Karl Lagerfeld died on February 19. A controversial figure when he was alive, the obituaries were equally divided. From a twitter feud between Jameela Jamil and Cara Delevigne, to how should we deal with horrible geniuses (I say you bury the concept of the genius, but that’s just me). For me, most important was: “what will happen to Choupette Lagerfeld?” and “who will inherit the bookstore that he bought for himself?” To me, the cat and the bookstore are among his most redeeming qualities. Granted, I never met the man, so diagnoses and character evaluations are hard (not that they ever stopped him). That being said, I am grateful for one of his horrible utterances.
“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You’ve lost control over your life so you bought some sweatpants.”
On a scale of horrible Lagerfeld utterances, this is probably a seven. It reveals a deeply chauvinistic elitism, a complete and utter lack of empathy, while it also shows his love for provocation, something he turned into an art. (He would design sweatpants for Chanel two years later by the way).
One of my childhood memories are some pink sweatpants with a matching sweater, that my grandma got me before I had to go to the hospital (it may have been my mother, I don’t remember). But I remember that it was cozy and I wore it with pride. Over the years more sweatpants followed, and so did more hospital stays.
When I started teaching, I began to pay more attention to the way I dressed, and the positive feedback I got confirmed me in my vanity. I think this was the first time I saw how intertwined vanity and academia are. A veritable double-helix in which my insecurities could go wild.
In 2012, when Karl said his infamous sentence, I thought “the man is right”- such was my hubris. I graduated in June 2012 and moved to Indiana in August. By the end of 2012, and most of 2013, I was in and out of a flare that couldn’t be controlled, no matter how much prednisone, azathioprine, or cimzia we were throwing at it. I tried to ignore it most of the time, and learned to live with the constantly smoldering inflammation. It’s not like I had a choice. But I did remember Karl’s sentence like a mantra. I had so little control over my life- I didn’t know how my health would continue, I didn’t even know where I would live after my contract was up. Being in academia and chronically ill means you have no illusions about not having a free will, no critical theory needed here. What I could control were my clothes and my hair.
I am not saying I was always impeccably dressed, no. I love my etsy-bought yoga pants. But I still believe in the power of well-dressing.
After my surgery in 2015, I wouldn’t have been able to wear sweatpants if I wanted, hospital gowns it was. Still, I asked for my make up, and it made me feel a little bit better about myself. As I got better, I went back to wanting to dress nicely, but I had to adapt somewhat. Flowy pants and dresses it was.
As my health got better, I could relax in my rules a bit more, and I may even have relaxed a bit too much. It’s easier to admit that you’re not in control of your health when you’re doing well, I guess. But in times when any semblance of control was desperately needed, Karl’s sentence helped out. I am pretty sure, this is not what he meant at all when he said it (I am actually pretty sure he didn’t mean much to begin with), but that’s ok. I am still grateful.
P.S. I own a pair of sweatpants now! They are leopard print. I wear them, kick back, and think of Karl.