Discuss: Stretched to the Limit

Dec 16, 2011

[Spandex] quickly became known as a “wonder” fiber — it can stretch more than 100 percent and snap right back to shape. It is estimated that of the 20.5 billion pieces of clothing Americans bought last year, 80 percent of those garments had spandex in them.

And as the waistlines of Americans have expanded, their clothes have been stretching with them — largely thanks to the synthetic fabric.

NPR is doing a series of articles about obesity in America.  They’re tackling all the standard culprits: fast food, busy lives, a lack of working out, etc.  But they’ve also singled out Spandex as a silent accomplice in America’s obesity problem.  Why?

At some point during the past 20 years, Americans decided that comfort was the most important factor when choosing clothing.  My evidence?  Uggs, Crocs, Juicy Couture velour, flip-flops, sweatpants in public and athletic attire worn as clothing, instead of as athletic attire.

Accuse someone who is wearing one of these items of dressing badly, and the first phrase that they’ll utter in their defense is “But it’s so comfortable.”  Ah, comfort, the narcotic that lulls you into believing that nothing else matters.

Who cares if your attire is unfashionable, unprofessional or just plain inappropriate?  As long as your comfortable, all other sins should be forgiven.  Including some sins that should never be mentioned aloud:

A good example [of a popular product that exists because of Spandex is] PajamaJeans, marketed by Hampton Direct in Vermont. These soft, stretchy pants came out last year and have sold more than 600,000 pairs online and at shops like Sears and Wal-Mart. As far as sizing goes, no one is left out. They fit everyone from petite to plus size.

600,000 women are wearing PajamaJeans?  Sharpen my pitchfork and light my torch, because I’m on my way to Vermont.  Who’s with me?

Americans like to be comfortable.  We like to feel good.  But we also like to feel good about ourselves, and nothing makes us feel badly about ourselves like a little weight gain.  So if our clothes stretch and expand to accommodate a few pounds here and there, we get to be comfortable while maintaining the illusion that those likely-too small jeans actually fit.  

How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t care what I weigh as long as my clothes fit.”? But thanks to all this stretch, clothing is no longer an accurate barometer of whether you’re gaining, losing or maintaining your weight.

Back in the mid-90s, before they started putting Spandex in everything, jeans were the greatest weight measuring device on Earth.  You could gain no more than 2lbs before your jeans would no longer button or became too tight in the thighs when you sat down–that rigid denim was like a NASA-calibrated, fat measuring scale.  So either you bought new jeans or you watched what you ate.

Thanks to stretch fabric, I can now gain or lose as much as 8lbs before I start to notice a significant difference in the way my jeans fit.  That’s a six-percent change!  And thanks to vanity sizing, even though I’ve gained a dozen pounds since college, I still wear the same jeans size.  (That’s not even possible!) Spandex and vanity  sizing, an unholy marriage pulling the Lycra-added wool over our eyes.

So what is the point of this discussion? 

We’ve talked before about weight and clothing size on this blog.  And while I don’t think women should be weight obsessed, for reasons of health and fashion you should know when your weight is fluctuating. So if you’re going to use your clothes as a gauge, you cannot buy clothes that are so loaded up with Spandex, Lycra and stretch that they forgive all of your sins.  (Except for PajamaJeans, no one can be forgiven for wearing PajamaJeans.)


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  1. V says:

    Belle I'm sorry, but blaming Spandex for the obesity problem in America is absurd – I thought so when NPR talked about it, and I think so now. Spandex simply makes clothes fit better – whether you're a 00 or plus sized – and clothes that fit better are more attractive. I really find your argument here flawed – there are about a million other reasons why obesity is such an issue in the US, and this one is just not one of them. This Jezebel article makes the point better than I do: https://jezebel.com/5867146/spandex-is-making-you-fat

  2. K says:

    This is really interesting and thought provoking. I've had an observation abotu this too, and I don't mean to get all class-warfarey here, but I have noticed that vanity sizing seems to exist less in the higher-end market – I wear a MUCH bigger size in say, Theory dress pants or a Ella Moss top than I do in Banana Republic. I wonder if the idea that these companies have, or if there is some relationship between amount you spend on your clothes and weight – like if you can afford, or want to pay, 300 $ in dress pants, you can also “afford”, both financially, and time-wise, to watch your weight and exercise. Just a thought…i'm sure I'm going to get jumped on for this, so let me preface this with what I am NOT saying – i'm not saying that you must be rich to be skinny, or all fat people are poor…just an observation.

