Leggings have an unsteady relationship with cultural attitudes — from people vehemently claiming they're not pants (psshh) to banning them according to stringent dress codes, they haven't always been welcomed with open arms. But the actual history of leggings is fun and colorful, and definitely deserves a moment in the spotlight.
It might seem like a simple basic, but the stretchy pants you know and love have hovered around the fringes of fashion for half a century. Sure, they've changed forms, colors, and prints, but always seem to stay inside our closets. In the '60s, women traded last decade's poodle skirts for form-fitting leggings, often made from space age knits. Leggings made their way from Studio 54 in the '70s, all the way to Jane Fonda's workout videos in the '80s and up to Lindsey Lohan's style diaries in the early noughties.
Yup: That's a whole lot of Lycra.
Nowadays, we're still loyal to the legging. From college kids wearing them with Ugg boots, to buying denim jeggings, to wearing a leather pair out for cocktails, leggings are still very much en vogue. The recent controversy surrounding United Airlines banning two passengers with leggings shows that leggings still have the power to start a conversation. Below, get comfy (hell, even put on some leggings) and learn all about this wardrobe staple's history.
An Innovative Debut In The '60s
We can thank scientists for our drawers full of leggings: Chemist Joseph Shivers created Lycra in a science lab, and by 1959 the first stretchy pants hit department stores. By the '60s, all sorts of designers were embracing the stretchy silhouette, but not quite in the way that we're used to today.
"The freedom and comfort offered by leggings in the '60s jived with the times, but they didn't have a widespread take because this was the era of Dolly Birds in mini skirts," Charlotte Fiell, designer historian and author of The Story of Design: From the Paleolithic to the Present, shares with Bustle. "That said, Andre Courrrges did create a number of collections that had space age connotations that featured body-hugging woolen leggings, and that led to their wider acceptance as a fashion item."
If you didn't want to wear something space age-y, then there was a different way to wear leggings at the time: As pants. They weren't form-fitting like pantyhose but, rather, were stretch pants with a sharp crease running down the leg.
"These were made for sportswear activities, as well as for wearing at home for housework, gardening etc," Jonathan Walford, fashion historian and curatorial director of the Fashion History Museum, tells Bustle. "Mary Tyler Moore wore them a lot in the Dick Van Dyke show — a style she apparently insisted was more realistic for a modern mom to wear at home than a house dress. Although apparently the TV censors weren’t sure if they were too sexy for TV, but the audience loved them." Even though there was a growing acceptance of slacks, the backlash against the form-fitting style was varied.
"Leggings came into fashion thanks to the youth quake, when young people truly decided that they did not want to dress like their parents and began experimenting more with fashion," Jose Blanco, author of Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, explains. "Pants in general were accepted for celebrities or for upper and middle class women living in the suburbs or vacationing in places where they were somewhat 'among equals.' It was also considered acceptable for younger women and girls in some cases. But wearing any type of pants — tight or otherwise — get you expelled from school or turned away from a restaurant."
Catching Disco Fever In The '70s
If people dabbled with leggings in the '60s, then they became full-blown obsessed with them in the '70s — but it wasn't about wearing them to lounge around. Instead, they were reserved as a going-out staple for Saturday night. "There was a definite popularity of metallics for Saturday night fever at the disco. The shimmering metallics were ideal for strobe lights on the dance floor," Daniel Delis Hill, fashion historian and author of such books as History of World Costume and Fashion, tells Bustle in an interview. Leggings were a trending look at Studio 54 and disco clubs, with the likes of Grace Jones rocking them on dance floors.
"There was a brief fashion for shiny lycra ‘jeans' in the late '70s, but they were for wearing to the disco, not the grocery store," Walford explains. But like with body shaming today, there was a catch for wearing the spandex in the '70s. "Fiorucci was the designer of them and he only made them available in small sizes so only slim women could wear them. He wanted to protect his image by making sure only young, slim women wore his clothes."
As for public pushback on whether wearing the trend was "appropriate" or not, Walford states that not many people tried to wear them outside of their intended purposes.
"They were really for discos only — the world still had a lot of rules then — especially in the office," Walford explains. "Many companies wouldn’t allow women in pants until the early '80s, jeans for either sex until the late '80s, and men were expected to wear ties and jackets into the '90s."
Earmarked For Twenty-Somethings In The '80s
In the '80s, leggings took on a different vibe, leaving Saturday Night Fever territory and paired underneath tulle dresses and mini skirts, a la Madonna's Like a Virgin.
"Most women wore the leggings with long, oversized shirts and sweaters, so the crotch and buttocks were covered. They were most often black, but sometimes in colors and were great fun," Walford explains.
While it was a playful style, there were some restrictions involved. "In the '80s, leggings with oversized T-shirts, sweaters, or blouses, were a young style — typically worn by teens and women in their early twenties. I am sure some were worn into offices, but for the most part, it was a casual style intended for leisure activities, shopping at the mall, hanging with friends, and going to a club," he shares.
If you weren't into clipping massive, Madonna-inspired bows into your hair, then you might have wielded your leggings in a different way. In a more Jazzercise kind of direction. Thanks to subscription gyms popping up and the popularity of Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons in a leotard and short shorts, leggings entered a whole new fashion realm: Athleisure. As Walford mentioned, women liked to match their baggy workout tees and leg warmers with leggings, and hit the mall for some quality clique time. They were finally being worn as off-duty clothes.
A Full-Blown Fashion Staple In The Noughties
After three decades of relative popularity, leggings fell off the map in the '90s as grunge swept in. The tights were put away for a full decade, but in the noughties the look crept back into twenty-somethings' wardrobes almost over night. One minute we were all wearing boot cut jeans and terrycloth sweatpants, and the next capri leggings were accenting our empire-waist midi dresses and tunic tops. Poster girls like Lindsey Lohan, the Olsen Twins, and Kim Kardashian were all on board.
As leggings found their way underneath more skirts and dresses, their next natural progression was to grow in options. American Apparel came out with shiny disco leggings that were to be worn exclusively as pants, and then pushed the style out to thicker riding pants. Skinny jeans took on a leggings-like fit, often times giving a "painted on" look when worn out.
Basic Loungewear Present Day
Since the noughties, we've had everything from high-fashion leather leggings to the next-level denim jeggings, and everything in between. They've become something os a staple item in our off-duty outfits, everyone from career professionals to models wearing them on their days off. But it still seems like certain body types get more leeway with the trend — and the look is still being flagged as "inappropriate" when worn casually, as the United Airlines situation has proved. Two female guests were traveling on employee passes, which meant they were subject to an internal code of rules — one of which was no Spandex.
Controversial or not, the fashion piece had seamlessly worked its way into our fashion vocabulary — no pun intended. Though it's now seen as a basics staple, they have this storied history that has taken women from space age pants to disco floors, to stylish athleisure and leg warmers, up to the affordable staples we wear to brunch.
Simply put, leggings are here to stay, and thank god for that.