Two months after MPs ruled it should be illegal for women to be required to wear high heels in the workplace, we face a new tyranny on the female wardrobe: specifically, the legging (to use its fashion singular). On Sunday night a furore unfurled across social media as two teenage girls were barred from boarding a United Airlines flight, for their “form-fitting spandex pants”.
“[The air steward] is forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can’t board. Since when does @united police women’s clothing?” tweeted a shocked witness, Sharon Watts.
The airline quickly defended itself, explaining that the girls were guests of employees and thus subject to company dress code - to wit, regular passengers would not be prevented from wearing leisure attire. But it still begs the question: have the fashion throwbacks taken over the world again? And where on earth do we we stand on them now?
In fact, the hoisery/trouser hybrids were born in the 15th century (and originally worn by men) but leggings are enjoying the kind of omnipresence - at work, at leisure, even at night - that they haven’t since the Eighties.
“I fear I will never invite zippers and buttons back onto my crotch,” says legging fanatic and founder of the Man Repeller website, Leandra Cohen. Leggings were on the catwalks of Balenciaga, Celine and Maxmara; Chanel even plonked Moss Jr, Lottie, in a pair of cropped sequined leggings at their inaugural Metiers d’Arts show, at the end of last year.
Luxury e-tailer Net-A-Porter saw a 20 per cent rise in sales in the last year and has since increased its offering by 25 per cent. “Leggings are certainly more prominent than they used to be thanks to the rise in street and sportswear trends,” explains the site’s power designer womenswear buyer, Katie Rowland.
“We stock casual and basic leggings from the likes of Nike and Helmut Lang to more luxe versions from power designers, The Row and Gucci. Last week we saw a huge surge in sales with Gucci’s pearl embroidered striped jersey leggings selling out.” At £725, they were billed online as a ‘skinny pant’, however, perhaps proving that it’s all in the nomenclature. “Designers have played with different fabrications in leather, stretch-scuba, cotton and twill to ensure that their appearance is both sculpting and seamless, so they incredibly flattering to wear.”
Still, sceptical? Me too. But their slob-like former reputation is hardly applicable, now they’re made of moisture-wicking, technical fabrics and on a par, cost-wise, with the rest of your wardrobe.
The undoubted queens on the legging scene are Sweaty Betty and Lululemon - the latter’s current hit being the ‘Fast and Free’, which (alarmingly) have a “naked sensation for the wearer”. But having been embraced by yummy mummies and millennials alike, the legging market is not just booming but increasingly saturated. Fashion types love Lucas Hugh and Laain, while business title Forbes last week heralded new technical legging brand DYI, sold in 400 outlets across the States, as ‘the next Lululemon’.
It’s happening across the high street, too. M&S sold a whopping 250,000 pairs of leggings last year and 2017’s sales have been up almost another 50 per cent again - and perhaps even in an office near you, too. Journalist Edwina Ings-Chambers has been wearing her Nike Pro Fit leggings for work for last three years. “In all that time, I’ve only had one editor ever question them as legitimate work apparel. I’ve worn them for work dinners at The Wolseley, Claridges and Nobu. The only place I probably wouldn’t wear them is the Ritz."
“Leggings aren’t particularly a style statement,” she adds, but “something to put you in the energetic frame of mind. They are also super flattering - far more so than jeans. They hold you in, they’re lightweight and if you put a long-line shirt and tailored jacket with them, they look very chic.”
Ings-Chambers likes to wear hers with Dior embellished trainers, or Penelope Chilvers’ Chelsea boots. Her top tip? Size up. Leggings are tight by definition, but you want a pair that won’t dig into your stomach or pucker around the crotch in that unflattering modern affliction, known as ‘camel toe’.
It’s pretty tempting to seek easy, breezy comfort when faced with the crisp harshness of stiff denim. Zara’s SS17 campaign unveiled earlier this month features leggings under skirts, a style move that Net-a-Porter’s Rowland says “is extremely versatile” and a look I’ve tried a few times myself, in lieu of cropped black trousers. Opt for ribbed or jersey over cotton or spandex, as they look less obviously sporty.