The leggings-as-pants debate – where do you stand?

3 January 2018
By Fashion Quarterly

Phoebe Watt wades into the leggings-as-pants debate and asks why, if it’s so wrong, does it feel so right?

There are few items of clothing as contentious as the humble pair of leggings. Practical for exercise or lounging around the house, wear them outside of either situation and you can expect to be reprimanded by the fashion police — maybe even the real police.

Okay, airport security. Okay, an airline gate agent, as was the case in March when two young customers of United Airlines were turned away from their flight after being told their leggings were too casual. A fellow passenger live-tweeted the exchange. In response, a United representative cited the airline’s terms of carriage, specifically its right to refuse passengers “who are barefoot or not properly clothed”. It also clarified that the women were family members of United employees and travelling for free, so as quasi-representatives of the company, they were expected to uphold a stricter standard of dress.

Nevertheless, the internet was not impressed. Indeed, not since 2013, when a line of too-sheer Lululemon leggings had to be recalled and the company’s founder misguidedly stated that “some women’s bodies just don’t actually work” for the product, did leggings get us so up in arms.

Leggings should ‘work’ on every woman’s body, after all. Free of buttons and zippers and composed entirely of stretchy fabric, it’s their job to fit, and feel good. Whether feeling good is tantamount to looking good is the question that consumes many, its answer teetering dangerously into body-shaming territory.

We’re not about that life — you do you. But much like there’s an invisible threshold approximately 100 metres from the beach where your togs become undies, we wonder whether, beyond 100 metres of the gym, your leggings transform too.


It shouldn’t actually matter. No one was particularly scandalised when bralettes were having a moment, and what’s the difference? Well, not much, according to the increasing number of celebrities, models and It-girls who previously saved their leggings for workouts and long-haul flights (ironic much?) but lately have been pairing them with high-heeled ankle boots and $3000 bomber jackets that you know they didn’t sling on straight off the treadmill (we’re looking at you, Hailey Baldwin).

It’s worth mentioning that a couple of years ago, such ensembles would have been built around skinny jeans. If this signifies that women are taking a stand against restrictive, organ-crushing clothing and realising they can achieve the same silhouette without suffering, that’s something to be celebrated. But alas, female empowerment alone can’t reverse the stigma that’s been attached to this item of clothing for decades. Designers, on the other hand, can — and they are. From Balenciaga and Balmain to Givenchy and Giambattista Valli, high-end fashion houses aren’t just endorsing leggings, they’re showing us how to elevate the embattled garment from something to sit on the couch in, to something you could sit front row in.

The common theme? Texture. Whether matte, patent or embossed, the ultimate gateway legging is evidently made of leather, the robust fabric providing the requisite support and coverage to give the illusion of pants. Suede, sequins and metallics have all been making runway appearances too, as have 3D embellishments that serve the dual purpose of distracting onlookers from what’s happening (or not happening) higher up, and communicating that your leggings are a considered sartorial choice.


That’s not to say you can’t make magic in a pair of black footless tights; Audrey Hepburn certainly could. Just make sure yours are completely opaque, and for balance, consider the benefits of an oversized sweater, longline cardigan or large coat à la Oscar de la Renta. Alternatively, pair with a blazer to show you mean business.

If you remain unconvinced, perhaps leggings layered under a skirt or dress in an on-trend nod to the early 2000s is for you. Remember that full-length leggings are infinitely more flattering than those cropped below the knee, and that leggings provide an opportunity to look sophisticated, not slovenly, if the rest of your outfit is on point.

And one last word of advice: when the elastic’s done, so are you.

Words: Phoebe Watt
Photos: Getty Images and Supplied.


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