office.) Polly McCall, a psychotherapist, thinks that there’s a psychological component to our slobbiness. “People are relishing the feeling that they are getting away with something,” she said. “We’re conducting business and making money, but—ha ha!—we’re in our pajamas.”

Recent retail-sales data reflect a world where there’s nobody to dress up for except your cat. In April, clothing sales fell seventy-nine per cent, the largest decline since records have been kept. But tracksuit purchases were up seventy per cent, and sweatpants eighty per cent. Sales of pajamas rose a hundred and forty-three per cent. Evidently, pants are cancelled (unless they come with an elastic waistband). Their sales declined thirteen per cent. The new focus is above the waist.

Now that so many items in our closets are taking early retirement, what should we put on when our Webcams are turned off? I got recommendations from thirty-five or so people working from home. For those who’ve never bought clothes online—a cohort that might consist solely of my ninety-three-year-old mother and Kimmy Schmidt—check the specifics of the return policy: it is easy to arrange for a refund or an exchange from most companies nowadays, but some third-party sellers and eBay and Etsy venders operate on a buyers-keepers system.

Let’s start with pajama pants, which may be the closest that clothing gets to comfort food. Introduced to Europeans in the nineteenth century by British colonialists returning from Asia and the Middle East, these loose trousers with drawstrings, meant for lazing around in, were initially worn in the West only by men. Perhaps because pants were associated with the suffrage movement, many women stuck to the custom of wearing undergarments, nightgowns, or day clothes to bed. Both sexes sometimes wore nightshirts, which the writer Lawrence Langner, in his book “The Importance of Wearing Clothes,” describes as “a bulky shapeless shirt hanging from the neck like a deflated balloon.” By the nineteen-twenties, women were getting into pajamas, too, a revolutionary change often attributed to Coco Chanel, who, the legend goes, started the trend at the end of the First World War, by strolling along the Riviera in her “beach pyjamas,” bell-bottoms so amply cut they looked like billowing sails. Pajama scholars place this historic promenade anywhere from 1918 to 1922, and within a few years fashionable women were lounging around on yachts and in boudoirs in their slacks of silk, cotton, or crêpe de Chine. The garments were so common in the resort town of Juan-les-Pins that it became known as Pyjamaland.

Having started outside and migrated inside, pajamas today straddle the public and the private, and can be androgynous, come-hither, prim, or the kind of garb that Peter Pan’s Lost Boys might wear. “Many days, I’ll change out of my sleeping pajamas into my awake pajamas,” Anna del Gaizo, a writer in Los Angeles, told me. Instead of popping an Ambien, try the pajamas from the hundred-and-thirty-six-year-old Swiss company Hanro. They have minimal adornment and are made of silky mercerized cotton that’s so soft you’ll dream you’re a marshmallow. They aren’t cheap, but they last for years. I like the model somewhat mysteriously named Moments Crop, whose three-quarter sleeves and pedal-pusher legs are trimmed with a hint of lace that even the Shakers wouldn’t kick out of bed ($198). Want to save the planet while going (masked) to the grocery store? Satiny unisex pajama tops and bottoms from We Are HAH, in West Hollywood, come in collages of flamboyant florals and stripes and are recycled from the plastic bottles that you conscientiously didn’t buy in Aisle 3 ($249). The cherry-red two-piece Daydream set from the lingerie company Skarlett Blue—a cropped tee with snug bottoms—looks like long underwear that got shrunk in the wash. It’s the perfect thing to wear while watching TV or, if you are Mrs. Claus, seducing your husband ($98).

Women started raiding men’s pajama drawers in 1934, the year they saw “It Happened One Night,” in which Claudette Colbert wears Clark Gable’s p.j.’s. (His character had packed multiple pairs of pajamas and, apparently, only one suit, but that’s show biz.) The most debonair examples, for both genders, are from the London haberdasher Budd. The ladies’ models have mother-of-pearl buttons, piped edges, and rounded notched collars that look like petunias, and are fashioned from a variety of fabrics, such as linen, silk, and cashmere, in colors that are surprising but not too surprising, like lilac and iris ($356-$493).

It’s not clear whether sleepwear manufacturers knew that the lockdown would coincide with the arrival of “Tiger King” on Netflix, but there certainly are scads of big-cat prints to choose from while lounging in front of the tube. From the Philadelphia-based company Printfresh come poplin-cotton pajama sets onto which artisans in Jaipur, India, have silk-screened images of cheetahs lurking amid red blossoms ($128). The British loungewear designer Olivia von Halle has many options for safari-animal prints on silk, but the one I covet is adorned with prancing zebras ($480). For men who aren’t afraid to sleep in Freudian symbols, Desmond & Dempsey has a cotton sleep shirt decorated with coiled snakes ($112). There’s a pajama set printed with tigers, too ($219). If you are against wearing fur, even in a textile depiction, Desmond & Dempsey carries a cotton camisole-and-shorts combo in a winsome green pineapple pattern ($125).

