What is comfort?

Monday, November 23rd 2020
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Working from home has thrown up lots of interesting clothing debates recently - including whether people will just stop caring, as we discussed recently

Another interesting one, I think, is the idea of comfort. As in, ‘It’s just so comfortable wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants all day - I can’t see myself wearing anything else again.’

I’d like to unpack this idea a little, as it contains a lot of interesting assumptions. And, I find that thinking about them helps us understand the particular things we enjoy, or don’t enjoy, about clothing.

So, what is comfort?

A lot of people would answer that it's softness, particularly in something like a T-shirt or sweatpants. When I asked my 12-year-old daughter how she would define comfort, her response was ‘fluffiness, and nothing itchy’.

And yet, soft things are not necessarily comfortable. A fleece onesie might be even softer than your sweatpants, but that doesn’t mean you’d wear it - both because you’d feel silly, and because the thick, synthetic fleece might feel uncomfortable over time. 

Even staying with natural materials, not everyone likes the super-soft feel of fur. 

Another answer is looseness - a lack of restriction. Free-flowing linen trousers in the Summer, perhaps, that you barely feel you’re wearing. 

But that doesn’t necessarily work comprehensively either. Would you really want to walk down the street feeling like you’re wearing nothing at all? Basically naked, but warm and dry?

Part of the pleasure of those loose linen trousers is the occasional feel of the material - the cool, smooth cloth brushing over the skin.

The same goes for the comfort of being in bed. We recently got a new duvet that is also lighter, and it feels very odd. There is a particular comfort in a heavy blanket - indeed you can buy weighted blankets that are supposed to help children sleep better.

Separately, freedom of movement often comes not from lack of any restriction, but from restriction in the right places. As in the small armhole on a bespoke jacket, or close-fitting gloves. 

Shoes have to grip you, as well as letting you move. If those linen trousers were loose and falling down, they might be irritating and less comfortable. 

There are some men that seem to like trousers that are loose and falling down. But I wonder if style were taken out of the equation, whether a waistband that fitted more closely would prove to be preferred. 

At the very least, this shows another way - personal experience - in which the concept of comfort is subjective. 

One more answer is that comfort is about material that moves with you - that is moulded and lived-in.

This crystallises around the question of whether jeans are comfortable. 

We’ve had comments in the past where readers have asked how anyone can find jeans comfortable - because they’re so tough, so stiff. Tailoring cloths are often held up as superior, because of their looseness, softness, drape.

We’ve already touched on looseness and softness: good fit is part of that comfort too, and some feel of the cloth. 

But what’s really at stake here is that jeans mould to you, and feel reassuring as a result. You push against the denim, and so feel more of it. There is pleasure in the closeness of the fit - you feel the cotton more, and the way it warms to your body.

Other cottons, such as loopwheeled sweats, are similar. The pleasure there is not really the softness, but the pliability - the stretch and movement, which comes from the density of the knit. 

Another example is a horsehide leather jacket, which moulds. It is one of the most restrictive things you can wear, given it’s so close-fitting and tough. But you can still understand someone who says it’s comfortable, because of that reassuring, form-fitting feel. 

And of course there’s tailoring, which can be comfortable through fitting in all the right places (close on the neck, in the armhole; loose in the back and the chest; shaped but never tight in the waist). 

Finally, much of what we consider comfortable is psychological. 

For example, on the one hand, comfort can come through contrast. I wore a shirt and tie the other day for the first time in a month, and there was real pleasure in the feeling of a close - but not restrictive - fit. It just feels like what a shirt is designed for.

But it felt great to wear a T-shirt and shawl-collar sweater the next day. I appreciated it because of the contrast. Same goes for wearing trainers after a couple of days in welted shoes. 

Yet another example almost implies the opposite: comfort can come from habit, from the reassuring and familiar.

Old slippers can be the most comfortable thing, even if they're not the softest or best fitting. It's revealing, I think, that we'd call them comforting, as well as comfortable.

The idea of comfort is personal, complex, and psychological.

So it's silly to ask how anyone can find jeans comfortable, or how anyone can wear a suit and tie rather than a T-shirt and trainers.

It's what we like, what we're used to, and what we appreciate more.

For me personally, a lot of the feeling of comfort comes from appreciating materials. But I know it’s subjective, because those materials also vary: each has its own pleasure - there are different things to enjoy in wool, in fur, and in cotton. 

Perhaps the saddest thing about wearing just a T-shirt and sweatpants all day, is that you only get to appreciate one of them.