On Sunday morning, two teenage girls were barred from boarding a United Airlines flight because they were wearing leggings, sparking a social media firestorm. But it was just the latest flashpoint in a much larger American war over leggings. These days, you can’t swing a Lululemon Wunder Under Pant III without hitting a Fox News panel on whether leggings are actually pants.
The absurdity of the United Airlines incident aside (sure they were non-paying passengers, but what does “casual attire” that’s “in good taste” even mean for a 13-year-old?), at its core, the Great Yoga Pants Debate boils down to a disagreement over how much time and effort women ought to be putting into their outfits. As a Washington Post contributor put it in a recent story, by wearing athleisure outside the gym “we are saying to the people around us that our own comfort is our first priority.”
However, leggings’ aggressively comfort-forward aesthetic is a feature, not a bug. They are the perfect attire for the plane, the gym, and yes, even the office. Yoga pants are, hands down, the best thing to come out of American fashion since blue jeans—and in fact, history may prove them to be the superior and more enduring staple.
Male high performers in the business world already get it. Witness Steve Jobs’ clunky New Balance 991s, or Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie, or Elon Musk’s tight black muscle tee. They know a secret women in the office are only just learning—you can code more, write for longer, and think better if your heels aren’t killing you and your wool waistband isn’t digging into your side. It’s telling that the Silicon Valley fashion mantra has become comfort above all else.
Throughout history, fashion fads have tended to exacerbate women’s discomfort rather than alleviate it. There’s the stiletto of course, but there’s also this season’s absurd off-the-shoulder ruffled shirt, or the constricting peep-shoulder trend, or the scourge of the deeply impractical maxi dress. And, of course, the truly insane lingerie bodysuit.
Athleisure, by contrast, is a gift to women from the fashion gods. When it became socially acceptable to leave the house in leggings and tennis shoes, angels cried tears of joy. Yoga pants enable free range of motion—they allow a city dweller to literally run to catch a subway, play with a baby, or do downward dog, I guess. They liberate the wearer from the tyranny of ironing—not to mention the financial black hole that is dry cleaning. This is a significant departure from other, more precious women’s fashion trends that require time-consuming maintenance that studies have shown tends to be more expensive for them than it is for men.
What’s more: yoga pants are egalitarian. You can shell out $195 on a highly work-appropriate pair. There’s the always-modest Ann Taylor’s “seamed ponte leggings” for $40. Or you could spend just $22 to feel (and possibly look) like you are not wearing pants at all.
And before you say, “only insufferable white millennials with overpriced yoga memberships will look good in them,” remember that having a body you might want to show off is not classed. The gym-bound look “combines modalities of rich and poor around the concept of idleness,” points out writer Christopher Glazek. That is to say, the clinging clothes now gracing sculpted celebrity forms owe their aesthetic as much to the prison yard as to green juice-clutching L.A. gym scenes.
But yoga pants are also fine for people who are not fitness-obsessed, as much as the internet might sneer. In the same way that pearls were clutched when the miniskirt debuted, or women started showing their ankles (but what if we don’t want to see them!), it’s silly to assume that someone needs to have chiseled thighs to wear form-fitting clothing. A perk of women’s liberation has been the ability for all age groups to dress with greater freedom, without fear of either inciting uncontrollable lust, or of offending people who are not sexually attracted to their contours.
Whether or not U.S. norms have caught up, it seems women aren’t waiting for validation. The growth of active wear has been so rapid, and its takeover so complete, that analysts now worry that the $44 billion market is finally reaching over-saturation—warning that a course correction may be looming. But while athleisure companies may hit stumbling blocks (like Lululemon’s Ayn Rand-enthusiast founder, or Fabletic’s entire business model), in terms of sheer billions of dollars sold, in the retail world yoga pants are still king. Long may they reign.
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