The Little-Known History of Leggings


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As any true fashion girl like yourself understands, knowing the origin of your favorite trends makes wearing them all the more gratifying. And there's arguably no bigger trend right now than leggings. We're all well aware of the fashion cycle—everything comes back again. (Just take a look at the recent revivals of '70s, '90s, 2000s, and now '80s trends.) But when it comes to leggings, it turns out they've been "coming back" for centuries. While researching the history of leggings, we were surprised to discover that the origin of the trend dates way back to the 14th century, and men were actually the first to wear them. But since the mid-20th century, leggings have been a closet staple for It girls and others who love them.

Given their lengthy tenure, we decided to take an in-depth look into the storied history of the legging craze, which was largely dictated by celebrities then just as it is today. (We're looking at you, Gigi.) 

Keep scrolling to get all the fascinating facts about the seven-centuries-long history of leggings and shop pairs inspired by each time period.

14th Century

Interestingly enough, the first known appearances of leggings were on men in 14th-century Scotland. Initially, the leggings they wore were two separate, hip-high, boot-like apparatuses made of either leather or chainmail, intended for both casual and military garb. They eventually evolved into thick garments, like tights, that men wore under their cotehardies during Renaissance times.

Leggings remained a predominantly male trend up until the 19th century when women began wearing iterations of their own.


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The modern-day evolution of leggings really began in the 1950s. One of the original fashion girls, Audrey Hepburn, is as much associated the rise of capri pants as she was with her iconic cat-eye sunglasses. Hepburn donned the slim, waist-defining cropped black pants for 1954's Sabrina, and many other women followed suit throughout the decade. While they weren't quite the stretchy pants that come to mind today, they were a distinct departure from the wide-leg styles that were popular in the 1940s.


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Who: Audrey Hepburn, 1954


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Who: Audrey Hepburn, 1955

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Following the invention of Lycra (aka spandex) by chemist Joseph Shivers in 1958 and the first Lycra leggings made in 1959, the fashion industry embraced the slim, stretchy pants in the '60s, with designers like Mary Quant and Emilio Pucci even pairing them with the decade's mod shift dresses.


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Who: Debbie Reynolds, 1965


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What: A model for fashion designer Mattli's F/W 64 collection

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Leggings became a full-blown trend in the 1970s. Thanks to some of the decade's biggest celebrities like Debbie Harry, Olivia Newton-John (and her iconic final costume in Grease), and the stars of the popular Charlie's Angels TV series, leggings took on a very Studio 54 vibe, which was quite different from the styles of the previous two decades. This iteration resembled shiny, high-waisted (often colorful) disco pants.


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Who: Debbie Harry, 1978


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Who: Jane Birkin in Vogue, 1971


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Who: Olivia Newton-John, 1978

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The transformation of the legging craze of the 1970s carried over into the 1980s when Madonna adopted them as one of her wardrobe staples, frequently wearing them on stage and infamously featuring them in her Like a Virgin video. The aerobics craze of the 1980s also fueled the fire—Jane Fonda made a leotard worn over leggings her signature look. During the '80s, the capri length became popular, and leggings were often colorful and patterned in keeping with the bold look of the decade.


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Who: Madonna, 1985


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What: Jean-Paul Gaultier runway, S/S 88

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The legging trend started to cool down a bit in the '90s. There was that iconic Cindy Crawford Life magazine shot (below), and jersey-knit versions popped up on Saved by the Bell from time to time, but baggier pants had become a trend for the decade. The now-polarizing stirrup leggings (which made an inevitable return in 2016) were perhaps the biggest takeaway from the decade.


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Who: Cindy Crawford, 1990


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What: Vogue, 1990

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After fading from relevance for a few years at the turn of the 21st century, leggings were back with a vengeance, as the decade's biggest It girls started wearing capri versions of the trend again, often under dresses and skirts. Nicole Richie, the Olsen twins, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan were all on board. Toward the end of the decade, full-length liquid leggings replaced pants for the most part.


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Who: Ashley Olsen, 2007


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Who: Lindsay Lohan, 2006


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Who: Rihanna, 2008

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Present Day

Circa 2015, celebrities like Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Hailey Baldwin, and Bella Hadid reintroduced leggings into our wardrobes. Like it or not, these athleisure-loving It girls have made them acceptable to wear as pants. Currently, the most popular iterations of the trend are high-waisted, streetwear-inspired styles and leather leggings, both of which enforce that it's once again acceptable to wear leggings outside the gym. As long as the fashion world continues to embrace comfort, we don't see the centuries-old trend fading anytime soon.


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Who: Gigi Hadid, 2016


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Who: Kendall Jenner, 2016


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Who: Bella Hadid, 2016

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This story was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated.

Up next, the 8 coolest under-$100 tops to wear with your favorite leggings.

Allyson Payer
Senior Editor

Allyson is a senior editor for Who What Wear. She joined the company in 2014 as co-founder Katherine Power's executive assistant and over the years has written hundreds of stories for Who What Wear. Prior to her career in fashion, Allyson worked in the entertainment industry at companies such as Sony Pictures Television. Allyson is now based in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is originally from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She holds a BFA in theater. Her path to fashion may not have been linear, but based on the number of fashion magazines she collected as a child and young adult, it was meant to be.