  3. Leah says:

    hear, hear! well put.

  4. K says:

    Amen. Every time I see the commercial for pajama jeans I think that no one in their right mind would ever buy them. Clearly, that statistic shows I'm wrong. I agree with you completely, except for your distaste for flip flops. I'm a big fan of my Rainbows and Havianas in warm weather. Granted, I live on the beach, and they are the best way to keep sand from constantly getting in your shoes.

  5. sai says:

    I was JUST about to cite that same Jezebel article. Like with any fabric, there are beneficial and not-so-great ways to use and wear spandex. I get your point, Belle, about stretchy clothing and vanity sizing making clothes an inaccurate barometer of one's size and shape. Personally, I prefer to think about fluctuations in health. Like, “Can I walk up these six flights of stairs after the fire alarm without wheezing at the top?” “Can I run for the bus without panting?” “Am I walking up the Dupont metro escalator or standing to the right like a schlub?” “Does my boyfriend have to open ALL the jars for me, or just the hardest ones?” I like the functional barometer of my life better than the arbitrary barometer of Donna Karan sizing and the cotton-to-spandex ratio of my blouses.

  6. A says:

    I respectfully disagree with the first comment. Excellent, or even good tailoring makes clothes fit better. I remember in my college days in the early 2000s, i realized that all the high-tech fibers marketed as feats of engineering were to make up for a lack of tailoring. It was frustrating to have knowledge about the problem but not the money to fix it. I wish there was a huge breakdown by manufacturer/designer, so that a person could shop for their shape and size w/o hiring a specialist. People, especially women, come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Clothes that fit make a huge difference.

  7. A says:

    I respectfully disagree with the first comment. Excellent, or even good tailoring makes clothes fit better. I remember in my college days in the early 2000s, i realized that all the high-tech fibers marketed as feats of engineering were to make up for a lack of tailoring. It was frustrating to have knowledge about the problem but not the money to fix it. I wish there was a huge breakdown by manufacturer/designer, so that a person could shop for their shape and size w/o hiring a specialist. People, especially women, come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Clothes that fit make a huge difference.

  8. i'm with you – which way to vermont?

  9. V says:

    A – I definitely agree – excellent tailoring makes clothes fit best. However, most some (including myself) can't afford or aren't willing to add $15 – $80 to each garnet they buy for tailoring to ensure perfect fit. So most women buy clothes with Spandex in them. That doesn't make Spandex a cause of obesity.

  10. J says:

    I've actually observed this in myself and can see both sides. I don't think spandex is causing obesity but i think that people wear stretchier fabrics to hide weight gain. whenever i gain a few pounds i automatically switch to jeggings or tights with loose dresses rather than getting my lazy behind to the gym. But – once the jeggings start to get tight i definitely kick my health routine up a notch to lose the weight. it's a vicious cycle.

  11. Montana says:

    I think Belle is right – just go shop for vintage clothing and the truth will be told. ROAD TRIP!

  12. what she said says:

    Yeah, V!

  13. Ms. B says:

    Spandex just makes it a bit easier to live with our expanding waistlines. I do like the “give” it adds to my dress white shirts. That being said: UGH JEGGINGS and PAJAMA JEANS DOUBLE UGH!

  14. Alex says:

    Ugh, you are so judgmental and pretentious!

  15. Claire says:

    I wouldn't argue that spandex causes obesity, but it is an interesting player in the tale of the growing american waistline. I appreciated reading both this and the Jezebel article others have linked to.

