Autumn means different things to different people. For some, it’s a crisp chill in the air, cutting through summer’s swampy humidity. For others it’s the cinnamon-y sweetness of a Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte. Outdoorsy types consider it the season for “leaf peeping” and begin planning their visits to apple orchards and pumpkin patches.
And yet, for a shockingly large number of people, fall is also the time of year for a very specific, very horny delight: gray sweatpants, and the faint outline of the wearer’s dick they allow.
Welcome to Gray Sweatpants Season™. For the uninitiated, this is the time when the climate finally mellows enough for men to pull those bottoms out from the back of their pajama drawer. Once an innocuous casual pant option, in recent years it’s become linguistic shorthand for the type of person who much prefers peeping peen over the kaleidoscopic colors of autumnal foliage.
For those not in the loop, Gray Sweatpants Season™ is definitely a thing. It has not one but four dick-centric definitions at Urban Dictionary, is fodder for Twitter horndogs (just a smattering of examples can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and has engendered its very own Vox explainer. “Just a Bunch of Hot Guys in Sweatpants to Warm You Up,” reads a headline from Elle magazine.
It’s a titillation unique to our post-athleisure, post–Casual Friday era, where workout clothes are no longer relegated to gyms, but worn proudly in public. Gray Sweatpants Season™ also speaks to the fact that social media has lifted the curtain on the ways that sex is no longer just an activity for getting off, but getting likes and shares.
But how—and, more importantly, why—did we get here? Why are grey sweats, of all articles of clothing, the unofficial symbol of fall horniness?
“Well, the obvious answer is because you can see the penis in the sweatpants,” says Evan Ross Katz, writer and host of the podcast Shut Up Evan. “But actually, to me, that’s a little less appealing than when I just know something’s going on down there and there’s a little bit of movement. And it can be from a semi or just the balls swinging, but you’re like, Oh it’s awake down there; there’s activity down there.”
Katz has grasped perhaps the most alluring detail of grey sweatpants: their sexiness is unexpected—and, at its best, un-self-aware. There are certain garments that are harbingers of overt seduction: women in a La Perla bra, he says, or a gay man in a jock strap. But the quotidian, mundane nature of grey sweats — who amongst us doesn’t own a pair? — adds to their accidental eroticism.
“Many people are hot for nudity that’s somehow obscured,” says Tina Horn, host and producer of the long-running fetish podcast Why Are People Into That?! and the writer/creator of the sci-fi sex rebel comic SfSx. “It’s all about exhibitionism and voyeurism. The sweatpants exhibitionist gets the plausible deniability that they’re not showing off, and the sweatpants voyeur gets the thrill of witnessing something, like a dick, that they’re ‘not supposed to be seeing.’”
Horn notes that people usually fetishize tight clothing — latex, spandex, rubber — which, viewed through a Freudian lens, “could represent a return to the womb, or a full body embrace.” So, conversely, a preference for soft, loose apparel could be interpreted as some kind of release or freedom from compression. “It's all about perverting the mundane, which is just a fundamental function of human sexuality,” she said.
“When I see someone in sweatpants, it’s like they either have no need to be presentable whatsoever, or they’re so cool and confident they’re just wearing what makes them comfortable,” says Alex Gorosh, a California-based director and editor. While he hadn’t heard of Grey Sweatpants Season™ he says he always thought that “a person in sweatpants was sexy.”
“It’s like they’re so confident, they’re so comfortable, and that’s sexy,” he continued. “So you want to be with them.”
Designer Scott Sternberg, whose brand Entireworld’s calling card is its downy sweatshirts and pants, surprisingly, hadn’t yet heard of this phenomena. “I’m not a meme person, but I totally get it and it makes complete sense,” he said by phone, chuckling. “Sweats get this bad wrap for being shlumpy clothes you wear when you’ve given up. But I think there’s something really sexy about a guy in sweats. There’s this very I-just-got-out-of-bed-and-threw-it-on sort of thing, you know? Like, maybe he’s not wearing underwear.”
When he was first developing Entireworld, Sternberg said that ideas about “sex” and “skin” were foundational parts to the brand’s identity, but not in a “porn-y or vulgar” way, he said. Instead, his work hints at something sensual, but in an off-handed way. “Loungewear is very intimate,” he said. “It's like something that may have a Cheeto stain on it, but once you wear that out of the house, there’s something that becomes inherently sexy about it.”
For his part, Sternberg was obsessive about the fabrics, and developed his sweats up from the yarn to have just the right feel and look. That yielded a textile that was soft and fell just so. “It’s drape-y, it's sexy … it hugs the peen.”
It seems as if Sternberg was onto something. According to the global fashion search platform Lyst, grey sweatpants, as a category, grew 14% year-over-year from 2018 to 2019, and 38% this year over last. Data-wise, grey sweats historically hit their search peak from September to December, though this year, due to the COVID-led rise of cozycore, there was an additional spike in mid-March and April. Nike was the leading brand, with a 40% spike in search over recent weeks.
Twitter says that since 2015 there have been more than 1.5 million tweets about Grey Sweatpant Season, with 4,300 in September of this year alone. According to its data, the conversation peaked in 2016—though, anecdotally, that conversation may have just migrated to platforms like Instagram and TikTok in recent years.
Both half-hidden and half-public, digital platforms have allowed us to winkingly celebrate our more libidinous impulses. “Social media is a land of thirst,” Katz notes. “So if you can be the purveyor and the identifier of quality thirst, then all you have to do is package it.” Katz, who is an influential social media presence in his own right, gives the example of placing the Kylie Jenner “And the next thing I knew I was pregnant” meme next to a picture of a hot guy in grey sweats—and, voila, content that’s sharable and knowing and somewhat coded. “Social media allows for this idea of there being in-jokes on everyday concepts,” he said, noting that, were you to go into an Old Navy and talk about grey sweats, it would mean something very different than in the hallowed digital halls of Twitter. “If you are privy to the concept of what Grey Sweatpants Season™ means, it’s like, ‘You, too, have dick on the brain.’”
And, in a weird way, the season is ultimately a celebration of the many, many, many ways in which we can get horny. “What I do appreciate is that in 21st-century America we are generally more open to a variety of taste in how people express their sartorial sexiness,” Horn says. “Which frees us from respectability politics, somewhat.” In other words, do you ... it’ll probably get someone’s rocks off.
“If you love wearing bespoke suits, someone’s gonna love that. If you wanna live your soft clothes life—and as a self-identified dirtbag, I certainly do!—then you’ll find people who lust after you for that … and I certainly have!” Horn continued. “I’m always going to be in support of dirtbag allure. It’s the next best thing to being naked all the time.”
Originally Appeared on GQ