“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” said the late creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld. “You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.”
Thinking back to the last pair of sweatpants I bought, he wasn’t wrong. It was the height of Melbourne’s first lockdown and in many respects, life did not feel particularly well controlled. So I ordered a pair of black, nylon spray pants with an elastic waist and zips at the ankles from an online retailer.
For much of that first bleary year of Covid, they were the uniform I wore within my 5km radius: on bushwalks, to the pool (when it was open), to the shops and to babysit my niece and nephew (when it was allowed). But to my surprise, when things reopened, I kept on wearing them: with oversized blazers and turtlenecks, with big slouchy jumpers, under even bigger coats. I wore them to yoga but also to wine bars, and then when the summer arrived, I remembered how much I like my other clothes and I put them away.
Thanks to the revival of early 2000s style, track pants are back in fashion, especially the sporty, oversized, low-slung kind (think Rihanna at the Super Bowl). And thanks to the arrival of a new thriving category – luxury loungewear – so too are the soft and comfortable kind (think Gwyneth Paltrow post ski trip).
Here, experts explain how to find an all-star pair.
Where are you going to wear them?
Casual wear, sports activities and lounging all require different blends of fabrics and features, says Rex Zhang of lounge label Paire. So before you go shopping, decide what your track pants are actually for.
Tas Zafiropoulos of Reebok suggests looking for thicker fabric and elevated design details such as well-finished seams, pockets and zips if you’re looking for sweats that work as streetwear. Meanwhile, if what you want is comfort at home, look for softer fabrics and a wider, relaxed fit through the legs.
Zhang says the most suitable materials for track pants should offer warmth, breathability and moisture-wicking properties – wool and cotton are ideal.
Andrea Cheong, the author of Why Don’t I Have Anything to Wear? says material composition is very important since it determines how the garment will wear over time and she suggests looking for organic cotton. “Look for a thick cotton that doesn’t have any colour variation and is soft to the touch with a smooth texture,” she says. Poorer-quality cotton, indicated “by the shortness of the fibres in the weave” will pill more quickly.
Zafiropoulos says cotton-polyester blends will pill even faster because the yarn has been shortened, causing it to break through the surface of the pants and form little balls.
While nylon track pants (like my lockdown ones) might have specific performance properties in that they are lightweight and can be water-resistant, Zhang says “they’ll lack other essential factors which contribute to your overall comfort”. So nylon works well if you want pants specifically for the running track but is less suitable for prolonged wear.
Cheong suggests turning track pants inside out before buying them. Check if the overlock (the stitch along the edge of their seams) is bulky and loose – in a quality pair it should be compact and flat. “This is important because [a bulky seam] can cause chafing around the crotch and thighs,” she says. “You don’t need me to tell you these are sensitive areas!”
Zafiropoulos says the quality of the waistband’s elastic, and how it has been sewn into the garment, makes a big difference. The elastic should be stable within the waistband – if it can slide around too much it will eventually twist up, which is uncomfortable and difficult to fix
Other details along the waist also offer clues to the garment’s quality. If the track pants have a drawstring, check the holes it runs through. “Make sure they are finished nicely either with a rivet or nice, tight embroidery where the threads aren’t loose and the stitching is even,” Cheong says. The string itself should have capped ends, to stop it fraying, but she warns plastic caps can weaken through washing and fall off, so metal is best.
Deep, sturdy pockets are a practical feature. Cheong says you don’t want pants that slouch from the weight of your phone or wallet. This will occur when the material isn’t thick enough or the pocket hasn’t been properly reinforced.
“A key aspect to consider when settling on a fit is your proportions,” says Zhang. “If you wish to elongate your torso, look for track pants that are mid to low waist, and stay away from cropped hems, and vice versa.”
He says generally you want a relaxed fit that allows for easy movement without being overly baggy or excessively tight.
When it comes to style, Cheong says, “track pants are supposed to be comfortable and fit snugly, but not tightly, around the waist”.
“The rest of it – the drape, length, elasticated cuffs on legs, fleece lined, tapered – is personal preference.”