When I visited Seoul for the first time, everyone told me that the shopping there would be unlike anywhere else, full of compliment catchers and look-at-me statement pieces. And it was! But the best thing I bought was something I never planned on wearing outside my house: a strange and special pair of sort-of sweatpants, quilted and slightly stiff, like a three-foot-tall oven mitt.
I bought the pants in an outdoor market at a store that looked like it mostly catered to retired ajummas. They were hung alongside flannel turtlenecks adorned with teddy bears and fisherman-style vests made of fleece and felt. I instantly recognised what kind of store this was: an outfitter of “inside clothes,” my absolute favourite fashion category. Inside clothes are not pyjamas, they’re not athleisure, and they’re certainly not lingerie. They are what you wear when you actively live your life indoors, and their very existence is one that I’ve found to be curiously divisive.
“Are you staying in your depression clothes the whole time?” my husband asked me this morning. We’ve both been working from home after our offices closed in order to practice social distancing as COVID-19 sweeps across our city. Whereas he’s still dressing for the office in a nice shirt and stiff jeans with a belt, I am wearing my quilted pants, a tie-dyed shirt I picked up at a promotional event for The Cobrasnake in 2009, and a slouchy sweatshirt that’s become so smooth and soft over the years, it feels like wearing a top made of Greek yogurt.
As much as I love my inside clothes, I do understand why some people might think they're depressing. Inside clothes are what protagonists wear during the three-quarters mark in romantic comedies about personal growth, after they’ve lost their job or relationship, and are ignoring their dogs and eating too much ice cream. These are clothes that have been as neglected as their wearer's lives: utilised because they’re there, done because it's low-effort. The garments themselves are stained and dirty, and the outfits they create are both chaotic and boring, thrown together without thought, consideration, or optimism. They are, in a word, depressing — but those are not the kind of inside clothes I'm talking about.
Inside clothes are something to be worn with care and exuberance. I buy them more often than I buy outside clothes, and I aggressively cull and curate them, because my standard are very high. They must be incredibly functional, with deep pockets, just-right necklines, and sleeves that will stay pushed up but are also long and roomy enough to bunch around my hands and hold tight from the inside, turning my arms into fabric hot dogs (I do not know the scientific reason why this posture helps with severe writer’s block, but it does). They can neither pinch nor pull nor gape nor pill nor shed nor itch. They must spark at least joy, if not pure rapture. These are clothes that work three times as hard as anything else in my closet.
Inside clothes offer additional peace of mind because they’re more hygienic — they've never been on the subway, or in a movie theatre. They give me the feeling that I have control over my environment, which is no small thing even in the best of times, but particularly worthwhile right now.
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#WFH Day 4 👩🏻💻— what does your work station look like right now? I’ve also been using this time to appreciate various radio stations thank you @npr @iheartradio @wnyc for bringing daily joys to my life. A good time to slow down, reset and declutter (for me — my wardrobe thanks to @depop @ebay and cleaning out the downloads folder on my computer) Wishing everyone safety and health during these times ❤️🥺🌎 📸 @downtownlover
Part of my feeling about this is cultural. I grew up learning to leave my shoes in the garage, to transfer into house slippers in the mudroom, and to go straight into my bedroom — no detours to the kitchen or, god forbid, the sofa — to immediately strip out of my outside clothes and get straight into my inside clothes. On the occasions that I’d trespass this sacred threshold — say, plopping onto the love-seat in my jeans to watch the last five minutes of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, or sneaking out to get the mail wearing my inside sweats — I’d be told that my indiscretion meant the house would be forever unclean. Ai-yah! My mom would rush in, holding a Clorox spray bottle at arm’s length as she wiped down the leather couch. Dirty girl!
It used to mortify me when my friends would come over and my Chinese parents were both walking around at 2 p.m. on a Saturday dressed like a cozy flu-season Kleenex commercial: fleece bottoms, flannel sweatshirts, plush house slippers. for what it's worth, fellow immigrant friends, no matter which countries they came from, all seemed to be familiar with the concept. But my American friends, who didn’t think twice about wearing shoes on their beds, were baffled. Were they sick? They wanted to know. Or were they just…unwell?
It’s understandable that one might associate inside clothes with a kind of ailment or defeatism, a sign that you’ve given up on ever going outside again. An introvert’s badge of honour. Conversely, wearing your street clothes at home feels like a headstart on life, like you’re always up for anything at a moment’s notice. If outside clothes are an opportunity to express your best self, an embodiment of your most optimistic plans, then inside clothes are seen as an admission of your worst inclinations and your dashed desires.
There’s probably some truth in that for some, but it’s certainly not true about my inside clothes. I’m more inclined than ever to believe that inside clothes are our one shot at understanding the pleasure that comes from really dressing for yourself. No matter how comfortable you are with your own style, when you’re dressing for the outside world, you’re still adhering to codes and expectations. Not so with inside clothes. In my oven-mitt Korean sweatpants and souvenir T-shirts, I am fully dressed for my own eyes, actions, and plans. It’s not something I would have appreciated when I was younger, but I cherish it now. Last year, GQ’s Rachel Tashjian wrote that people should always take off their street clothes as soon as they get home “no matter how beautiful they are or how few subway or taxi seats they touched.” It’s not just a cleanliness issue, or even a coziness one, she argues. Inside clothes give her an easy way to relax, something she deserves.
Besides, if I need to leave the house, I do. I just — gasp! — change first. Now that we're in quarantine, my inside clothes are a reminder that I'm doing my part, and that I should enjoy the inertia.
For the foreseeable future, we’re living our lives inside in order to be mindful of one another’s health and security, our collective well-being and peace of mind. Inside clothes are a way to practice that, while also being kind to ourselves.