    That said, Belle, I don't think I'm alone in disliking your frequent statements against “unprofessional” dress. I realize I'm the one here reading a blog called Capitol Hill Style, but you are lucky to have a large audience of readers from all over. I, for one, work in Silicon Valley. I'm generally the most dressed up person in the office in jeans and a cardigan. Dare I say… some people might find it difficult to take me seriously if I were to dress up regularly, thinking that I'm relying on my looks rather than my talent. Please keep in mind that your experience represents a small portion of the world, and “professional” is relative. I love your style and I want to hear about things you like, not things you don't like.

  16. Maylon says:

    +1 for Alex. If for no other reason than for having the courage to say what others are thinking. People come here because there's generally consistant updates and we're bored during work. The haughty tone wears on you though, doesn't it?

  17. Francine says:

    The vanity sizing drives me nuts. It's a lie. I am wearing a smaller size now than I wore in high school and I am 20 pounds heavier. That is bullshit, and it leads women to believe they are slimmer/healthier than they are. I don't think Belle is saying Spandex caused an obesity epidemic, she is saying that it's yet another way in which we don't face reality about weight gain. I bought Spanx for the first time recently and yes, they make me look 5-10 pounds thinner, but it's a lie, and I stopped wearing them because it gives me a false sense of sedcurity re: my own shape/fitness. Instead of stuffing myself into Spanx to fit into a Size 4 skirt, I need to get back to the gym and stop eating chocolate.

  18. Ashley says:

    “At some point during the past 20 years, Americans decided that comfort was the most important factor when choosing clothing. My evidence? Uggs, Crocs, Juicy Couture velour, flip-flops, sweatpants in public and athletic attire worn as clothing, instead of as athletic attire.”

    When did this happen exactly? I'd honestly would like to know because there are far too many people who dress a) solely to cover their nakedness and b) to be comfortable, and they're breeding! When did it become okay to send your under-12 child to school in denim shorts, a torn shirt and slouchy UGGs? (<– actual, real-world example from yesterday)

    This “me first” attitude has gone too far, and this is just another example of that. Contributing factor in the increase of obesity or not.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go yell at those kids on my lawn. 😉

  19. K says:

    This blog is called CapHillStyle for a reason…I, as a DC-ite who works in a VERY professional office in terms of dress, find it REALLY nice to have someplace to come to where I can relate to the clothes that Belle posts and find that this blog, unlike 99% of fashion blogs, provides interesting and useful advice. Keep being awesome, Belle…? Start a “SiliconValleyStyle” or something…but let us love CapHill for what it is…there are plenty of blogs out there for those of you lucky enough to be able to be more creative in your workplace attire, as well as basically every fashion magazine that thinks a fur vest and converse sneakers are an acceptable casual friday outfit.

  20. KC says:

    Hold on–this is a blog about someone's opinion on how young professional women should dress in Washington D.C. I read the blog because I am interested in the author's opinions about professional dress. I take that information and apply it to my personal situation. If you want blog content for another purpose–for example, opinions on how to dress in a casual office in California, or for someone to validate the clothing choices you already make, find a blog with that purpose. This blog's large and diverse readership exists because of the content, not the other way around. As someone who found this blog because I wanted a second opinion on whether I could wear camel brown boos with black, I appreciate the advice and opinions on professional clothing, even if I occasionally don't follow all of it. Everyone needs to get a grip.

  21. Belle says:

    All-I'm not saying that Spandex is entirely or even mostly or even significantly to blame for the obesity epidemic. What I'm saying is that most people, myself included, use their clothes as a barometer of that they weigh. If the clothes stretch to fit, they're not a good gauge. So it's easy to wake up one day 10 or 15lbs heavier. And from there it's tough to lost weight and it might be easier just to buy a bigger size, which puts you on a slippery slope.

    That's all I'm saying. Spandex aids in the cover up, but doesn't commit the crime.

  22. Belle says:

    Alex-If that's the way you feel, I'm sure there are other blogs out there that you can read. I don't think arguing that Americans aren't dressing as well as we used to and that we need to be cognizant of how changes in the way clothes are built is untrue.

    As for judgmental, yes I judge people who show up to work and parties and church and dinners out in inappropriate attire. Does it make them bad people? No. Does it make them badly dressed? Yes. And this is a blog about fashion not morality or ethics, so I will judge their clothes and separate that from any judgements about their qualities as people. Just like when I separate judgments about someones politics from whether I like or respect them as a person.

