Sitting at the cross-section of trousers, tights, workout gear and pyjamas, leggings elude categorisation. Old faithful, the humble legging has been with us through so much, from our instant noodle-guzzling student days and the worst of hangovers to attempts at jogging around the local park and trips to Big Sainsbury's on life admin Sundays. Despite their loyalty – comfort, ease and familiarity are in their DNA – we've treated leggings to more than their fair share of derision over the past several decades.
What started out as woollen or leather practical leg-wrapping worn by babies and soldiers (chic!) became a bona fide fashion item in the 1950s. Leggings received the sartorial seal of approval when Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn made tight-fitting, cropped capri pants a minimalist staple – she paired hers with a black, long-sleeved boat-neck top in Funny Face – and women everywhere followed suit with a less structured take. Soon after the invention of Lycra in 1958, everyone from Mary Quant to Emilio Pucci had the masses pairing their Swinging Sixties shift dresses with leggings.
In the ‘70s, leggings evolved into an essential part of the Studio 54-ready uniform. On stage, Debbie Harry wore hers with faded slogan tees, while Jerry Hall's were high-waisted and as tight as they come, teamed with a metallic blouse and platform heels. Thanks to their form-fitting yet movement-freeing nature, leggings were a staple in dance circles and reached peak popularity in the 1980s with the rise of aerobics. The likes of Jane Fonda and Cyndi Lauper grapevined through the decade in the boldest and brightest prints and patterns, while films including Grease and Flashdance cemented the item’s acclaim.
Fast-forward to the '00s and the leggings narrative was a tale of two halves. Circa 2005, American Apparel’s high-shine, high-waisted Disco Pants were worn by every Myspace celebrity worth their salt and featured regularly in The Cobrasnake’s party photos, paired with classic Converse All Stars. In 2007, Kate Nash burst onto the scene with her debut album Made of Bricks ("Foundations" still bangs, don’t @ us) and a generation of Indie Cindys was unleashed, all vintage shift dresses, elasticated belts fastened right under the boobs, worn-in ballet pumps and, of course, black Topshop leggings.
While we’ll forever be nostalgic for those salad days – a much simpler time – we and our leggings moved on, reposting photos on our Tumblrs of Alexa Chung at Glastonbury in denim shorts, a Breton striped top, leggings and Hunter wellies. Kate Moss, of course, was the other poster girl for leggings in the early '00s. Teaming hers with faux fur, blazers, oversized knitwear and leather jackets, cigarette in hand and Pete Doherty in tow, the cotton-blend legging was the perfect canvas for a more rock 'n' roll aesthetic. Leggings, finally, were riding high. And then the sartorial equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster was born: the jegging.
A frankly unnecessary hybrid of jeans and leggings, jeggings aimed to deliver the illusion of denim but with added comfort. Here, the legging lost its shine and, like the elasticated waistband of the tracksuit bottom, the ease and flexibility that originally made them so appealing became synonymous with laziness. Women who wore leggings made of thin fabric were shamed for allowing their knickers to be visible, accused of letting themselves go and that was that: along with knock-off UGG boots, leggings were banished to the back of the basic bitch’s wardrobe.
In 2020, though, we wear leggings on a weekly basis and it’s not just because we’re in lockdown. Over the past few years athleisure has steadily transitioned from tacky to tasteful thanks to a slew of labels rebranding activewear. Now a symbol of health and wealth, leggings’ comeback is akin to the slow recovery of Burberry after it was caught up in the classist and problematic image of the 'chav' in the early ‘00s. As the Lululemons and Sweaty Bettys of the world began encouraging us to wear our sweat-wicking leggings from barre to brunch and beyond, what felt like the preserve of wellness bloggers and yummy mummies soon crossed over to the catwalks of fashion month as designers embraced athleisure and streetwear.
At SS20, designers from London to Milan championed the legging, from Mugler’s sexed-up sheer pairs and Off-White’s split-front take to Saint Laurent’s stirrup styles. They were given a '60s daisy print at Sandy Liang and worn under floaty dresses at Rejina Pyo. While still the OG and a good base to pair with slouchy knits and Birkenstocks for maximum lockdown comfort, black cotton is no longer the only option. Size-inclusive (XXS-6XL) and sustainable Seattle label Girlfriend Collective makes each pair of its leggings out of 25 recycled plastic bottles. Each colourway is so gorgeous – think seafoam green, slate grey and tomato red – that even if you have zero intention of working out in them, you’ll wear them all day. Marine Serre has dropped a pair in its cult crescent moon print, which we plan on wearing under black tiered dresses, and Richard Quinn’s 0 Moncler Genius collection features a pair in his signature print mash-up of blown-up flowers and leopard print.
Much like the death of the heel, our return to leggings is further proof that comfort is our number one wardrobe requirement right now. Especially now. May we never shame them again.