Black leggings are a nearly ubiquitous staple in women's wardrobes today, but that hasn't always been the case. Throughout the past decade, leggings have been a stretchy symbol of the rise of athleisure—and, by the same measure, the fall of getting "dressed up" for anything but the most formal occasions—and an increasingly massive moneymaker for brands.
In the '70s, leggings shimmied onto our fashion radar after Olivia Newton-John donned her shiny pair in Grease's final scene (a look that later inspired American Apparel's ultra-popular Disco Pant), and it soon became a staple of '80s aerobic culture and a key component of Madonna's boundary-pushing, Like A Virgin-era style. In the aughts, women began to layer leggings under dresses, skirts, and tunics (so many tunics), sometimes accompanied by a vest and low-slung belt. By contrast, in the 2010s, leggings made from sleek technical fabrics that include mesh and seaming details have taken center stage—in recent years, often paired with a bare midriff and coordinating crop top. What would have looked out of place outside a gym not so long ago is now akin to a power suit for the wellness era.
With the boundaries between work and leisure becoming blurrier by the year (a consequence, in part, of the smartphone's ubiquity), women are demanding more comfort and performance from their everyday attire—a need that leggings, and by extension, athleisure, have promised to fill.
Brands ride the leggings boom to the bank
Lululemon is a pioneer in the athleisure field (its Boogie Pants even earning a spot in a Museum of Modern Art exhibition) and a driving force for the popularity: The brand was founded in 1998, went public in 2007, and in the past decade has become a global retail phenomenon, with sales expected to reach north of $3.8 billion this year. Its marquee product—high-quality yoga pants that fit like a second skin—was always designed to perform on the yoga mat, but its popularity outside the studio with women who saw them as not just comfortable workout attire, but as a status symbol, is what propelled these stretchy pants into the mainstream.
Lululemon, of course, didn't make leggings a cultural juggernaut all on its own. To name-check just a few in this $29 billion industry: Athleta was also founded in 1998 and purchased by Gap (for $150 million) 10 years later, showing just how much value the larger brand saw in women's activewear. Other established names like American Eagle and Ann Taylor have also created spin-off brands that cater to the leggings-as-lifestyle set (Aerie in 2006 and Lou & Gray in 2014, respectively), while relative newcomers like Outdoor Voices (2012) and Girlfriend Collective (2017) have erased the line between workout-wear and all-the-time-wear completely. Sportswear giants like Nike and Adidas have long offered women's workout tights for activities like running and training, but in recent years, they've also invested heavily in reaching women who are equally interested in leggings as a fashion statement, launching collaborations with designers like Sacai and Off-White (Nike) and teaming up with Stella McCartney (Adidas).
As Instagram minted a new wave of fitness stars like Kayla Itsines and Jen Selter, athletic brands of all sizes got a new opportunity to reach the masses, and leggings became part of an aspirational look for many followers. Celebrities such as Gigi Hadid, Chrissy Teigen, and, most notably, the entire Kardashian-Jenner clan also helped popularize the look outside the gym, pairing their leggings with everything from heels and a blazer to a sports bra and Yeezy sneakers.
Leggings come for jeans
It's not hard to understand why women were eager to swap out their jeans for something stretchier: In terms of comfort, there's no comparison. And they did it in such numbers that, between 2013 and 2014, sales of jeans in the U.S. fell 6 percent to $16 billion, while sales of leggings and other activewear jumped 7 percent to $33.6 billion. By 2017, the country imported more women’s elastic knit pants than it did jeans—a first, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
In addition to becoming standard apparel for grocery runs, brunch dates, air travel, school pickups, and shopping trips—even work, in certain offices—leggings have also become something of a status symbol. Just look around your next boutique fitness class and you'll likely see the telltale logos of brands like Lululemon, Nike, Beyond Yoga, Alala, Michi, and Alo Yoga, signaling some serious cash spent—usually well over $100.
But these elevated offerings only emphasize how expansive the market is—we have brand name (read: expensive) leggings, low-cost leggings (you can find very similar styles at Target and Old Navy to the ones you can get at Carbon38), and indie leggings (Onzie, Year of Ours)—you even have multi-level marketing leggings by the controversial company LuLaRoe. We have leggings with pockets, leggings with resistance bands, leggings made for high-intensity workouts, and leggings made for lounging. Whatever your wants, needs, or desires, there's a pair of leggings out there for you. *Cue the Oprah meme* You get leggings! And you get leggings! And you get leggings!
Athleisure has even become a regular fixture on the runway: Giambattista Valli sent models out in Nike leggings and ruffled tops in 2017, calling the look "today's version of a Parisian petite robe noir," or little black dress. Other brands, including Chanel, Balenciaga, and Balmain have put their own spin on the style—in some cases dressing it up with rich textures and details, and in others letting the skin-tight spandex speak for itself. Most recently, the trend has even paved the way for the resurgence of bike shorts, another stretchy '80s relic.
The neverending leggings backlash
The activewear industry has been a latecomer to the body-positive movement, and many brands still cap their size range at a 12 or 14, or even smaller. Lululemon, for one, has faced criticism for its limited size range and lack of body diversity in its ads for close to a decade, yet the brand only added size 14—the size the average American woman wears—last year. And it wasn't until 2019 that Nike installed plus-size mannequins in its London flagship store (a decision that most fans celebrated, even as one writer accused the brand of promoting obesity) to promote the extended sizes it launched in 2017.
This, however, isn't the controversy that's dominated most headlines about leggings throughout the past decade. The style's enthusiastic adoption among women hasn't been without its critics: Blogs and newspapers published essays arguing "leggings are not pants," while high schools across the country grappled with whether to allow girls to wear the form-fitting pants to class. (Some administrators banned them altogether, arguing that they sexualized students.) In 2017, United Airlines sparked outrage on social media after it prevented two teenage girls from boarding a flight because their leggings were deemed "inappropriate."
The great leggings debate even made it to the Montana state legislature, where a now-former representative remarked that "yoga pants should be illegal in public."
The great leggings debate even made it to the Montana state legislature, where a now-former representative remarked that "yoga pants should be illegal in public." Even now, on the cusp of a new decade, the controversies continue: This spring, a woman named Maryann White—a self-described Catholic mother of four sons—set off a firestorm with a letter she wrote to the editor of the University of Notre Dame's student newspaper asking female students not to wear leggings so as to avoid tempting men with their “blackly naked rear ends.” Naturally, the request backfired, and students protested by declaring the following day “Love Your Leggings Day” on campus.
What this endless cycle of uproar and backlash really tells us, though, is that leggings have become fully embedded in our culture and aren't going away anytime soon. Looking back farther, fashion has historically trended toward comfort, and it's hard to imagine anyone—particularly Gen Z, who has grown up with leggings as a default option—choosing to forgo that, even as trends change. And they will change—but the market is vast and will continue to expand, and leggings, well, they'll hold up through it all. (They're designed to.)
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