To hide from your roommate’s big cats, try Onepiece’s camouflage-themed hooded jumpsuit ($104). It’s cute enough to wear while walking the dog. Ditto the pink-and-white striped shorts from Rails, which you could also wear to your candy-striping job ($168). If you want to step up your game—and take the trash out in high style—I suggest the Party Pajamas from Sleeper, a Ukrainian label that audaciously bills its line as the “World’s First Walking Sleepwear.” With a fringe of marabou feathers around the cuffs and hem, this festive ensemble of palazzo pants and draped top looks like something Doris Day would host a soirée in. It comes in five colors, but I will let you get them only in aqua with red piping and white feathers or black with black piping and feathers ($224-$320).

It’s debatable whether a nightshirt is more or less schlumpy than pajamas, but it is half as difficult to put on. The most casual in this class are the oversized T-shirts from the Brooklyn-based shop Recliner, which are comfy and loose but not so blobby that they make you look like an amoeba. Sewn from a tissue-thin jersey blend of wood pulp and spandex that is designed to regulate body temperature and, as the company’s Web site puts it, “do away with unnecessary tangling in bed” (finally, a problem I don’t have), they are available in mini, midi, and maxi ($70-$85).

Just because you are sheltering in place doesn’t mean your nightshirt can’t face the world. The French company Kilometre.Paris turns vintage nightshirts such as you might find at a European flea market into wearable works of art, by hand-embroidering them with images from specific cities—the New York City “pyjama shirt” depicts a large Empire State Building in navy stitching, and the London example has Big Ben. On the cuffs, sewn in red, are the landmark’s geographic coördinates. The items are not cheap, but look! Some are on sale, and are still not cheap ($350-$420). If you want cheap, H & M has a nice selection of men’s and women’s pajamas—including an appealing pajama shirt and matching shorts in black viscose with a pattern of tiny white beach chairs, which could rationalize your idling away the afternoon drinking piña coladas by the sea, by which I mean the bathtub ($24.99).

Want first-class sleepwear at economy-class prices? Here’s a tip: eBay regularly lists brand-new pajamas from airline amenity kits, sold by passengers who, I’m guessing, were flying premium on the company dime and would hock a family member if there were a few bucks to be had. I spied a set from American Airlines made by the mattress company Casper ($22) and a Lufthansa cotton sleep suit from the luxury German label Van Laack ($38.88). The cotton pajamas supplied to customers by Emirates Airlines—light-gray top with shawl collar, dark-gray bottoms with drawstring waist—are, according to the airline, the “world’s first moisturizing sleepwear,” releasing pellets of kelp onto your skin, a luxury I’d pay not to receive.

With the right white waffle-weave bathrobe, you can convince yourself that quarantine is actually a stay at an appallingly understaffed spa. The offering from Parachute is a socially distancing crowd-pleaser: made of a hundred per cent Turkish cotton, it’s soft, unisex, and washable, and it has pockets for the tips you give yourself after your facial ($119). If you’d like to feel like a plush stuffed animal, Towel Selections has cozy, affordable robes in terry cloth or fleece ($27.95$55.95), in dozens of colors whose names sound like flavors of frozen yogurt (Pink Nectar, Nougat). I’d be O.K. with giving karaoke back to Japan, but kimonos are a keeper. My favorites are hand-dyed in Bali by Suku Home, an Australia-based company founded by an Indonesian woman. I particularly like the mid-length robe made from white silky bamboo rayon and decorated with feathery dapples of turquoise, and also the pink one that looks as if Jackson Pollock started to throw red paint at it but gave up ($160). Cheaper (just under a hundred dollars) are the attractive cotton kimonos in hand-printed patterns available on Etsy from a shop called Susannah Cotton. I myself am a sucker for seersucker, maybe because it evokes an era when people pretended that everything was fine. Matouk, a century-old linens company in Fall River, Massachusetts, makes dapper seersucker robes ($185). Recliner’s silk robe speckled with colorful sleeping pills is whimsical and chic, but maybe not a good choice to wear to your Zoom therapy session ($195).

If you live in an apartment, you owe it to your downstairs neighbors to either wear slippers or levitate. If you live somewhere else, slippers are a thoughtful house present for your feet. The best of the fluffy are Uggs. The sheepskin slides in colors such as retro mint and neon yellow will make your feet look like a couple of nouveau-riche bichons frises ($100). Or you can wear synthetic fluff from an Amazon seller named Crazy Lady—but who’s judging ($17.99)? To complement your smoking jacket and cravat, may I propose the sumptuous and incomparably comfortable Stubbs & Wootton velvet or needlepoint loafers, from, where else, Palm Beach? There are approximately a million designs, each with a quirky emblem on the vamp, ranging from a face-masked bust of Mars, the god of war, to an image of a screw on the right shoe and a U on the left ($500).

