I remember the first person who ever told me to “suffer for fashion.” It was my friend Amanda—the only person I knew in the town where I lived who had any style—and we were in the bookstore we used to loiter in so we could read fashion magazines. Amanda pointed out a pair of bondage-y, stratospherically heeled boots she wanted and sighed, “Suffer for fashion” in the voice of a world-weary New York fashion editor. I knew it was a joke, but I also knew that in that moment she’d taught me something important.
Since then, I’ve believed in suffering not as a byproduct of pursuing style, but as a driver of it—an engine of creativity. In the complex algorithm in my head that I use to pick out clothes, one of the more high-priority rules is that the more uncomfortable choice is practically always going to be the better-looking one. As a result, I’ve never dressed with comfort in mind. It’s been a lot of ridiculously tight pants; leather in hot weather, cowboy boots in the snow. (I may have slipped and bruised some ribs, but I regret nothing.) Comfort was for the weak, I believed, and the weak deserve to look bad.
My views on this have been changing recently, though. It started with a pair of pants. I’d been hunting for the perfect plain black pants, but each pair I’d tried on (and in some cases bought) had some minor imperfection that put them on the discard pile. My mission was making me so crazy that when the brand Ijji—whose vaguely utopian genderless workwear I’d been drooling over on Instagram for a while—announced a batch of their canvas work pants in black I immediately put down $165 (that I knew I couldn’t afford) on a pre-order without looking at the measurements or thinking too hard about the details at all.
Three months later—when they finally showed up—they turned out not to be the pants I was looking for. But even though they were so much baggier than anything else I’ve ever owned, and the fabric didn’t drape exactly how I wanted it to, I kept finding myself picking them up as I was getting dressed. After a few weeks of this (and after a couple of washes started turning the soft canvas even softer), I realized that it wasn’t just because they go with everything, it was also because they felt so nice to wear. Comfort had finally snuck up and got me.
So I decided that it was time for me to finally jump into one of the great fashion revolutions of the new century: clothes that look good, but also feel good to wear—aka comfycore.
Or more specifically, it’s the cumulative effect of a bunch of smaller revolutions. Punk-inspired designers in the ’80s and ’90s paved the way by shattering high fashion’s rules of formality. More recently, there’s been the dual elevation of streetwear and athleisure that have transformed sweats and tracksuits into luxury items, and the normcore movement that let the fashion-literate sample the comfort-engineered lifestyle that middle-class middle America enjoys from behind a protective layer of irony. And just in the past few years, there’s been a flourishing of small, socially and environmentally conscious brands like Ijji where the consideration they give the way how their garments are made seems to have bled over into to a greater mindfulness for how they feel. We now have a fashion climate where there are a number of brands offering pajamas as daywear, and entire brands like Japan’s Gelato Pique dedicated to clothes specifically designed for lounging.
I decided to open myself to this coup in comfiness and build myself a new wardrobe optimized for physical enjoyment. I announced this to some friends and industry connects, and almost all of the advice I got back was to start at the bottom. So I did, by ordering a pair of Hoka One One Bondi 6 “maximum cushion” running shoes, designed for marathoners but recently spotted at Opening Ceremony. The platform-high sole feels like it’s made from some sort of advanced synthetic marshmallow, and you don’t so much walk in them as bounce gently from one place to another. I put on a pair of Adidas NMDs to compare, and I immediately wanted to throw them in the garbage for lying to me about what it means for a sneaker to be truly comfortable.
That set off a spree of footwear acquisition. I lifted my personal ban on sandals for a pair by a small brand called Malibu that “futurizes” the traditional Mexican huarache with a super-engineered sole and a woven nylon upper that in all-black suggests a Japanese cyberpunk day spa. A publicist sent me a pair of beautiful hand-woven Mohinders from India to test drive, which entailed a several week breaking-in period but led to an ultra-simple barely-not-barefoot comfort that gave me a greater sense of kinship with the old guys in my neighborhood who wear slippers on the street.
And did I try Crocs, as so many people I know suggested? Yes, I did, and as soon as I stepped my feet into them, I was swept by a wave of regret that I’d ever let rank snobbery keep me from seeing them for what they are: a piece of radically transformative design that just happened to crash land in Walmart country.
Comfort can be a liberating energy if it’s channeled right
After that, I wanted to upgrade everything I owned. Once I started looking, I found versions of all my staple wardrobe items that felt softer and gentler than the ones I owned, even without straying outside my financial safe zone. Organic cotton socks from Harvest & Mill. Conscientiously produced jeans from Industry of All Nations so soft and light that they’re a pleasure to wear even in the dog days of a New York City summer. Lusciously dense knitwear by The English Difference that I discovered at a trade show and caressed for what might have been a weirdly long time. And paying a hundred dollars or more for a pair of underwear might seem deranged until you’ve tried on a pair from Hanro made from 100 percent Sea Island cotton. (Then it seems excessive, but not wholly unreasonable.)
As I started to accumulate the beginnings of a new wardrobe, I began to notice the ways that it differed from what I usually wear. My edges got softer, and my silhouettes more generous. There was an overall lack of severity, and my overall vibe shifted from “industrial noise musician” to “ambient soundbath musician.” I may have even started to come off as approachable, which is something I’ve spent my entire adult life avoiding.
I didn’t just look different, either. I don’t know if it was walking around swaddled in a level of tactile pleasure that I’d never experienced before or the years of therapy, sobriety, and meditation finally kicking in, but ever since I started this experiment my life has felt happier, easier. I have more patience, both for myself and for others.
Which got me thinking about why I’d spent so long avoiding being comfortable in the first place. I think there are legitimate reasons to be suspicious of comfort. Comfort can make you complacent. Comfort—or more specifically the fear of losing a certain standard of it—is the root cause of most of the panic and xenophobia gripping the country right now. But there’s no valor in suffering, either. Despite what we’re encouraged to believe, there’s no necessary connection between agony and great art or good deeds. Comfort can be a liberating energy if it’s channeled right—just ask any artist who was able to do their best work once they could stop worrying about where their next rent check was coming from.
It was in that spirit of liberation that I decided during a bout of swampy weather to ignore my instinct to dress in the black-shirt-black-jeans-black-boots combo that I like to wear in suffocating weather just to prove that I’m tough enough to handle it. Instead, I violated a number of my own rules against shorts, performance fabrics, and anything that remotely makes me feel like a jock and went out in a pair of Outdoor Voices running shorts that are so little and lightweight (at least compared that what I usually wear) that I barely feel clothed in them. Going against all of these personal taboos made me feel a little anxious, but on the other hand, I wasn’t worried about passing out from the heat. And the more I looked around, the more I saw people going about the city in ultra-minimalist black running shorts, looking as good as they probably felt. I caught my own reflection and thought to myself that I was pulling it off. Then I started to wonder how they’d look with a pair of cowboy boots.