I wore pajamas to class my freshman year of college. Well, specifically, I wore my pajama pants one time to one class my freshman year of college. I’d read in some YA book when I was, like, 12 that you could wear pajamas to class in college if you wanted, and in a collegiate fit of I am an adult now—not dissimilar to my collegiate fit of eating ice cream for dinner four days in a row when I realized nobody could tell me not to—I thought, You know, I’m here to learn, and I’ll learn best when I’m comfortable, and this “system” of “pants” is bogus, so I’m just going to show up to astronomy in my flannel bottoms, and so I did.
When I sat down, I could feel the wooden seat against me in a way that felt unexpectedly harsh, and I kept slipping and sliding around the seat, with the flannel providing no traction. More than that, though, I felt exposed. I hadn’t done anything that morning besides brush my teeth, and here I was, in public. Instead of feeling carefree and cozy, I felt trapped—trapped by my private self being on such public display, trapped by my human foibles (sleep-wrinkled pants, night-sweaty hair) being so visible. I wanted the physical and psychic membrane that jeans, a bra, and a sturdier top provided me. I ran home between class sessions and changed into my usual clothes.
So I don’t get the lure of pajamas in public. I know that some people prefer them for specific reasons, like chronic pain conditions, and I’ve got no problem padding about my neighborhood in my yoga pants and “fancy hoodie.” (You know, the one without the coffee stains and frayed cuffs.) But I admit to being quizzical about pajamas apparently becoming de rigueur among teenagers, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
I wrote earlier this week about how part of the joys of some private clothing is the public ideas we attach to them—as with slips, which are somewhat glamorous despite being simple, demure, and inexpensive because of the very idea that we’re not supposed to see them. We see the inverse here: Wearing pajamas in public is taking a symbol of private life into the public sphere. Not actual private life, mind you, but the symbol of it. One teenager interviewed for the WSJ piece has school-only pajama pants (albeit at the insistence of her mother), and the article made it clear that the look, while casual, is still coordinated, with as many fashion rules as ever. Voluminous “banded boyfriend” sweatpants would call for a fitted cami; trim leggings would call for an oversized sweatshirt; all go best with Uggs or slipper-type shoes. "It's a complex system to master," writes Cassie Murdoch at Jezebel, and she's absolutely correct.
It’s hard to imagine the average teenager putting so much care into a wardrobe that’s kept truly private. (Of course, I’m writing this in my “house hoodie,” which was purchased in the year 2000, so perhaps my perspective is skewed.) And that’s what’s going on here: The pajama-pants look as a trend isn’t just about comfort, or even just about bringing our private lives outside. It’s about a careful calibration of public intimacy. It’s about what layers you’re going to show, and when, and to whom. Actually, it’s about Facebook.
The generation that’s donning loungewear in public in large numbers is also the generation that has grown up with different expectations of privacy and public living. They’re fluid in setting groups of friends on Facebook that determine who can see what; they’ve learned the difference between friends and “friends,” liking and “liking.” It only makes sense that a generation versed in managing privacy would gravitate toward clothing that advertises different layers of public and private personae. The default privacy setting might be that of pajama pants worn to class, communicating that, Hey, peeps, this is what I’m really like—I’m in my jammies, does it get any more real than that? But that default setting is carefully managed—wearing the “right” sweatpants with the “right” top to create the desired silhouette, taking care not to accidentally show up for algebra wearing the tattered, yellowed tee you actually slept in. Just as we calculate our online profiles to be just the right mix of casual, hip, and unassumingly nerdy (I once listed a Balkan folk group as one of my favorites on Facebook), the pajamas look is carefully calculated to give the impression of nonchalance despite the work that actually went into creating the look.
The teen years are always a time of experimenting with identity, and our wardrobes are an ongoing experiment in the same, so the social minefield of teenagers’ wardrobes has been filled with trip-wires since the invention of the teenager. In some ways it’s not that different from my junior-high years of the label-conscious '80s, when 12-year-olds on the cusp of developing their own identity were living out their parents’ yuppie dreams by wearing shirts emblazoned with the Guess and Esprit logos. But I’m guessing that hasn’t disappeared; it’s just been subsumed by the announcement of a cultivated identity. (As 16-year-old Alexa reports, some of her peers “feel the pressure not to conform, which I suppose is in itself a form of conforming.”) Teenagers may be liberated from the logo game (though not really, if those Victoria’s Secret sweatpants with PINK stamped across the rear are any indication), but they’re saddled with something bigger: the assumption that they’re happy to display their private lives in the most public of forums.
Part of what makes us us is what we keep to ourselves. Likewise, part of what creates intimacy is sharing private parts of ourselves with others. So when the expectations of what’s public and what’s private shift dramatically, so do our ideas of intimacy and how we can best create it. Today, apparently, sharing passwords is a way teenagers show intimacy among one another. It’s totally unfathomable to me, but it works for them, because their ideas of privacy are already radically different than mine. I wonder, then, what lies beneath the pajamas fad. If teens are creating privacy settings with their wardrobes, that means not that they don’t care about privacy but that they care very much. Much like I’ve taken the public meaning of slips to create a private delight for myself, the pajamas look could be a signal I don’t yet understand—and perhaps teens don’t yet understand it either. My instinct was to cluck at them, get them to see that they’re losing something sacred about themselves if they display their private lives so publicly—and worse yet if they’re not actually showing their private selves but rather a carefully cultivated idea of the private self. But I’m going to hold out hope here, hope that in some ways the inversion of public and private selves could ultimately serve to strengthen notions of what they really and truly want to keep private.
We’ve wrung our hands over what the share-all generation has in store, and in general I’m inclined to think that living so publicly is ultimately harmful. But seeing how some teens have subverted the very tools supposedly creating the problem—for example, deactivating Facebook profiles every time they go offline so that nobody can post on their wall without their immediate knowledge—I think they’re going to be savvier than adults can imagine about how to manage their private lives. I don’t think the slide toward pajama pants is a good thing (I'm with Sally on her "slippery slope" theory), and I’m thankful that I didn’t have to navigate that as a teenager. (I was one of those kids who secretly wished for a uniform so that I wouldn’t have to think about it.) But this generation is spending a lot of energy figuring out public and private personae. So let 'em wear the pajama pants while they’re figuring it out. They’re going to need to be comfortable.