An Illustrated History Of Skinny Jeans

It’s hard to remember a time when skinny jeans weren't the standard pants. But, the skin-tight, denim skinnies we know today haven't always been a wardrobe staple in ladies' closets. In fact, their evolution has been a long road — one that includes gender bending, political protests, and textile innovation (because denim itself is a relatively new material). From the clingy, white trousers worn by French noblemen, to the spandex leggings of the '80s, skinny pants have been around for a long time. We took it upon ourselves to investigate just how body-hugging pants became the ubiquitous skinny jeans we know today. Trace their assorted history, ahead.
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Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Mid-1800s
The ultra-tight men’s trousers of the 1800s were as practical as they were fashionable. Mobility was a priority — particularly important for activities like riding horses. And, the bottoms clung in all the right places (because ladies love a codpiece). So, if you want to argue that leggings aren’t pants, you’ll have to take it up with Napoleon first.
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Late 1800s
Some of the first pants it was ever acceptable for the average woman in Western society to wear were bloomers, which often tapered down into a slim, legging-like fit on the lower leg. Practical for things like riding bicycles, they still weren’t the sort of thing ladies would wear in social settings.
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1910
Paul Poiret’s harem pantaloons (which tapered at the ankle and were often worn under shorter dresses) were considered shocking in their time, reserved for the most avant-garde — and wealthy — Belle Époque women.
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1915
Close-fitting pants slowly became more acceptable for women to wear, but exclusively for activities like sports or certain manual labor. Going snow-shoeing, for example, would be an occasion to pull them on. They were made of canvas and twill, and some even came in denim.
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1950s
The Beatniks’ often gender-neutral style — tight denim and black turtlenecks for everyone! — brought pants closer to the leg than they’d been before. High-waisted, dark-wash jeans and pants were ubiquitous in the counter-cultural movement, almost as universal as cigarettes.
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1960s
Doris Day and Butterick sewing patterns brought women’s pants into the '60s, often in similar fits as worn in the '50s, but in more crisp, lady-like materials and flirty, feminine cuts, like the capri.
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1970s
Skinny jeans united genders in another counter-cultural movement — punk, when rockers of both sexes could share most of their wardrobe. The ripped, undone look of the jeans only grew more so as punk neared the '80s, when nearly every denim garment was covered in patches, safety pins, and questionable stains.
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1980s
The workout-chic look, initially made famous by icons like Jane Fonda or Olivia Newton-John, became a staple of the period, bleeding into everyday wardrobes. A baggy, brightly-colored T-shirt and a pair of leggings counted as a complete outfit, particularly if it came with leg warmers.
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Early 1990s
In the early part of the decade, high-waisted pants were the norm, which, when combined with skinny, tapered ankles, resulted in a rather diaper-esque look. But, at least mom jeans were chic, if only for a moment.
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Early 2000s
The emo movement made it acceptable for men to wear eyeliner, grow their bangs well past their eyes, and wear jeans so skinny that everything in their pockets — and elsewhere — was perfectly visible. Worn low on the hip and often accompanied by a novelty belt from Hot Topic, these were the pants used to convey that you were a human with feelings.
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2010s
The total skinny-jean takeover is complete, with everyone from supermodels to the cashier at your grocery store wearing the same cut of pants. Despite not being the most universally flattering shape of jeans, they certainly eliminate the awkward dragging-the-back-of-my-bootcuts-through-the-mud problem of the early 2000s.
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2015
Now, finding the perfect skinny jeans no longer requires a long, depressing day of trying on 50 not-quite-right pairs. Virtual dressing rooms are eliminating the guesswork in finding the perfect, custom pair to fit every curve (or lack thereof).
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