The History of Leggings

Look out: Leggings, the most reviled of Eighties garments are here to stay.

Saggy, slobby and sometimes scarily see-through, leggings are fashion’s unlikeliest heroes. When they reappeared on the scene in 2006 many women experienced uncomfortable 80s flashbacks and groaned at the thought of their return. And yet six years later, after a winter solid with leather look leggings, animal prints, floral and polka dot patterned versions adorn the legs of this fall’s mannequins. They show no sign of exiting the scene, in fact it seems we’re more attached than ever.

After DuPont created the earliest form of lycra in 1959, leggings became available to wear as trousers similar to the popular Capri pants favored by Mary Tyler Moore and Audrey Hepburn, but much, much tighter. But it was not until the fitness and aerobics craze in the very early 1980s that leggings made their way from the gyms and dance studios to the streets. The popularity of Cindy Lauper, Madonna and the movie Flashdance with teens brought them into the mainstream. Worn with skirts and mini dresses, under long shirts with slouchy socks and biker boots thru the early 90s, it’s no accident their current popularity coincides with the recent grunge revival.

So bad, they’re good on Debbie Harry in the late 70s.

Women remembering them from those earlier eras are right to be wary. Leggings are the ultimate in unforgiving, even on a good day. Designed to be tight and stretchy they draw attention to every part of your lower half. The eighties versions tended to go baggy around the knees and the seat, two areas nobody needs any extra sag.

Reassuringly, modern day lycra mixes are a lot higher and more stable than they used to be, but beyond design improvements, the question remains – why when they are so potentially unflattering, are we still wearing them?

Lace leggings worn by Madonna in the 80s.

True to their origins of keep fit, leggings are the ultimate pull-on-and-go garments. They can be tossed in the washing machine and dryer, they don’t need to be folded, let alone ironed – they are just so easy. What it boils down to is comfort. The fact is, no matter how much we love fashion, when it comes to our day-to-day clothing, most of us are wearing layers and leggings. And it’s not just us ladies, men’s leggings, dubbed “meggings” were introduced at last years spring/summer shows and are surprisingly catching on.

Russell Brand in his Sass & Bide “Meggings”

But how to avoid the dreaded sausage-in-too-tight-casing look? Aim not to think of them as trousers. Which means never ever wearing with a short or tight fitting top and, unless you are at least 5ft 10,” forget about the mid-calf length ones. No matter how much you are tempted, just say no.

On the other hand, a basic black ankle length version can quickly become your best friend. For the remainder of this season, try adding a pair under flowy dresses and shorts to give a rock ‘n’ roll vibe to lightweight summery pieces. Come fall, pair with this season’s oversized chunky knits and boots for a more mod approach.

With well-chosen items, the leggings are transformed into a stylish but still comfortable look

Want to catch up on some more fashion history?

Now & Then: The History of the Bikini

Now & Then: The History of the White Wedding Dress

Now & Then: The History of Shapewear

Now & Then: The History of the Ballet Flat

Now & Then: The History of the Breton Shirt

Now & Then: The History of the Pencil Skirt

Now & Then: The History of Skinny Jeans

Read more Now & Then articles here.


Rowena Ritchie

Rowena is EcoSalon’s West Coast Fashion Editor and currently resides in San Francisco, CA.