The latest front in the war on leggings
Among gen Z, the controversial garment has fallen out of favour
A recent headline about leggings caught my eye and gnawed away at me. The source wasn’t wildly reputable — the Daily Mail, my guilty pleasure — but for such an innocuous subject, some surprisingly strong feelings emerged. The story was about how gen-Zers on TikTok are rejecting the stretchy, tight garment that tapers at the ankle as an “errand outfit.” The criticism is not that “leggings are not pants,” the resistance to casualization that met the emergence of athleisure. It’s that they prefer a flared silhouette, ideally worn with platform Uggs.
There is much to unpack here. First, it made me wonder, how long have leggings been around, anyway? Short answer: since the invention of Lycra in the 1960s. But the current flared legging trend can be traced to around this time last year, when mega influencers such as model Kendall Jenner, beauty mogul Hailey Bieber and author/ model Emily Ratajkowski, began wearing flared leggings out and about — with a wild range of garments from an overcoat and heels (Jenner) to a leather jacket and slippers (Bieber). Even Rihanna took up the flare flag.
The splayed-hem trend has had staying power in this elite crowd, even as microtrends like their tiny Matrix sunglasses come and go at warp speed. Some pundits have dubbed it yet another revival from the Y2K era, when Lululemon’s Groove yoga pants were king (see also Uggs, above, and the return of Juicy Couture, below).
Why the legging backlash? Well, see, they’re heavily associated with Millennials. To dip into the quagmire of intergenerational politics for a moment: Just as gen-Zers robbed their elders of their beloved skinny jeans, it seems they are coming for their leggings, too.
Now in their mid-20s, gen-Zers are beginning to flex their collective muscle as the cool kids on the block, via the time-honoured method of plucking trends from the vintage pile, and rejecting that which came just before.
I checked in with sisters Laura and Amanda Santino, the Millennial owners of three-year-old Permission activewear boutique on Ossington. Classic, straight, wide and split hem leggings are all represented in their offerings, from brands such as Beyond Yoga, Girlfriend Collective and Year of Ours.
“We have seen a shift toward a flare boot cut,” said Laura. “It’s a more casual look, easier to style up from workout to street. But they aren’t as practical to actually work out in.”
Amanda assured me that there is still plenty of space for tapered leggings. “They are classic for a reason,” she said. “It is such a functional piece in your wardrobe and it can’t be replaced.” For wear beyond the gym, they suggest styling them with high socks, cool sneakers and an oversized sweater or blazer, and say high black boots can take them into evening.
Their customers still prefer a high rise, but low rise is on the make, too. Recently, they started stocking another early-2000s smash hit: bold, baggy, logoed matching sweat sets by Juicy Couture. “That look is just beginning,” said Laura.
“It’s like ballet flats; you are hesitant going back at first.” But Juicy “tugs at the heartstrings of Millennial nostalgia. I think we are going to see a lot more of it.” A luxury brand back then (think Paris Hilton), its prices have stayed fairly stable, with items starting in the $100 range.
The Santino sisters see leggings as investment pieces and part of a capsule wardrobe, a phrase with increasing clout, meaning fewer clothes, more carefully chosen. This thoughtful approach extends to their focus on an inclusive activewear shopping experience, meaning a wide range of sizes, supportive change room options and staff training to make sure all bodies feel positive in workout gear. Because leggings can make us feel vulnerable.
And what about the next, next generation? The Gen Alphas we canvassed were at odds with their elders; classic leggings were at the top of their wish lists.
Perhaps that’s because they are not so influenced by the Kendall Jenners of the world. Instead, 15year-old Lily from Toronto cited Kaeli Mae, an influencer with over 14 million followers on TikTok who does “comfy but still stylish” outfit videos and leans into a black and white palette.
“Leggings can be tricky if you are not feeling confident about your body,” said Lily. She turns to another influencer, Spencer Barbosa (9.2 million) for “a reminder that everyone is different and there is no ‘right’ way to look.”
Lily sources leggings from Lululemon as well as more accessible options from Old Navy and Costco, and styles them with active tanks under big hoodies, always with socks pulled overtop the leggings.
Chelsea, 15, goes to Aritzia and Hollister for her leggings. She added that her leggings are mainly for sports and dance class; otherwise, jeans are the leisure wear go-to for teens today.
If the trend trickle-down from designer collections is still a valid trend pathway, this week’s Balenciaga pre-fall 2024 show will ensure that neither classic leggings nor baggy sweats go anywhere fast. Held in L.A. with the Hollywood sign in the background, the brand rebounding from the reputational doghouse drew high-wattage support from guests including new ambassador Nicole Kidman, Kim Kardashian, Cardi B and Natasha Lyonne. The collection riffed on early-2000s Hollywood celebrity culture, with remixed Juicy-esque sets and Ugg-ish boots, accessorized with large coffee cups, but also showed plenty of takes on the streamlined legging-into-pointed-sock-boot look the brand has become known for.
Whichever silhouette you favour, I would be remiss not to mention the microplastic elephant in the room. Activewear is a main offender for releasing minuscule particles of plastic into the water supply when washed (investing in a special wash bag, such as the Guppyfriend, that traps them can help). “Sustainability in activewear isn’t the trend, it’s the norm,” said the Santino sisters. “We have definitely seen a more conscious consumer. They care about where their leggings are made, the fabrications and the impact on the environment. Sustainably made fabrics that utilize plastic water bottles have piqued a lot of interest.”
To conclude: Youngsters may cast aspersions at their elders on TikTok, and celebs may fetch their fancy smoothies in various iterations of the humble legging, but this garment isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In the real world, the athleisure revolution continues apace.
Gen-Zers are beginning to flex their collective muscle as the cool kids on the block, via the timehonoured method of plucking trends from the vintage pile and rejecting that which came just before
Toronto Star Newspapers Limited