When it came, I always knew Mother Fashion’s revenge would be cruel. That she would spawn something so seductive that all attempts at style and beauty would be sacrificed for it, and show us up to be the slobs we really are. And how patiently she waited. First, getting us addicted to Lycra so that eventually any garment without it would turn us into claustrophobes. Then, eliminating itchy wools from our sartorial diet and replacing them instead with fleece. Eventually buttons would be traded in for zips; belts for drawstring. All the time luring us away from structure and into the soft but deadly embrace of fashion quicksand: comfort, comfort, comfort… No more harsh fabrics or restrictive seams. We breathed out, and found we couldn’t breathe in again.
The secret weapon however, the pièce de non-résistance, was to be a garment that would make us so happy that we would forget to look in the mirror. The pull-on pant, the most dangerous trousers in the world. The very essence of the pull on pant – the reason they are so deadly – is that they have an elasticated waist. The sort of “comfort feature” Damart has filled its catalogues with for the past 30 years. The sort of feature any sane person body-swerved to avoid. Until we became a nation of nesters, circa 1993.
Now, clearly any pair of trousers can be pulled on, but with the pull-on pant that’s all you do. There are no buttons or flies to do up. You pull them up, then, when you can bear to be parted from them, you pull them down and realise that the world is a cruel place without them. They are made of ultra cosy fabrics that you never want to take off: like brushed cotton, baby corduroy, jersey. The fit is loose, baggy, forgiving. Weight gain up to about two stones is hardly registered in them. It’s as close to being naked as you can get, only so much better. The result is that normal clothes seem painful in comparison. And the less structure in the clothes you wear, the less structure your day and life starts to have.
When I first admitted my addiction to a fellow member of the fashion industry (I was then fashion editor of a national broadsheet), she hissed: “Oh my God.I have four pairs and they keep making me late for work. I can’t get out of them in the morning.” I once gave a pair to a fashion editor after she’d had a baby. “I’ve worn them for days,” she beamed, “in bed, out of bed, I don’t want to take them off. They’re the best item of clothing I’ve ever had.” Her hysteria couldn’t wholly be blamed on hormones.
The writer India Knight knows the dangers, yet has “12 pairs, possibly more. Fleecy brushed cotton ones – they make me sigh with happiness.” Her slide into pull-on pants began “six years ago, when I bought a men’s pair in blue and white when pregnant. I’ve never looked back. I love the bliss of their comfortableness, they way they make you feel cosily domestic. But they are both addictive and extremely dangerous. I now can’t bear any kind of diggy-in waistband to the point where I actually can’t wear normal trousers. Plus, they stretch with you so you don’t realise if you’re putting on weight.” Knight, however, has wrestled back some control. She wears them “every single day to work in [from home], but then I get dressed at 6pm to go out.” (Salvation for us all may come in last week’s announcement at National Hosiery Week of the very antithesis of the pull-on pant – a prototype pair of tights called the Wonderbum which lifts your bottom almost into your kidneys.)
The mail order company, Boden, is the mother ship of pull-on pants. Its founder, and the main dealer of this terrifying addictive phenomenon, Johnnie Boden, started doing them – initially for men only – eight years ago after noticing that people wanted something to wear specifically for slobbing out in. Today, and due to heated demand, you can get them in various fabrics and patterns, although the original blueprint – that they be comfy in fit and fabric – is still strictly adhered to. His customers, generally over 30 years of age, and affluent professionals, can’t get enough of them. When stocks run out there have been tears.
Such comfort would have been looked down on (although envied) by our ancestors. Their idea of comfort was loosening their corsets to 20″ or allowing themselves the bad manners to take off their jackets in the company of women. And yet, in a 1957 Lee Miller photograph of Picasso taken at his house Villa la Californie, in Cannes, there he is, wearing what look suspiciously like checked pull-on pants. Indeed, it wasn’t really until the 1960s – with the advent of the wonder fibre, Lycra, that things started to get stretchy and stop pinching. Ironically, the pull-on pant could have been made any time in the last couple of centuries, they are little more than pyjama bottoms, after all. The point, however, is that they have become such accepted wear (some people also wear them out), and that they have come to represent what we want most out of clothes if we’re really, really honest: comfort and ease. Because we have become totally fantastically lazy in getting dressed, even a button fly has become too much trouble.
Gwen Raverat, Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, would have loved the pull-on pant, or pull-on anything, growing up in the 1880s. Complaining about the amount of buttons on her childhood clothes, she later wrote: “Buttons all down the front of one’s nightgowns, buttons on the sleeves, buttons everywhere. That anonymous genius, who discovered that clothes could be slipped over one’s head, had not yet been born; nor had his twin brother, who discovered elastic.” (Actually, she is wrong, elastic was already in use, from the 1830s, although mostly only in corsets.)
Raverat wasn’t alone in her lament, a 1883 article in a publication called The Queen noted how “needlessly uncomfortable our dress is”. And five decades before this, in 1828, a tradesman wrote to a friend quite alarmed by how restrictive his daughters’ corsets were. “They are unable to stand, sit or walk. To expect one of them to stoop would be absurd. My daughter, Margaret, made the experiment the other day; her stays gave way with a tremendous explosion and down she fell upon the ground. I thought she had snapped in two.” No such dangers with the pull-on pant.
Still, we may be slobs more overtly today but the gene has always been there. Indeed, a 1877 advert for Booth and Fox’s quilted underskirts could well have been talking about the pull-on pant, “very light, as warm as several flannels, and as soft as cushions, and for comfort and durability they cannot be equalled.” Oh yes they can.