Maybe it’s because I grew up in the 80s, when dancewear was all the rage and everyone wanted to be Jennifer Beals or Olivia-Newton John or just about anyone on Fame. Or maybe it’s because I remember how the triumph of Jennifer Lopez’s fly girl style over Kate Moss’s heroin chic in the mid-90s left me giddily anticipating the day I could rock spandex to a beat down the boulevard with the confidence of a grown woman. It’s probably for both of these reasons, among others I thought obvious, that I have been overjoyed to see leggings re-emerge in fashion over the last five years.
As with anything trendy there has been a backlash against leggings that will inevitably shape the counter-culture aesthetic that will replace them. But while I usually take such things in stride, the tone of this particular backlash strikes me as uncommonly haughty and priggish. “Leggings,” the snitty admonishment goes, “are NOT pants!” Well no kidding, they’re leggings.
What I fail to understand is what great consternation it causes to the nation for women to wear leggings in lieu of pants. While I’d like to give naysayers the benefit of the doubt and not simply imagine them as a coterie of Victorian crones, I can think of no notable stylistic distinction between pants and leggings other than that the latter allows a more defined glimpse of the legs and buttocks. And the warnings against such indecencies are as wearisome as they are worn in this modern age.
The exaggerated aversion to body-conscious legwear also hints at a sort of aesthetic ethnocentrism, which has the effect (if not the intention) of frowning upon the celebration of more curvaceous figures in many minority cultures. As a woman of color it’s hard for me not to read “Leggings aren’t pants!” as “Oh my God, Becky, look at her butt!“
To be fair it is important to distinguish between leggings and tights, which are properly meant to be worn as undergarments. Luckily, the distinction isn’t hard to understand. Can you see your skin or underwear through the garment? They’re tights. Can you feel a breeze on your ladyparts? Again, tights (although if you enjoy this sensation it is perfectly acceptable to wear them under a breezy skirt). But if the garment is opaque and thick enough to keep your legs warm from the elements then they more or less meet the basic elements of being “clothes”. And as a matter of style, there are any number of reasons to be inclined to wearing such clothes. Chief among them:
Leggings are comfortable
If I’m being completely honest the reason I love leggings is because they feel more or less like pajamas. They’re typically made of soft, breathable material. They move with the body and don’t restrict motion. They stretch to accommodate large meals and ample curves. Unlike skinny jeans they don’t require calisthenics to don or remove and once they’re on you rarely have to fuss or tug at them. The benefits of this go beyond mere convenience: comfort is essential to style. No matter how expensive or trendy an article of clothing, the look is ruined if it makes the wearer appear fidgety or pained. Style is about confidence and ease and there is nothing less easy than looking confident while walking around with stiff, heavy fabric glued to your crotch.
Leggings are flattering
While it’s true that not every style of garment flatters every figure, leggings are extraordinarily egalitarian. That’s because the silhouette ““ another essential element of style ““ conforms to the silhouette of the leg. The human body itself is perhaps the penultimate object of art and beauty in human society, one that rarely needs as much modification as we subject it to. And as far as body image goes, the legs are one feature that most women are relatively satisfied with. To the extent this isn’t true, leggings are there to help you out. Lycra, especially when blended with thick-gauged cottons and wools, is an incredibly forgiving fabric that subtly slims and shapes the body. Think of it this way, what better way to camouflage lumpy thighs than wrapping them in compression bandages?
Leggings are versatile
Because leggings approximate the shape of legs they tend to go with everything. While personal taste may vary regarding how much of the leg to show, it would be difficult to find a top that “doesn’t match” your legs. In fact, to believe such a thing is to embrace the false notion that having style means matching your body to a particular fashion, rather than choosing fashions that match your body. The resurgence of leggings in popular fashion also means that designers and retailers have redoubled their efforts to make leggings in a variety of colors and fabrics that can be dressed up or down, paired as easily with a festive top and a tuxedo jacket as a loose cotton tee and a hoodie. They have the added bonus of being thin enough to layer under shorts and skirts that would usually sit somewhere in a lonely closet during the winter months, adding extra utility to your wardrobe.
Leggings are the American Way
Not to overstate the issue, but the American landscape has been forged by the vigor of peasant laborers: Irish, Polish, German, African, among the many. The stout stems of big-legged women are in a poetic sense the pillars of the American character, one that is renowned for its boldness and athleticism. Although one’s sense of personal style or modesty may not reflect these broader attributes, it is nevertheless important that we celebrate them. In doing so we celebrate our strength, our diversity and our hard-won right as women in a free society to walk around flaunting our asse(t)s in public without being told to cover up.
Of course, in America we also have a right to voice our dissent. So go ahead and tell me that leggings are an abomination and that somehow, millions of years since human evolution has rendered us almost uniformly bipedal, that legs have gone out of fashion. Go ahead and insist on hiding yours, just don’t insist that anyone else hide theirs. If peasant skirts and harem pants are your thing that’s cool. You can wear shapeless rags like bohos”¦I’ll keep my women like Flo Jo.