  23. Claire says:

    @ K and KC, I appreciate that this is a style resource for people who need to dress more professionally than I do- and it is a great one. I acknowledged that I don't quite fit the target demographic here, but in either case I really enjoy the vast majority of the content. However, I doubt any of those 600,000 women in pajama jeans are wearing them to work in DC. This post was catty at best, and hateful at worst. I was just trying to lightly remind the author that there are different standards and opinions out there in hopes that she might frame things more positively in the future. I can appreciate professional do's and don'ts for the DC-style workplace, but the dripping disdain for women across the country who buy comfortable clothes at walmart and sears is not something I can get behind.

  24. Belle says:

    Claire-Not only have I seen PajamaJeans on government employees, I've seen glittered Spandex shorts on government employees. For every faux pas out there, there is a person who makes it at work.

    My intention was not to be catty or hateful, but I am one of those women who judges her weight based on her clothes because I don't believe in focusing on a number but I don't want to replace my whole wardrobe either. It had never occurred to me that the stretch in my jeans and pencil skirts and dresses could be making me less aware of how my body was changing.

    Also, this blog strives to combat how many women in the professional realm and outside of it are not dressing their best. Because I really do believe that when women look good, they feel good. If that weren't true, every network on TV wouldn't have makeover shows.

  25. Kathryn says:

    I, for one, am grateful for a blog that doesn't pretend that if denim is dark enough, it suddenly becomes work appropriate. Not here, it doesn't.

  26. Betty says:

    Well said, Claire!

  27. EK says:

    I don't relate to most other fashion sites; I don't have the money to spend on pieces I can't wear in an office that values conservatism over creativity in terms of dress. I wish we had a more casual fashion standard for work, but this is the dress code that came with the job I love. It's nice to read a blog that errs on the side of professionalism in a city where it's always best to play it safe. I recommend taking to heart the posts that apply to you and overlooking the ones that don't, given that this is often very DC-specific advice.

  28. women first says:

    This blog posting clearly hit a nerve. First, how many of the women out there wearing thier comfortable jeggings wish that they had thier body in shape enough to wear jeans that are 100% cotton and zero spandex? I for one can say I am among those women. I also maintain a very high level of appropriateness in my daily Hill atire. Weight is a very sensitive issue for women, and if we can conceal a few pounds here and there with a bit of spandex added to our attire, I say why not. This in my mind only empowers women to be more confident in thier day to day life, whether it be my Banana Republic gray wool blend suit I wear year round or the 2% spandex jeans I wear on weekends.

    Focusing on ways for women to live a helathier life and boost thier ego is a better use of such a widely read blog. And honestly, the women that do live in pure jeggings and stretch t-shirts probably don't red this blog. I will add that I am 6 months pregnant and have had to give up every structured bit of clothing I own, it's been incredibly difficult for my self image and I can only imagine what it's like for other women who also have limited choices in what they can wear.

  29. A says:

    As I read this post I can't help but notice that I wore 2 jersey wrap dresses with tights this week and that the low-spandex-content jeans I am currently wearing (Yay for casual Friday!) are irritatingly too tight in the thighs. Ugh. Not to mention that the jeans are a size 28 despite the fact that I wore a 30 in high school (10+ years and 20 pounds ago). However I am going to blame part of the size discrepancy on the loose jeans trend of the late '90s. I guess spandex is to the 2010s what carpenter jeans and overalls were to the 1990s.

  30. Amanda says:

    I couldn't agree with you more! Your comment about grabbing your pitchfork and heading to Vermont seriously made me bust out laughing. 600,000 women in Pajama Jeans is something I never want to encounter! It's so easy to gain weight in your comfy clothes. Too many days of yoga pants can result in laying on the bed, sucking it in, while you try to zip your jeans. Been there, done that! The vanity sizing drives me crazy, as well. I wrote an article sometime ago on my blog about sizing issues and the aggravation it causes when you shop different brands.

    Thanks again for another great post, Belle!

