Once And For All: Are Leggings Pants? - WSJ

Illustration: Steve Scott/The Wall Street Journal

Illustration: Steve Scott/The Wall Street Journal

Why We Hate Them

Few sartorial sins violate good taste as much as wearing leggings outside the gym (though strolling about in a visible thong comes close). Even if you’ve wriggled into leggings to flex and grunt, proceed with caution. Many a fitness enthusiast doesn’t realize that these second-skin bottoms can be see-through from behind when stretched. Having been subjected to this vision at my Pilates class, I can attest to its unpleasantness.

Still, opting for leggings as ready-to-wear is a far worse offense. “But they’re so comfortable!” their defenders cry. So is my terry cloth bathrobe, but I’m not going to throw that on for a breakfast meeting. The “comfort” argument has also been used to justify sweatpants—another garment best suited for workouts or aimless Saturday mornings alone—since the ’90s when Jerry Seinfeld’s character on “Seinfeld” said of sweats: “You’re telling the world, ‘I give up. I can’t compete in normal society. I’m miserable, so I might as well be comfortable.’” Leggings, sweatpants’ slimmer cousin, denote a similar lack of effort and imagination.

Known for her feminine dresses and floral prints, New York-based designer Tanya Taylor said she’d never feature leggings in her collections: “They don’t feel like our customer,” she said. Leggings, she argued, should be restricted to times when comfort is your only priority. “I don’t think they’re something that you should wear to work.” 

Anne Huntington, the 34-year-old vice president of business development at Huntington Learning Center and founder of creative agency AMH Industries, concurred. Because she travels constantly for work, Ms. Huntington said, “Even if I’m taking a phone or video call, I’m dressed as I would be in a face-to-face meeting. It puts me in a professional mind-set.”

She added that even a packed schedule doesn’t validate the laziness of leggings. “If you’re busy, you have to be ready for any situation.” Including a more dressed-up affair that bears no resemblance to an aerobics class.

Clothing affects how others perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves. Multiple studies have linked dressing up with positive performance at work. An outfit has the power to inject us with confidence or lull us into a malaise-infused sense of security. We can do better than leggings. We can get dressed. 

—Katharine K. Zarrella

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Why We Love Them

According to Norma Kamali, the 73-year-old fashion designer who espouses a fitness-as-life philosophy, we’re getting the leggings debate all wrong. We should be debating the fit of leggings, not issuing blanket statements about their appropriateness. When worn too tight, they’re shocking; when worn just right, they’re sleek. “I believe that leggings [can be] even more provocative than bikinis or mini skirts,” cautioned Ms. Kamali, “because they are worn on the street and they are closer to looking like you have second skin than any other piece of clothing.”

Which brings me to my defense of leggings as pants: How you style them matters. I’m in the camp that considers them a wardrobe staple, suitable for working out, the office and even more formal events. The same discreet, dark base layer can go under a blousy white shirt for work, a sweatshirt for the airplane or a crisp jacket for a cocktail party.

“Leggings are versatile. They can be dressed up and down, worn with heels, flats or sneakers,” confirmed Christine Centenera, whose uniform-inspired line Wardrobe.NYC is composed of just eight pieces with one pant option being a legging. “We all live active, busy lives,” the very busy Ms. Centenera said of her formula’s ease. 

Plus, wearing leggings as pants—stylish pants!—has a fashionable legacy. Since Lycra’s invention in 1958, body-skimming pants have featured in iconic looks: Emilio Pucci did patterned ones in the ’60s; and in the ’80s designers like Ms. Kamali and Azzedine Alaïa made soignée versions for women who aspired to look like Madonna.

Today, brands like Live the Process offer athletic leggings with fashionable higher waists, while Versace and Céline have made intricately cut designer pairs. Céline’s stretch-heavy fall 2016 show was the watershed moment in my own leggings story, inspiring me to buy a slim-but-not-too-skinny pair from that collection: matte black with a zip up the front that opens nicely over flats or boots.

Leandra Medine Cohen, founder of fashion site Man Repeller, was in her own sporty-yet-luxe Céline leggings when we spoke. “I least frequently wear them to work out,” she said, “which is the great irony in my relationship with them.” For those who say leggings should be confined to the gym, consider this: Ms. Medine recently wore hers to a wedding with a tuxedo jacket, crystal-encrusted belt and strand of pearls. Which is as far from the yoga studio as one can get. 

—Rebecca Malinsky

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