'Comfort and style command equal importance': How leggings became the unofficial uniform of lockdown
Will leggings make it into office spaces once normal life resumes? Only time will tell, writes Sarah Young
For most fashion fans, spring signals a shift in the sartorial agenda that sees heavy knits and hiking boots relegated to the back of their wardrobes to make way for new season purchases that are better suited to the warming weather.
However, in recent weeks typical shopping habits have been thrown out the window as consumers have found themselves momentarily housebound. International travel restrictions, the cancellation of weddings and the inability to while away the days sat in sun-lit beer gardens have all made swimwear, floaty dresses and sunglasses somewhat redundant.
But while consumers might be holding back when it comes to spending on their summer wardrobes, there is one clothing category that is currently enjoying a surge. In a major turn of events, leggings have officially emerged as the uniform of choice for the sequestered.
According to global fashion search platform Lyst, searches for leggings have increased by 18 per cent since the beginning of April, with Nike, Adidas, Sweaty Betty and Beyond Yoga among some of the most popular brands, while Spanx leggings have become one of the most sought after products of the month.
Lyst’s 2020 Conscious Fashion Report also stated that interest in “sustainable activewear” is currently at an all-time high, with page views for Girlfriend Collective – which sells leggings made using recycled water bottles – up by 244 per cent year-on-year.
Elsewhere, Celia Cuthbert, head of buying at ASOS, told The Independent that the retailer’s own-brand 4505 leggings are “flying out”. “In the last four weeks we’ve sold over 55 per cent more leggings than we had done in the previous four weeks,” she said.
Lululemon, a leading technical athletic apparel retailer, has also seen a shift in demand for workout gear in recent weeks.
Speaking about the online section of the business, Calvin McDonald, CEO of Lululemon, told CNBC that the brand had experienced “very strong numbers” for 2019 and that the same momentum had continued into this year thanks to athleisure sales.“We have seen a shift, all the businesses categories are doing well but there’s definitely been a shift to comfortable clothing as well as at-home accessories from our yoga mats to our blocks and a variety of items that are helping support people to find new ways to sweat,” Mr McDonald explained.
While it is true that leggings are traditionally worn for exercising in, athleisure as everyday wear for women has become de rigueur. So, why is it that, now more than ever, leggings have transitioned into our everyday wardrobes?
“In times of uncertainty, people look for items or experiences that can bring a little joy or comfort, and fashion has often had a role to play in this,” says Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at trends intelligence business Stylus. “Categories including lounge, active and wellbeing wear generally are experiencing a real surge in popularity right now, offering comfort, but also increasingly style. This demand will only rise as consumers settle into working remotely and redress their work-life balance longer term potentially, opting for outfits that will see them through the day where the boundaries of different roles are increasingly blurred.”
Rebecca Lockwood, a fashion stylist, agrees, adding that it is the versatility of leggings which makes them the ideal garment for people to wear as they become accustomed to juggling everything from at-home workouts to Zoom meetings, for which dressing from the waist up has become the new normal.
“The right leggings can not only be figure flattering for all body shapes but also incredibly comfortable and practical. Throw on, easy wear and easy wash,” Lockwood says. “At present leggings and loungewear couldn’t be any more popular and are the perfect wardrobe staple. Wear to work from home, take your daily exercise and then relax. One outfit can serve all purposes.”
Sitting at the cross-section of trousers, tights and pyjamas, today leggings almost elude categorisation but that wasn’t always the way. In the fashion world, leggings have a vast and volatile history that has divided the masses for more time than we care to remember.
Just last year, Maryann White, 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.
In the letter, titled “The legging problem”, Ms White expressed her outrage at seeing college students wearing leggings on campus. The note included many problematic 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.”
In advocating that Notre Dame students lead the anti-leggings revolution, White asked, “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 organised a protest, which saw one thousand students celebrate “Leggings Day” by agreeing to wear leggings to their lessons.
The garment's bumpy journey from practical leg coverings worn by soldiers in the 14th Century to a bona fide fashion item first began in the 1950s when actor Audrey Hepburn sported a pair of skintight capri pants for her starring role in 1954’s Sabrina – a stark departure from the baggy styles worn the decade before. Following that, the first pair of Lycra leggings were made in 1959, just one year after the invention of spandex by chemist Joseph Shivers in 1958 and soon after, the wider fashion industry embraced the slim, stretchy style with designers such as Mary Quant and Emilio Pucci teaming them with Swinging Sixties shift dresses.
Fast forward to the 1970s and leggings were worn by rock stars like Debbie Harry, who paired hers with beer stained slogan tees, while the 1980s saw them become a staple in fitness circles following the rise of aerobics. After a brief hiatus in the 1990s which saw a return to baggy denim, leggings reappeared with vengeance in the Noughties, which saw MySpace stars obsess over American Apparel’s high-shine, high-waisted Disco Pants and the decade's biggest It girls, from Alexa Chung and Paris Hilton to Lindsay Lohan, ditch their beloved skinny jeans.
In more recent years, leggings have become a wardrobe basic among the sartorial elite, with the likes of Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Kate Moss wearing them everywhere, from their morning yoga class, to a business brunch, and even drinks.
Leggings have been shuffling back-and-forth on the fashion agenda for many years and their enduring popularity has seen almost every brand on the high street diversify into the “athleisure” category. From aspirational brands such as Lululemon and Sweaty Betty, to stalwarts like Topshop, Marks & Spencer and H&M, retailers have managed to successfully blur the lines between the sports hall and our everyday wardrobes.
And, as far as experts are concerned, they will continue to lead the way for the foreseeable future, whether we’re working from home or not.
“It’s a trend with staying power,” explains Gordon-Smith. “We’re already talking about categories such as loungewear and basics, like leggings, for our spring/summer 2022 fashion directions and how the pandemic could change the way people dress for work post-crisis, with the needs of our wardrobes becoming more pragmatic than ever before.
“In future, the everyday wardrobe will be one where comfort and style will command equal importance, with lounge and activewear setting the pace for the fashion landscape. Comfort will be heralded as the ultimate luxury, with consumers expecting a 360 experience from their purchases.
While you might not be shopping for your summer holiday, leggings feel like a safe bet right now. But what styles should you be investing in and is it possible to style them with anything other than a baggy T-shirt and dad trainers?
According to Emily Sanchez, a fashion stylist who has dressed the likes of Laura Linney and Claire Danes, looking put together while wearing leggings is down to two things: fit and colour. “I think the key to keeping leggings interesting is having fun with different colours, Everlane sell pairs that come in versatile terra-cotta and ink grey, while Sezane offer leggings with interesting details like dainty covered buttons on the waist for some visual interest,” she says, adding that brands such as Wolford and Spanx also sell versions which are great for both lounging and running errands.
“They’re perfect for quick, social distanced trips outside and you can add a marabou slipper or pom pom slide for fun footwear options.”
Lockwood agrees, adding that there is no need to stick to the traditional rules of athleisure when it comes to wearing leggings. “A look we currently see on many fashion bloggers is leggings worn with a boyfriend blazer, chunky gold jewellery and 1990’s square frame sunglasses. Bringing a new edge to sports luxe,” she explains, citing Arket and PE Nation as some of her favourite brands.
“Leggings are now seen as luxury street style rather than just for the gym and there are pairs to suit all ages and pockets. I love to personally wear leggings with an oversized coordinated sweatshirt. Super comfortable but effortlessly stylish.”
And what more could we want to feel right now? Our return to leggings is further proof that comfort comes first but whether or not they will make the leap from our lockdown wardrobes to office settings once normal life resumes remains to be seen.