Few items boast a history as complicated as that of leggings. The stretchy, body-hugging style has been the subject of both blind devotion and inhibited vitriol throughout most of its controversial existence. OK maybe not entirely—leggings were first invented purely out of necessity, though no one can quite pinpoint their maker or place of origin. They have existed in some form or another as a layer to provide additional warmth, whether that’s a hosiery-like encasing in Europe during the Renaissance, leather thigh-high boots worn by the Native Americans, or tightly wrapped canvas stirrups worn by the military in the late 19th century.
But leggings as we know them today can be traced back to the mid-to-late ‘50s, though less as legwear and more as a tight, tight pants. Italian actress-slash-style icon Sophia Loren was once snapped dancing in a loose black top with black leggings in 1955. Two years later, Audrey Hepburn played Jo Stockton in the 1957 musical film “Funny Face” in an unforgettable all-black skin-tight ensemble. And in 1965, Debbie Reynolds posed for a studio portrait in a black ankle-grazing pair, complete with a striped crop top.
Much like how every trend picks up momentum, the credit goes to a major box office hit. When Sandy Olsson (played by Olivia Newton-John) transformed from a bright-eyed new girl into a badass Pink Ladies inductee with her off-the-shoulder top and shiny nylon leggings (with John Travolta on her arm) in the 1979 musical film “Grease,” it catapulted the legwear into a nationwide spotlight. It soon quickly became a workout staple, popularized once again by another decade-defining movie: 1983’s “Flashdance” that follows the life of aspiring dancer Alex Owens (played by Jennifer Beals), who practically lives in her leggings. In real life, Jane Fonda put it into practice with her famous workouts and her equally famous workout outfits, ushering in a new era of high-shine nylon-blend leggings saturated in neon bright colors (preferably worn with a clashing leotard).
By the mid-‘80s, leggings took a turn for the edge, finding fans in musicians, like Madonna, who layered lacy styles under black micro skirts during onstage performances, or Rod Stewart, who was known to pair his with wild leopard-print shirts and ornamental belts. Fashion designers took notice, too. Leggings got the avant-garde treatment on the runways, rendered in futuristic silver at Jean Paul Gaultier or colored with siren red and layered beneath mismatched plaids at Kenzo in 1987.
But today’s love-hate attitude toward the style stems from the onslaught of legging-wearing celebrities in the early aughts, which trickled down to the masses and with it—and to the chagrin of fashion people—a wave of sartorial faux pas that launched heated widespread debates on how to wear them the “right way.”
Characterized by their black cotton-lycra material and their shin-grazing length (all in various degrees of opacity), they were hailed as a genius hack to stretch the mileage out of your warm-weather clothing. They were spotted under mini denim skirts, floral dresses, and anything sheer (designers like Derek Lam weren’t immune to their stretchy, versatile ways, either). Lindsay Lohan even capitalized on the trend, launching a legging-centric brand 6126, featuring pairs with cutouts slashed along the leg. But soon—and this was what caused the rift—people eschewed the upper layers altogether, subbing them in for pants.
And it all came to a head when “jeggings,” a portmanteau of “jeans” and “leggings,” became a thing (Beyonce famously wore a pair in 2009). Enough was enough, and even though leggings never technically went away, the craze had died down—until athleisure came along.
In 2014, the buzzword was born to bridge the gap between workout wear and streetwear, prioritizing, above all else, comfort and ease. It helped, too, that fashion’s most in-demand models wholeheartedly embraced the movement in their street style, turning the leggings-as-pants taboo into a socially acceptable look: Gigi Hadid would wear hers with tiny crop tops and Kendall Jenner would pair hers with hoodies and pumps, or with a graphic tee and leather jacket. Two years later, it was reported by Slice Intelligence that women were buying more leggings than jeans.
More recently, designer Demna Gvasalia dreamt up a legging-boot hybrid for Balenciaga’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection, coining them “pantashoes.” And Giambattista Valli juxtaposed Nike performance leggings with his usual ornate creations on the Fall/Winter 2017 runway.
Still, controversy seems to follow leggings regardless of their popularity. In 2017, United Airlines barred two teenage girls from boarding a flight because a gate agent made the decision that their leggings were inappropriate. The response was swift. The Internet wasted no time coming to their defense—because as divisive as they can be, leggings are, for the most part, incredibly beloved. And judging by their exhaustive, centuries-long history, they’ll likely always have a place in fashion.END
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