There’s a saying about friendships often falsely attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt that goes something like this: “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” It’s the kind of quote forwarded in an email accompanied by a stock photograph of a beautiful sunset, or that you'll see in the signature of an outdated message-board post. While I can’t help but roll my eyes when this phrase is applied to real people, I think about it constantly when it comes to fashion trends. Some fads are ephemeral, entering closets for what feels like an important reason at the time; think the great bold-shoulder trend of 2009, because women are powerful! (Samantha Jones’ spiked-shoulder jersey dress was the only thing apart from her “Lawrence of my labia” scene that made 2010's Sex and the City 2 worthwhile.) Then, there are trends that inexplicably materialize for a season, like gladiator sandals or peplums. Finally, there are trends that enter our lives and never leave again, and perform that rare transition from of-the-moment item to everyday piece. In my own closet, one of the most polarizing pieces of clothing in history has played that role: leggings.
These body-hugging, form-fitting pants entered the retail market in the 1960s via sweetly psychedelic mod designers like Mary Quant and Emilio Pucci, who styled theirs under shift dresses and with platform heels. They came back in the '70s, appearing in a pivotal moment at the end of Grease when good-girl Sandy went bad, dumping her poodle skirt for a shiny black pair, a cigarette, and a perm. Even though the film was set in the '50s, her disco bottoms were fit for the era (and, lest we forget, the women of Charlie's Angels wore them, too). Decades later, in the 2000s, those shiny spandex pants would be replicated (and made insanely popular) by American Apparel. The '80s saw leggings hit mainstream fashion hard, partly because the decade's fitness craze made it acceptable for workout clothes to become everyday wear. Madonna also participated in the leggings trend, wearing a black, lace capri style under a miniskirt during her Like a Virgin tour. In the '90s, TV style icons, like Saved by the Bell’s Kelly Kapowski and Clarissa of Clarissa Explains It All, regularly wore colorful leggings under their peplum dresses, patchwork vests, and crop tops.
Then, they took a break. Suddenly, it felt like the tight-fitting garment was seen less and less. Leggings would become a rare sight until the mid-aughts, when they became less of a must-have and more of a controversial piece of clothing. It was slow and subtle at first. Black leggings, mostly capri-style, were worn under denim miniskirts. People were saying goodbye to the loose silhouettes that hid their bodies, and welcoming clothing that tightly hugged their curves. Soon, celebs like Mary-Kate Olsen, Lauren Conrad, and Nicole Richie helped add fuel to what was becoming the second Renaissance of leggings. People wore them with boots, flats, heels, under dresses, or alone as pants. Of course, with great popularity comes pushback. Those on the anti-leggings wagon penned essays filled with passionate vitriol. “LEGGINGS ARE NOT PANTS!” they screamed. “They cause yeast infections!” they cried. The snobbish commentary was rife with rage, negative comments about other people’s bodies, and even camel-toe shame. The people of the world were becoming divided. Things were getting ugly.
Still, the leggings trend, in all its beautiful glory, forged ahead. People were saying “Fuck it” to archaic rules of dressing that lean toward modesty, and allowing just a thin piece of fabric to separate them from the world. In a way, leggings were liberating. By 2008, they took on a more subversive, futuristic-looking form — one-half Matrix, one-half sex shop. "Liquid" leggings were everywhere you looked, claiming fans such as Rihanna, Nicole Scherzinger, and Victoria Beckham. Hipster party girls wearing the aforementioned American Apparel disco leggings were frequently documented by nightlife photographer The Cobrasnake. Amber Rose, then newly dating Kanye West, was photographed in a glossy, red offering herself.
In 2010, leggings continued to expand into edgy, fashionable forms. Lady Gaga wore her shredded leggings every chance she could, whether performing onstage or greeting fans at the airport. Beyoncé wore a studded pair from her label, House of Deréon, and was accused of ripping them off from an Icelandic brand. Lindsay Lohan was so passionate about leggings, she launched a line of them called 6126, modeling various styles herself. During my own personal foray into the glam-leggings trend, I experienced a fashion faux pas involving pink underwear, a camera flash, and sequined leggings I unfortunately didn’t realize were so sheer. That still didn’t stop my love for them. In 2012, Russell Brand asked the question, “Meggings?” and was met with crickets. Though leggings never caught on with men very much, leather leggings were becoming a big thing. Even Martha Stewart couldn’t resist their calling. This specific style would become a trend of its own, popping up again and again over the years. Just like it did in the '80s, the fitness fashion trend — known to us now as athleisure — is helping leggings stick around, perhaps even catapulting them into a new level of popularity. Kylie Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Rihanna, a longtime leggings fan, frequently sport them with crop tops, bombers, or motorcycle jackets.
How has this particular piece of clothing not only survived, but experienced a massive growth in popularity over the past decade? The first reason is simple: their versatility. It’s easy to dress them up or down, and they’re comfortable as hell. I once wore black leggings with suede boots and a sequined bra — accessorized with gold door-knockers — to a Salt-N-Pepa reunion show. I wore the same pair on a flight a week later. Not only could this simple basic become instantly fancy with the right jacket and heels, but it was easy to shake my ass in! Comfortable, chic clothing is fashion’s Holy Grail. The second reason is much bigger than functionality. Because leggings are a body-hugging garment, there’s no room to be shy. Leggings force the wearer to be their own body-positivity champion, no matter their size or shape, embracing their curves or lack thereof. If the built-in confidence that comes with wearing leggings is part of what rattles the haters so much (there are still plenty of those “Leggings are NOT pants!” essays being written), then that is sad. But they’ll have to get over it. Much to their dismay, leggings are as big now as ever. The only question is: What form will they take on next? Whatever it is, my camel toe and I will be cheering them on.