  31. what she said says:

    Claire acknowledged she was likely not the primary demographic, but it's the better-than-you tone that was the issue. I agree with women first: Solution-based posts (wear this instead/here's a way to get around buying clothes with stretch/here's a link to some healthy recipes/here are some workouts you can do at your desk/any of the above) are generally easier to take, especially from an anonymous source.

  32. kate says:

    I think this is only hitting a nerve because such readers are sitting at their laptops wearing a snuggie over their pajama jeans, paired with uggs with a vera bradley handbag.

  33. Belle says:

    To the commenters who dislike this post, I'd like to make one point and then ask a question.

    1) The thesis of this post is: Women often use their clothes as a gauge for what they way. Spandex and vanity sizing make that tough to do. So if you care about maintaining your weight (and I'm not saying you have to care about that, because you should be whatever size you're comfy at), you should be cognizant that stretchy fabrics like Spandex will make it possible for your weight to go up unnoticed. Thus, you could wind up gaining 8 or 10lbs without realizing it and then wind up having to work your butt off to keep from going up even more or to come down.

    Why do I care about this? Because it happened to me. Five years ago, I put on almost 25lbs and thought I'd put on 5. Why? Because between Spanx, sizing, and Spandex, I didn't think I'd gained much weight until I stepped on the scale and thought, “Oh boy, I've really developed some unhealthy eating and exercise habits if I gained 25lbs unconsciously.”

    It was damn hard to lose some of that weight, and I would have known I was gaining much earlier, if my clothes weren't so forgiving. Most women don't like to gain weight, and I wanted people to be aware of what I thought was a very salient point about Spandex contributing to unnoticed weight gain.

    2) Now, for my question…who is it that I'm accused of judging, here?

    Overweight people? Because I think I've made it pretty clear that I don't give a damn what you weigh as long as you're comfortable in your skin. And I've done several posts on why women shouldn't be so damn hard on themselves about size and weight. I just don't want someone who thinks that she is monitoring her weight to get a nasty shock because her clothes stretch generously to fit her.

    People who wear sweatpants, Uggs and gym shorts as all-purpose clothing? Yeah. I'm a bit hard on people who dress too casually. Because in my opinion, athletic attire, sweats and esp. pajamas have a purpose and that purpose is not as school, work, church, plane or wedding attire. (Seriously, I've seen that.) I think people feel best when they're dressed well.

    Does that mean expensively? No. It just means that they made an effort. That they didn't roll out of bed, throw on leggings a t-shirt and Uggs with dirty hair and no makeup and decide that was good enough. BEcause in my view, while we all have off days once in awhile, people who do this every day are not taking pride in themselves and presenting their best self to the world. (I exempt certain ppl from this: Moms of young kids, people who are sick, taking care of sick relatives, etc.) People feel better about themselves when they look their best. Why do you think makeover shows are so popular and plastic surgeons make so much money?

    And as for people who wear crap like flip flops and gym shorts to professional offices, how you look counts for something. Is it the most important thing? Of course not. But ask anyone who works in HR, how a jobseeker dresses and appears is important. So why should that be any different than someone who already has a job? Because when you work for a company, a Member of Congress or a business, you are an ambassador for that business and the face of that company. Dressing appropriately and well for work shows that you care about putting your best foot and the best foot of the company forward.

    If you object to my tone, then I apologize that you feel offended. But the bottom line is, I am hard nosed about appropriate dressing because I think it is an important component of presenting your best self to your clients, your Boss and the people you meet. I have pride in myself, and my job and I dress in a way that would make my parents and my Nana feel proud. BEcause the way I look is not just for me, it is for all the other people and organizations I represent.

    Maybe you feel differently. But people are going to judge you on how you look, and you can say that that's shallow and unnecessary. But those judgments have real consequences for you whether their fair or not.

  34. Belle says:

    Omg. I'm an idiot. I used way instead of weigh at least once in that post. Please ignore my SERIOUS dyslexia when it comes to homophones. I have no idea why I can't seem to get this write.

    Kidding, that one was on purpose.

  35. Belle says:

    And I have at least one “their”/”they're” eff up as well. Seriously. I should just hand my journalism degree back in to the school who gave it to me. Clearly, that skill set didn't stick.