Some slippers whisper “convalescent,” but not the high-quality Wicked Good Moccasins for men and women from L. L. Bean, which say “urbanite masquerading as cabin-dwelling outdoorsman”; they come lined with deerskin or shearling ($78-$89). The Japanese, in order to keep outside dirt from sneaking inside, customarily change into slippers as soon as they enter a house. It figures that they make marvellous slippers—from slides that look as if they are constructed from colorful pot holders to Rikumo’s “room shoes,” mules that are so minimalist and calm-looking you can give up meditating ($67). Muji has two cushiony versions of the room shoe, one in a striped jersey and the other in a solid twill ($14.90). From Denmark (by way of Romanian factories), there are Glerups, sturdy hand-felted slippers, with a leather or rubber sole, that mold to your feet over time. Shaped like open-backed galoshes, they’d be terrific for an aspirational hobbit ($76-$95). Judith Thurman, a writer for this magazine, wears out one pair of black ballet-style satin Isotoner slippers every two months or so ($24). And, since you’ve been home-schooling your children and growing pineapples on your windowsill, why not go all the way down the D.I.Y. road and crochet a pair of slippers for your baby or yourself—particularly ones patterned after Converse high-tops ($9.90 for the pattern on Etsy)? Or just buy a pair ($29.32-$31.56).

When the sleepwear finally comes off, what goes on? “The exterminator came and I put on a shirt. It was very exciting,” Sarah Rose Siskind, a science-comedy writer in New York, said. Otherwise, the answer tends to be sweatpants—also, for some reason, called joggers, if they’re tapered at the ankle. These baggy bottoms, which Karl Lagerfeld called “a sign of defeat,” seem to be outselling jeans, which are considered unnecessarily restrictive and rather hoity-toity for these times. As a Twitterer put it in March, “People who are quarantining in jeans: what are you trying to prove?” If you want to look as though you’re wearing sweats on purpose and not because you’ve thrown in the towel, go unduly big and pair them with a tank top. Joah Brown’s Oversized or Empire sweatpants send that message ($128$138). For an “all dressed up and nowhere to go but the living room” look, Club Monaco has a narrow-legged satin tuxedo-striped number with matching sweatshirt ($129). The creamy-soft moisture-wicking “performance joggers” sold at Vuori have pockets for your phone and come highly recommended, even if performance for you means solving the crossword puzzle ($84). The belted cargo-style version from Cotton Citizen is flattering enough to transcend the label of sweatpants, and the many tie-dyed options would have thrilled Ken Kesey ($355; tie-dyed, $225). Men: the Ace sweats from Mack Weldon have zippered pockets, a tailored silhouette, and ribbed cuffs, and are made of French terry with just the slightest amount of stretch. They come in thirteen colors (why?), and you could wear them outside (remember outside?) ($78). Uniqlo’s sweatpants (for men, women, and kids) are the Honda Civic of athleisure: simple, sporty, durable, and cheap. Plus, they have pockets and no logos. I have a pair in navy that have not pilled or become sad-shaped despite being nearly as old as the original gray knit workout attire, created in the nineteen-twenties by a French clothing merchant named Émile Camuset ($15-$30).

Not too long ago, leggings were something you dug out of the costume trunk for a play set in medieval times. Today, they are an essential component of active and inactive wear. A friend has eleven pairs of black leggings and wears them every day, her favorites being from J. Crew—which just filed for bankruptcy, so act fast ($69.50). The leggings from Alo Yoga ($72-$150) and Beyond Yoga ($50-$110) are said to be the most comfortable; P.E. Nation’s are the best suited for exercise ($69-$139), and those sold by Koral are the slinkiest (especially the Lustrous model, with a wide waistband; $75-$96). The leggings that make me cheer out loud are from the print-on-demand clothing Web site RageOn. They feature a glamorous color drawing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s head, blown up so big that it’ll cover both your legs ($35.95).

As some businesses around the country reopen, our clothes may be making their way out of our closets. Are you ready for them? Will you be able to walk in heels, let alone shoes that tie? Will your pants fit after all those lockdown carbohydrates? Is it possible to wear lipstick with a mask? Do you remember how buttons work? Perhaps we should reacquaint ourselves with a few of the relics in our wardrobe. “When I’m in a really bad mood, I’ll make myself put on real clothes, and it does actually work,” Josh Beraha, a rabbi in Washington, D.C., told me. “I even put on a belt yesterday.” ♦


A Guide to the Coronavirus

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