Leggings have a far more interesting history than one would expect. Most of us think of leggings as a staple fashion trend that popped up out of nowhere in the ’80s.

Surprisingly, leggings date back to the 14th century and have weaved their way through various fashion trends and controversial clothing debates.

Of course, they’ve changed drastically over the years, but one thing holds true from decade to decade.

Leggings are generally tight-fitting and allow for unmatched comfort and mobility. I would argue that their only contenders are a good pair of comfy sweatpants.

1950s: The debut of modern leggings

[Image description: Drawing of women wearing shirts, leggings and pumps, 1955, featured in Butterick Pattern Book.] via Wikimedia Commons
[Image description: Drawing of women wearing shirts, leggings and pumps, 1955, featured in Butterick Pattern Book.] via Wikimedia Commons

Leggings as we know them today, first came onto the scene in the 1950s.

Famous actresses in the 50s and 60s started wearing leggings as part of their everyday outfits. Italian actress, Sophia Loren, was photographed dancing in an elegant pair of black leggings in 1955.

Soon after, actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Ann-Margaret wore similar outfits. At the time, leggings weren’t made of stretchy spandex or cotton.
In fact, most people would consider 50s leggings really tight pants by today’s standards.

1960s: The invention of spandex and the start of a leggings revolution

[Image description: Two women pose for a fashion photoshoot, 1963.] via Wikimedia Commons
[Image description: Two women pose for a fashion photoshoot, 1963.] via Wikimedia Commons
In 1958, a renowned chemist by the name of Joseph Shivers invented lycra, otherwise known as spandex. This allowed leggings to evolve into the slim-fit stretchy pants that we know and love.

From this point onwards, fashion designers started to explore the possibilities of wearing leggings with pants or pairing them with dresses and skirts.

1970s: Leggings take over the fashion industry

[Image Description: Sandy Olsson from Grease (1978) wearing a black body suit and jacket with a cigarette in her mouth.] via Paramount Pictures
[Image Description: Sandy Olsson from Grease (1978) wearing a black bodysuit and jacket with a cigarette in her mouth.] via Paramount Pictures
Olivia Newton-John wore a smoldering tight black outfit for her role as Sandy Olssen in the film Grease (1978), and nobody could deny the impact of leggings since then.

Shiny, high-waisted pants became the norm as plenty of young women tried to replicate this iconic look.

1980s: Madonna and Jane Fonda make it impossible to forget about leggings

Madonna wearing a black dress and bright blue leggings, 1984] via 'Like a Virgin' official music video
Madonna wearing a black dress and bright blue leggings, 1984] via ‘Like a Virgin’ official music video

Almost every Madonna outfit in the 80s includes a pair of cool and colorful leggings.

Given that Madonna is one of the most influential pop stars in history, it’s no surprise that leggings became even more popular in the 1980s.

The Madonna craze was also coupled with the technicolor outfits and the aerobics fad that took the 80s by storm. Jane Fonda in tight leggings, a bodysuit, and leg warmers also became the symbol of 80s aesthetics.

1990s: Leggings continue to pop off

Tiffani Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski from 'Saved by the Bell' stretching] via Alice S. Hall, NBCU Photo Bank
[Image description: Tiffani Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski from ‘Saved by the Bell’ stretching] via Alice S. Hall, NBCU Photo Bank
80s and 90s leggings are pretty much the same energy.

The key difference is that 90s leggings are a little less shiny. Cotton leggings became more common and we should be eternally grateful for the arrival of these more breathable leggings.

Actress Tiffani Thiessen, better known as Kelly Kapowski from Saved by the Bell (1989 – 1993), went on to define a generation in various outfits paired with cotton leggings.

2000s: The controversy begins

[Image description: Miley Cyrus walking in a parking lot] via Instagram
[Image description: Miley Cyrus walking in a parking lot] via Instagram
In the early 2000s, leggings suddenly lost their novelty and nobody can pinpoint exactly why.

It didn’t take long for the garment to lose its status as acceptable pants to wear in public. And if you did decide to wear leggings, it was usually under a dress or skirt.

The “leggings are not pants” movement gained momentum as the boomer generation decided they no longer liked the thought of women showing off their bodies in a tight pair of pants.

Nevertheless, the likes of Lindsay Lohan and the Olsen twins continued to wear leggings and paved the way for a major comeback.

2010s: Athleisure brings leggings back from the dead

A woman wearing an olive green sports bra and leggings with black trainers.] via Unsplash
[A woman wearing an olive green sports bra and leggings with black trainers.] via Unsplash

Athleisure is clothing that is made for athletic activities and everyday outfits.

It didn’t take long for leggings to solidify their relevance when athleisure became more prominent in the 2010s. Once again, it was socially acceptable to wear a hoodie, leggings, and sneakers out in public.

However, even in the 2010s, a group of nay-sayers made a conscious effort to rebuke the tight-fitting pants.

In 2015, Christian blogger Veronica Partridge went on Good Morning America to speak about how she removed “lustful” leggings from her closet as part of a change in her sense of style. But no amount of TV interviews could stop fashion retailers from re-stocking leggings like never before.

2020s: Life remains legging-clad, and the world is better for it

As an avid wearer of leggings, I can confirm that they’re one of the most versatile and comfortable pieces in my closet.

For this reason, I’m not ready to let go of my countless pairs of black leggings. They’re still a fashion staple in 2020 and I couldn’t be happier.

Above all else, leggings symbolize the moments that popular fashion went against the grain and created out-of-the-box outfits that defined each generation.

That’s reason enough for me.

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  • Luale Monze

    Luale Monze is a well-versed journalist, copywriter and social media strategist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Luale won't shy away from starting new projects, collaborating with fellow creators, and learning as she goes. With a BA in Journalism & Media Studies and a desire to tell meaningful stories, she is ready to take on the world.


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