Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Privacy Settings of Pajamas

What, your mustard chinoiserie pajamas didn't come with a purple poodle?

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.

14 comments:

  1. I used to wear vintage sateen men's pajamas as pants in college. With the fly sewn up, of course. I had this wonderful, thick black and royal pair with variegated stripes. I wore them with Docs and a chunky 80s-style turtleneck sweater.

    I also had a fantastic, dark green paisley sateen hotel bathrobe (astoundingly high quality, lined, with structured cuffs and collar) that I wore as a duster coat for years and years.

    Kids these days don't know how to wear pajamas in public, is what I'm sayin'.

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    1. Cynthia and Cameo, you know what's funny? When I envisioned Cynthia's outfit I imagined Cameo (blogger extraordinaire and college friend) wearing it! Ha! You both seem to wear pajamas with creativity--Cameo, I never knew you were wearing PJs, but I remember the look. You both have panache!

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  2. This post has made me feel like an old fart with one foot in the ALF and the other foot in the Depends aisle. Damn.

    In all seriousness, when I was younger and in college I wore my pajamas in public a couple of times, but it was due to sheer laziness (and sometimes because I was hung over). I always felt really crappy whenever I did it, like I had given up without even making an effort. The idea of carefully crafting a way to wear pajamas in public makes my brain short-circuit, because, again, see first paragraph.

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    1. Caitlin, that's pretty much my #1 reason for not wearing my loungewear out of the house now. I already spend a lot of time in my private gear since I often work from home; leaving the house in actual structured clothes is a signal that now it's time to be "with it."

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  3. I did this as a teenager! Lots of the people in my high school did, though it was never a trend to be discussed. It was just assumed you were running late, or feeling lazy.

    I can't speak to the relationship between pajamas and Facebook, but I do think being a teenager, even without the added pressures of social media and digital space, is a peculiarly public time in one's life. Before you have a living space independent from your parents, you do most of your 'private' socializing in public space. You hang out in parks and diners because you don't want your parents to hear every thing you say to your friends, the people with whom you're the most intimate, and you don't have enough money for quieter, more private spaces. If you're a teen looking to be with your pals, it's all coffee shops, malls, libraries, parks, and the streets themselves.

    Also, as the precarious freelance lifestyle gradually overtakes the world of work, maybe it's good for kids to get used to navigating the world in their pjs...

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    1. Emily, ha! I don't remember people doing this in my high school but I'm now hearing from plenty of people who did this before it became a "trend," which is now making me wonder if it's a "cuddle puddle"-type nonexistent trend. (Maybe Big Journalism just wants kids to be swathed in cuddly puddly clothes?) And that's an excellent point about how teenagers live publicly--they have to become versed in self-expression in a public way, because what other choice do they have unless they just want to hole up in their bedrooms? (Certainly no teenager has ever done that...) We used to all gnash our teeth over teens holing themselves up because of the digital age but I haven't seen any proof of that *actually* being the case, and I'm guessing it's for the reasons you cite.

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  4. I don't know if you recall....but one of my standby outfits freshman year of college was a forrest green (old man) sweater, a pair of cream-colored flannel PJ bottoms sprinkled with peach flowers w/green leaves, and my doc martens that I painted the toes of green so that I wouldn't look too "conformist." Oh, and bright red hennaed hair piled atop my head in a mess, secured with a pencil or a paintbrush. HAHAHAHA!

    I liked it because it made me feel like an individual. I also liked the way the PJs fit and I liked the silhouette. I looked like an idiot, but man if I didn't get compliments on that outfit!

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    1. I remember the hair-piling! I always admired it.

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  5. some of this is a little bit offensive. as someone who attended a (somewhat) prestigious high school, with many students ending up at Yale, Harvard, and MIT, i find this argurment one-sided. our high school was demanding and many students wore pajamas--well because they didn't care. we were all comfortable around ourselves and really busy with schoolwork and wearing pajamas just made sense. i think the "public intimacy" idea is just a false intellectual insight. pajamas are comfortable, maybe they're sometimes cool. who cares? i don't think it is speaking to a generation. my mom shops in sweatpants and that's ok. but if they had little hearts on them then it would suddenly be some statement as to her generation's standards?
    huh.

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    1. Emily, I don't mean to offend, and looking over the post I don't see accusations of teenagers, or of pajama-wearers in general--if you let me know what language I'm using that's damning that would be helpful, because I don't want to offend any of my readers. People wear pajamas for all sorts of reasons--comfort, ease, distraction, laziness, playfulness--but we don't choose our clothes in a vacuum. Everything we wear has some meaning. Wearing pajamas because they're comfortable may well be genuine; it's also a public statement that you care more about comfort that playing by standard rules. Is there a possibility that some students (not you) at your highly demanding high school wore pajamas to school because they wanted to project the *idea* that it didn't care? I'm not condemning the practice (I think by expressing faith in teenagers' creativity I made that clear). I'm examining it; I'm asking questions. You can call it a "false intellectual insight" if you wish, but know that that's a hurtful statement. I'm not trying to be a Grand Intellectual on here (since when do beauty bloggers with BAs in journalism count as intellectuals?); I'm just writing what I think. You're always welcome here to do the same, but please don't call what I do false. I encourage you to find a less dismissive way to disagree and engage here.

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  6. The pyjama in public debate has been going on for a good while here in Dublin. Its quite common in the inner city for women, teenage up to middle age to be seen going around in their pjs. There was even a film made about it http://www.stillfilms.org/pages/ff_pyjama.html

    Recently it has also been in the news when it was banned from a social welfare office http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/weekend/2012/0128/1224310854947.html

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    1. Aoife, I had no idea this had such a history in Ireland--totally fascinating. The connections with class (which haven't entered the debate much here in the States) are intriguing. I may buy the movie--it seems like there's something potentially rebellious about this. Thank you for pointing me toward the debate!

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