Comfort Chic

No sweatpants! How to find cozy pieces that aren’t sloppy.

By Kim Johnson Gross

The Art of Casual Style

My first job after college was as an assistant in the fashion department at an upscale magazine. I had little money to spend on a professional wardrobe, so I wore what I already owned: a denim skirt, khakis, a navy blazer, button-down shirts from the boys department at Brooks Brothers, and L.L.Bean moccasins. I thought I looked pulled together, until the head of sales complained to my boss that my clothes did not represent the magazine well. That was my first wake-up call on the importance of dressing for the life you’re living now. I was in transition, but my clothes lagged behind.

I eventually built a career wardrobe that served me well — until two years ago, when I decided to shift gears and go freelance. I loved the idea of no longer going to an office, but now I find myself spending way too much time at home in front of a computer. That is tough on my psyche, not to mention my back and waistline. And for a while, it put my wardrobe in a kind of limbo.

Even though I make my living as a style expert, I had stopped dressing like one. On plenty of days, there was no difference between the clothes I slept in and the ones I worked in, unless I ventured out to a yoga class or dinner with a friend. I let myself drift into this pattern, just like a lot of women I’ve met while conducting seminars around the country. We wake up one morning not recognizing ourselves and wonder, "When did this happen?"

As our lives change, our wardrobes are often the last thing we think about. Even my seriously stylish friend Lola, who had a very sexy courtship, noticed that barely a year after her wedding, she was schlepping around the house in an old robe asking her beloved, "Do you still find me sexy?" Granted, it was a Pratesi robe, worn loosely tied and slightly off her shoulders. But she didn’t want her new marriage to have reached the bathrobe stage just yet.

Having worn professional clothes for decades, I’d lost the knack for stylish casual dressing. But I’m regaining it. And now there are a lot more choices than there used to be. Exercise clothes, for example, have become an important part of my wardrobe, as yoga, cardio classes, and walking have become more integral to my life. Stylishly designed in high-performance fabrics that move like a second skin, they keep me comfortable and dry as I sweat away calories (or imagine I am).

There’s also a whole new fashion category I call comfort chic: clothes that are not constrained but not shapeless, either. They have a relaxed fit that’s forgiving to shifts in weight, but they don’t lack sensuality. Cut from feel-good fabrics that travel well, they look equally great on a barefoot beach walk or jazzed up with fun jewelry for dinner with friends.

Jeans are now something I wear when I want to dress up a bit. I no longer hang out in them, because I feel corseted trying to zip myself into them. I love the ease of pull-on pants, dresses that fit like your best stretch tee, or long skirts that have a feminine flutter even as they hide what Mae West termed "a multitude of shins." Clothes like these, and comfortable shoes, take up much of the closet space that my suits and heels once occupied. Well, as the song goes, "I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now."

Three Great Looks

What to wear…

...for the ease of sweats with a lot more style

Whether your lifestyle is urban, suburban, or somewhere in the middle, the new dress-casual clothes bridge the gap between serious and sloppy. A long cotton cardigan by Spiegel ($19) layered over a hip skimming Grassroots tee ($66) and a Three Dots cotton jersey skirt ($138) gives you just the right mix of fashion and comfort. (Check out the balloon hem of the skirt.) Sue London leather ballet flats ($120).

...when even khakis feel too structured

This isn’t about gym clothes with weekend "legs," it’s about a brand-new category of relaxed clothes in strong, simple shapes that are kind to the body. These rayon/Lycra pants by C+C California ($88) have a wide drop waist and wrap panel to gently camouflage and firm. Add a slouchy cowl-necked sweater like this one by Spiegel ($19) worn over a Velvet tank ($56). Puma shoes ($65).

...when you’re going out — or staying at home 

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