  36. K says:

    I totally second Kate up there. Belle, anyone who would ever think you are talking down to overweight women clearly doesn't read this blog enough. If you are so offended that someone is dissing your pajamajeans and sweatpants, maybe you should stop wearing them, or stop reading fashion blogs.

  37. CynthiaW says:

    Wow – I rellly wasn't expecting the tone of some of the comments, although I don't know why after the great pantyhose debacle a while back. Seriously, we all know that Belle hates certain things like Uggs and Vera Bradley – and now Pajama Jeans. Now, I happen to agree that all of those things are abominations, but there have been other things that she's said that I don't agree with and I don't get all bent out of shape about it – there is a way to disageee with somone without accusing them of being elitist and pretentious constantly. I didn't get any disdain for anything except for Pajama Jeans out of this post and, so what? Who cares if Belle has disdain for Pajama Jeans?

    On to the topic at hand – I totally agree that while Spandex might not cause weight gain, it sure does let you hide from it or not notice it. The forgiving nature of many of today's clothing styles, coupled with vanity sizing, is exactly what makes me get on the scale every single day to monitor my weight – it's too easy for it to get out of control otherwise. I read somewhere that French women do the same thing and anything more than a 3 pound gain makes them take action – don't know if that's true or not, but it's what I stick to becaue 3 pounds is easy to deal with and a reasonable fluctation depending on water retention, time of month, etc. If it persists for a few days though, I'm cutting back on something or upping my exercise.

    I've also found that, as I've gotten my weight under control, I really loathe having any Spandex component in my pants. Shirts and jersey dresses are one thing because a small Spandex content can help them lay nicely – but pants get stretched out and baggy by the end of the day and I hate that. Jeans are really bad about that – so I try to find jeans with the lowest Spandex content possible so that there is a little give, but not enough to make them sag in the wrong places by the end of the day.

  38. Artemisia says:

    It must be how you gain the weight – I had a 10-pound gain (med-related) a few years ago, and wow, the small amount of spandex in my jeans and work skirts didn't disguise it at ALL, I had to buy a size up. So I thought the NPR thing was reaching.

    I love spandex because it means I can wear all my clothes through cycle-related bloat and other weirdness. It also means more clothing fits my size-4-but-SO-totally-not-built-like-a-Barbie-doll body. In any case, I use the scale every single day before I'm dressed, there's a certain weight that means no alcohol or starches until further notice. I can't imagine depending on my clothes for that data!

    I'm less worried about stretchy too-casual clothes in the workplace than the flood of cheap, processed food making our population sick and overweight. But I'm sure as hell not going to wear them myself.

  39. EFL says:

    I'm puzzled … My garments contain some Spandex, yes, but they don't mean that I can gain weight without noticing. Were I to put 3 lbs on, I'll still be able to close my pants, but it certainly won't be confortable (nor look good). It just means that I won't have to buy special clothes for the few days after Christmas, but I wouldn't wear them that way for months. Maybe it's a ratio issue ?

    As someone said, Spandex is a cheaper alternative to tailoring and can accomodate the small variations between bodytypes that can occur in a same size range. I'm all for something that can allow style for every wallet.

    Re: “vanity sizing” is due to the fact that brands design their size range to accomodate their customers. They draw the medium size from the average customer measurements – obtained through studies – and then grade up or down. If brand A's average customer is thinner than brand B's, you'll have to go up a size or two for brand A garments.
    For instance, H&M “Divided” (teenage brand) is cut smaller than the regular collection because their usual customers – young girls – are mostly thinner. I wear a H&M 38 and Divided 40. Not a big deal.

  40. Sam says:

    I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who was appalled to realize that pajama jeans actually existed. I thought they were fake when I saw the video, and I actually grieved upon realizing that we've gotten to the point where there is a market for them.
    Loved the post, glad to know I'm not the only one with her pitchfork ready.

  41. Belle says:

    Funnily enough, I just watched a Kathy Griffin special and she spent 10 mins on her love of pajama jeans. But she mocked them too, so at least she's in on the joke.

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