Our Sweatpants Nightmare

Adam Sandler is wearing them in public, and so is everyone else. This must be stopped.

Newscom (2); Getty Images

Earlier this month, Adam Sandler smashed flat the post-macho fashion landscape with what can only be described as the ultimate act of sartorial surrender. In an iconic moment to rival bra burning in the 1970s, but with the reverse message, he went public with his “home only” sweatpants. This wasn't some inadvertent wardrobe nip slip. America's comedy everyman wasn't pounced on by paparazzi in his driveway or ambushed at his beach house. He wasn't even out walking his dog so he could claim he was exercising. He was wearing his sweatpants for a Sunday brunch with his family. It was a compound felony, too, as he also wore his "home only" Ugg slippers.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Celebrities in Sweats

Just to be clear, these were not workout sweatpants. Sandler hadn't just come from a college gym or basketball game. He wasn't returning from FBI target practice with Clarice Starling. These were his official couch potato, crumb-magnet, man-cave leggings of shame in all their People of Wal-Mart splendor.

Has it really come to this? Did we learn nothing from Seinfeld?

Jerry: Again with the sweatpants? George: What? I'm comfortable. Jerry: 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."

Sweatpants are the universal wardrobe shorthand for sloth and lassitude.

Sweatpants were invented in France in the 1920s by Le Coq Sportif. For 60 years, they were legitimate sportswear. NASA astronauts trained in sweatpants. Sylvester Stallone wore them for his famous run up the steps in Rocky. Patrick Swayze did his topless tai chi routine wearing sweatpants in Road House (tight, white—you don't want to know). In the '80s, however, the sporting boundary was eroded and sweatpants began to exploit the gray area of so-called active leisurewear.

It is no coincidence that this category-shift coincided with the explosion of home video entertainment—VHS tapes, Nintendo games, multiple cable channels, and faster remote controls. Blessed with an adjustable waistband, sweatpants rapidly became the TV den male's garment of choice. They offered the non-judgmental comfort of flannel pajamas while creating the illusion that aerobic activity was on the horizon.

Now, that gravy train is over. Sweatpants no longer don't fool anyone. In fact, they are the universal wardrobe shorthand for sloth and lassitude.

And no longer exclusively for men either. In Mike Judge's 2009 comedy, Extract, the lead character (played by Jason Bateman) has to race home to catch his wife before she changes out her work clothes because "once the sweatpants are on, I get nothing." This is a massive shift. For a decade, Juicy Couture and Pink sweatpants set the standard for a certain kind of awesome slovenly sexiness—the so-called SUV look (sweats, Uggs and vest) so beloved of hot-mess heiresses out walking their hairless dogs the morning after.

So why the big sea change? Well, it is partly downturn chic, partly recessionary despair. But the trend toward office-place informality is the main factor, I feel. What starts out as Casual Friday must metastasize eventually into Slumming Sunday.

The debate over sweatpants etiquette has escalated rapidly this past year. Chatrooms and the like are full of people—mostly young people with no sense of social responsibility—insisting that sweatpants are fit for social events. Defiant announcements about sweatpants on Twitter are a thriving sub-genre. "You know what's better than fleece sweatpants...? Nothing." "I'm wearing them to school tomorrow. Ridin' dirty." "Out eating in sweatpants. I rule."

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Such open contempt for the laws of fashion has not gone unremarked. Newsweek ran an article last September with the heading: "Make It Stop: Sweatpants in Public." Photographer Amanda de Cadenet announced: "I told my kid that smoking pot is a gateway drug... to wearing sweatpants every day."

But such protests will be futile if any more A-list stars take their comfortwear public. The Sandler Incident is particularly ominous because he is not some remote idol or pill-addled trainwreck. He is our national affable everyman. Kenneth Tynan once wrote that movie stars were simply recreating the attention of a golden childhood, and if anyone was palpably loved as a kid, it's Sandler. If he steps out in his sweatpants of shame, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Sean Macaulay was the L.A. movie critic for The London Times from 1999 to 2007. He has also written for Punch, British GQ, and The Mail on Sunday. He was most recently creative consultant on the award-winning documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil.