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A decade of leggings controversy, explained

How spandex athletic apparel became a staple of the American wardrobe and a lightning rod for debates about policing women’s bodies.

A woman in leggings taking a leap forward on a cobbled street.
Leggings are in the news yet again, this time because of a concerned mother who doesn’t believe young women should be wearing them outside of the gym.
Getty Images

The years-long debate over whether women should wear leggings in public — and when — is somehow still raging.

As reported by the Washington Post, Maryann White, a woman who identified herself as a Catholic mother of four sons, caused a stir on the University of Notre Dame campus by writing a letter to the editor of the student newspaper. The letter, titled “The legging problem,” expresses her dismay at seeing college students in leggings at Mass on campus last fall. It has many incredible turns of phrase, such as, “I wonder why no one thinks it’s strange that the fashion industry has caused women to voluntarily expose their nether regions in this way,” and, “I thought of all the other men around and behind us who couldn’t help but see their behinds.”

The letter also refers to leggings as “a problem only girls can solve,” and describes the women who wear them as exhibitionists forcing young boys to confront their “blackly naked rear ends.” In advocating that Notre Dame students lead the anti-leggings revolution, White asks, “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead?”

In response, students at Notre Dame organized a super-casual protest: About one thousand students RSVP-ed to a Facebook event celebrating Leggings Day and agreed to wear leggings to class on Tuesday. PhD student Dani Green told the Washington Post that it was “difficult to tell” who was participating in the protest and who was just wearing leggings because they were wearing leggings. Some students also shared photos of their outfits on Twitter. (This one is actually bike shorts, but point communicated!)

If it all sounds familiar, that’s because the debate about athleisure as pants has popped up dozens and dozens of times. Leggings are never just leggings. Girls and women can never just wear them in peace, and complaints about them can never just be ignored — the extremely old, extremely prolonged conversation about what’s appropriate to wear and what’s appropriate to say about what other people are wearing always seems to become a national news story.

Most fashion bloggers will tell you that leggings first evoked opinions and commentary when they became one of actress and “it girl” Edie Sedgwick’s signature sartorial choices, most notoriously in a Vogue photo shoot in 1965. The quibble there was not that Edie shouldn’t be showing off the shape of her butt, but that she was far too rich and glamorous for sportswear. The 1970s saw a glitzier leggings fad, spearheaded by Olivia Newton-John’s Grease costume and adopted by disco. Then came the 1980s technicolor fitness obsession, and Olivia Newton-John yet again. Leggings never really took a hiatus; they shape-shifted to fit fashion trends throughout the 90s and early aughts. Histories of leggings regularly overlook the role played by mall culture circa 2006 to 2010. Wet Seal leggings were sometimes, like, three for $10? And you wore them under denim skirts or boys’ hoodies. So as to look terrible! This brief phase of super-cheap, often inadvertently see-through leggings was a gold mine for tabloid bloggers, and coincided unfortunately with the brief heyday of “belted dresses on top of jeans.”

But it wasn’t until the rise of athleisure in the United States that there was a true backlash against leggings. Jump-started by the rise of conspicuous exercise and bonkers popularity of high-end yoga brand Lululemon, spurred by the high-fashionization of streetwear and sneaker cults, and solidified by the participation of approximately one in four working celebrities, it’s become the most popular and most lucrative mode of dressing — particularly in the last five years or so. Kate Hudson’s Lululemon competitor Fabletics debuted in 2013, Beyoncé launched her activewear line in 2016, Reebok signed Gigi Hadid last year, just after Adidas stole Kylie Jenner from Puma. This week, Lululemon reported a record quarter, with earnings rising 39 percent year over year, and recent estimates say leggings alone are a $1 billion industry in the US. The first mainstream burst of wearing workout clothes around as non-workout staples, though, was among college-age women, which was a problem for a lot of people.

In 2008, a mysterious group of women started the website Tights Are Not Pants, published free-to-print posters espousing their cause, and wrote an open letter in Glamour addressed to Lindsey Lohan, who had recently worn a pair of sheer tights under a long dress shirt and leather jacket. When they’d started Tights Are Not Pants, the anonymous author wrote, they had been talking about leggings and exaggerating for effect. “Back then, a legging-clad crotch was still appalling. … Those were the salad days.” Nylon ran a print feature about the Tights Are Not Pants movement that spring (sadly no longer available online), and it became regular fare for fashion bloggers. It was also promoted in the Atlantic by Vox’s Matt Yglesias, who now says via Slack that he “disavows those views.”

Around this time, the phrase “Leggings are not pants” started showing up on mass-produced t-shirts and dedicated Facebook groups and rudimentary memes. In 2010, the Huffington Post published a (rather racist) blog post titled “Leggings Are Not Pants,” which advised young black women to think like Michelle Obama instead of Tyra Banks, and to think twice before dressing like an “urban ballerina.” But the first major battleground for the war on leggings was, of course, middle schools and high schools — where adults imbued the workaday fashion choices of pre-teens with sexual significance.

In 2012, Jezebel documented the first few leggings bannings in Canada and Minnesota with its trademark sigh-and-eyeroll: “Ladies, we knew this day would come, we just didn’t know it would take so damn long. Girls are finally getting in trouble for flaunting their curves in ... leggings?” In 2013, California junior high principal Emily Dunnagan called an assembly of 450 girls between the ages of 12 and 14 and stressed to them that they were not allowed to wear leggings without a dress or skirt over them. She later told ABC News, “When girls bend in leggings the threads spread and that’s really when it becomes a problem.”

A similar policy was enacted in a middle school in Evanston, Illinois, in 2014, which was brought to national attention after one of the affected students’ mothers wrote an open letter to the principal on Facebook, arguing that dwelling on and picking apart a girl’s clothing choices contributes to rape culture. This was followed by a particularly ridiculous situation in a North Dakota high school: There, an assistant principal illustrated his anti-leggings presentation with clips from Pretty Woman, arguing that leggings are a common uniform for sex workers, and that’s why they should be avoided.

Not every school administrator banned leggings — some demanded that they be worn with a knee-length skirt over them — but all of them seemed to miss the fact that the debate was sexualizing young girls as much as a pair of super-tight leggings does, if not more.

In 2015, a school in Cape Cod banned leggings because it wanted to teach its students to dress professionally (they’re children!), and yet another dress code went viral on Facebook after a Texas high school sent a girl in leggings home for the day. David Moore, a Republican state representative from Montana, made headlines for arguing that “Yoga pants should be illegal in public,” and attempting to redo his states indecent exposure laws to prohibit any clothing that “gives the appearance or simulates” butts, genitals, pelvic areas (?), or women’s nipples.

This was around the same time that a Christian blogger in Oregon went on Good Morning America to talk about her choice to remove “lustful” leggings from her wardrobe — a measure she was taking to protect herself from the ogling of men. It was just before Fox & Friends hosted an “esteemed panel of fathers to determine whether they would let their daughters wear leggings to school.” To his credit, Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson said he is fine with it. Not to his credit, he still participated in the subsequent impromptu on-air game-show, in which women in different styles of gym leggings paraded past the panel and were evaluated on how “appropriate” they looked. The men debated, quite heatedly, which legging fabrics were the worst and which were fine.

Anyway! The semantic debate over whether leggings are pants may never be resolved, but the debate over whether women should make clothing choices while considering the supposedly uncontrollable urges of men really should be by now.

In 2016, a Rhode Island man wrote a letter to his local newspaper about how women over 20 should not wear leggings because they are not flattering. (His letter includes the exclamation “Yuck!” which I actually think is kind of funny.) His neighbors supposedly planned to parade past his house in leggings, but I was unable to find a follow-up story about this event. Even that man was not as annoying as this other man: a South Carolina high school principal who said that only students who were a size 2 or smaller should consider wearing leggings.

All this, of course, is leading to the big one: the Airplane Leggings Incident of 2017.

In March 2017, United Airlines barred two young girls from getting onto an airplane because they were wearing leggings — supposedly in violation of a dress code that the airline wrote specifically for its employees and their children, applicable whenever they’re flying for free under company benefits. This was a whole ordeal. There were dozens of thinkpieces. There were morning show segments. There were attempts by competing airlines to come off as chill and fun by contrast. According to NBC News, the internet “erupted.”

United did not back down, and spokesperson Jonathan Guerin told the New York Times, “We want people to be comfortable when they travel as long as it’s neat and in good taste for that environment.” Midriff shirts and flip-flops are also unacceptable, he said. Activist Shannon Watts live-tweeted United’s treatment of the two girls, which she happened to witness, and pointed out to no avail that the adult man traveling with them was wearing shorts that hit two or three inches above his knee, “and there was no issue with that.”

In the past few years, teenagers have started to rebel successfully — including at the formerly anti-leggings high school in Evanston — against unfair dress codes, arguing that they are not just sexist but unevenly enforced. In 2018, Monique Morris, author of Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, told Vox, “Many dress codes provide the opportunity for adults to police the bodies of Black girls,” adding that administrators lean on racist stereotypes about black girls being more sexual and less feminine than girls of other races. A Georgetown Law study conducted in 2017 also found that dress codes often included subjective language like “revealing” or “tight,” which could be interpreted in a way that over-punishes girls with curvier bodies.

Still, the debate has not died. Every time leggings or yoga pants come up, there appears a need to explain, yet again, that the existence of a woman’s body is not, in and of itself, offensive. This is one of the overlooked burdens of combating misogyny: It is extremely boring, and very repetitive.

By 2018, defending-leggings fatigue was fairly widespread. After a deeply idiotic opinion column about the crime of yoga pants was published in the New York Times that February, Jezebel published a response titled “Hell Yeah, We’re Fighting About Leggings Again,” which opened with, “At least once a year, the Internet erupts into a wild argument about whether or not it’s okay for women to wear leggings. Heads roll, teeth gnash, and Twitter runs blue with mentions.” The NYT op-ed — seemingly written by reporter Flora Zhang under the pseudonym Honor Jones — was titled “Why Yoga Pants Are Bad for Women,” and the Jezebel piece suggested it be retitled “Why Yoga Pants Are Bad For Honor Jones But This Article Is Good For Traffic.”

It’s a conversation we’ve had, at this point, far too many times. And rarely with a wink of acknowledgment that leggings ... aren’t even sexy.

In a recent history of athleisure, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson spoke to University of Nevada fashion historian Deirdre Clemente, who told him that leggings as pants are not just about the rise of synthetic fibers or the trend of performative wellness culture, but a century-long journey toward a culture of casual: “One hundred years ago, you would have day clothes for the street, dinner clothes for the restaurant, theater clothes, and so many genres of dress. Those barriers have come down. Athleisure is the ultimate breaking down of barriers.”

Where you stand on leggings may not have anything to do with how you feel about whether women ought to constantly protect men from visual stimulation or whether you personally think they are flattering on others. It may have more to do with how obsessed you are with general propriety.

For the record: I do think wearing leggings to church is slightly rude, just as I thought it was slightly rude when I wore leggings to the Guggenheim last month, and when I met the CEO of the company I work for while wearing a pair of slippers. However, it is much more rude, in almost any situation, to have an extreme emotional reaction to the manner in which someone chooses to cover their butt, and particularly to then express it. This is what inconsequential private thoughts should be: respectfully shrouded. Please, have a modicum of modesty.

Correction: A previously version of this article included a typo that led to misquoting Emily Dunnagan.

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