What Came First: The Yoga Pant Or The Skinny Jean?

At the same time we’re being offered up “12 Ways To Wear Yoga Pants Literally Anywhere,” schools are banning students from wearing tight legwear for their obvious “distraction” and bloggers are being shamed for disavowing them. The idea that yoga pants are now so ubiquitous they're replacing skinny jeans is a story that headlines (upon headlines) have been touting recently — Bloomberg reports that denim sales are down for the first time in two decades, with annual sales dropping from $7 billion to just shy of $5 billion. Meanwhile, activewear sales have risen by 7%. But you'd be surprised to learn that this recent prevalence of yoga pants is nothing new; in fact, yoga pants were invented long before the skinny jean.

Spandex, the fabric synonymous with yoga pants, was first discovered when Joseph Shivers, a curious entrepreneur, attempted to find a solution to the World War II rubber shortage. Despite all its myriad uses, his invention proved to be most revolutionary when it came to updating women’s girdles, which were commonly made of rubber at the time.
Photo: Paramount Pictures/Getty Images.
Though girdles were (thankfully) going out of style, spandex's transformative nature allowed it to be translated into other items of clothing. Fashion’s original style icon, Audrey Hepburn, adopted stretchy skinny pants early on. Her classic uniform helped to catapult the straight-leg stretch pant both on- and off-screen in the late ’50s; models and actresses like Joan Collins and Ann-Margret eventually emulated Hepburn’s aesthetic by posing in Lycra clothing for photo shoots and magazine covers.

By the 1980s, women started expressing themselves through clothing. Feminine wardrobes transitioned from masculine shapes and lengthy skirts to padded shoulders and tailored suits. But the decade was also the crossover of sportswear that preempted today’s yoga-pant revolution. Designers like Donna Karan were creating fitted bodysuits and Tunisian-born Azzedine Alaïa made Lycra dresses. And who can forget the infamous Jane Fonda videos of the ‘80s, where an aerobics icon was born donning leg warmers and a Lycra leotard?

It was a time when, as described in Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style, “Women’s bodies were now shaping the clothes, rather than clothes shaping the body.” Exercise joined the mainstream when actresses started raving about their meal plans and workout obsessions — inspiring a generation of women to start hitting the gym, Pilates, or yoga studio. Even the always-stylish Joan Collins was “exercising before it became fashionable,” according to her 1994 exercise video, Secrets of Fitness & Beauty, where she’s bouncing around in brightly colored Lycra pants and showing off all the right moves.

Eventually, these designers paved the way for contemporary fitness brands like Lululemon, Athleta, and Sweaty Betty. Now, the yoga pants people “just can’t stop wearing” are everywhere.
Photo: Everett Collection.
By the time Lycra became a staple in women’s wardrobes, the skinny jean was still being designed for Hollywood’s cowboys who sported a style of slim-fit bottom that accentuated, ahem, all the right curves for the silver screen. It wasn’t until the late ’60s, years after Hepburn had been rocking her slim-cut style in movies, that women started “pushing the boundaries” of fashion, donning straight-legged denim pulled from their husband’s closets.

The 20th century welcomed casual denim into the mainstream. Levi Strauss & Co. invented the first blue jean for women in 1934, but the cut wasn’t pretty (thick metal rivets lined the pockets to increase durability, while the denim itself was raw and untreated). A description of the slim-fitting, high-waist jeans that appeared in a 1938 catalog for “Lady Levi’s” reads: “Just like our men’s Levi’s — but tailored to fit and look neat and trim on the feminine figure.”

“When the skinny jean first debuted,” Jill Guenza, global vice president of women’s design at Levi Strauss & Co. says, “people assumed it was only for svelte figures, that it was unflattering to curvier body types. Thankfully, we have transitioned into an era in which curves are not only accepted, they are celebrated.”

Though denim’s feminine skinny jean first appeared in the ’60s, its shape varied significantly from what we consider to be skinny jeans today, much like the shape of the yoga pant has transformed from a Lycra “exercise” pant that first debuted in the early ’70s. From the initial silhouette that was specifically marketed to moms came five-pocket denim and nylon Misses Stretch Levi’s marketed to juniors, says Levi’s historian Tracey Panek. This was the first early version of the skinny jean for Levi’s — and it debuted in 1967.
Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
“Women’s lives are increasingly fast-paced and we gravitate toward wardrobe choices that require a minimum of styling effort and maximum body confidence and comfort,” Guenza adds. “Skinny jeans are an easy, go-to choice, because women are familiar with how to style them and they are softer and stretchier than ever before, due to advances in denim weaving.”

People have been worried about denim before, but the skinny jean isn’t going anywhere. Gap is still reporting quarterly revenue growth, particularly thanks to its denim sales. But Fortune said it best in it’s report on the history of the blue jean: “From workday outerwear to the laps of multi-billionaires, blue jeans have withstood the wear and tear of time as an American icon.”

And the beloved skinny jean will continue to remain an symbol of today, just as much as the yoga pant. While it seems like we’re in a revolution that’s replacing blue jeans, denim lovers have nothing to worry about — the yoga pant is merely this generation’s Hepburn uniform or Jazzercise “exercise” pant.

These days, the idea of rejecting the yoga pant exclusively for denim seems unlikely, at least in my lifetime. Right now, the pendulum has swung, but not to worry, denim fans — there will be many more seasons of skinny jeans in your future.

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