It is Monday morning and time for her weekly video meeting, so Alice, a 35-year-old author and writer based in Paris, does what she always does before logging on: “I switch my pyjama top for a black turtleneck and slap on mascara to pretend I’ve been doing more than lying in bed watching Emily in Paris.”
Like most people whose jobs have moved almost exclusively online this year, Alice’s standards have not so much slipped as tumbled headlong into an abyss since France entered le confinement in March.
“At the start, I paid attention to details – earrings, makeup – to recreate what I looked like in real, outdoor life,” she says. “Today, I’ve slipped into an in-between zone of neither bedwear nor officewear.” Her current getup calls to mind a “giant teletubby”, she says, listing her uniform of big jumpers, velour sportswear and the bare minimum of makeup. “I’m a tracksuit lady … but I am so sick of comfortwear.”
Could leggings be the answer? Fashion is in crisis, but spandex is thriving. Sales are up more than 60%, according to the trend forecasting agency WGSN, while searches have doubled year on year, says Lyst, fashion’s answer to Google. More than statistics though, there was the defining image of 2020 politics: Kamala Harris, the first woman of colour to be elected vice-president in America, making “the call” to Joe Biden in a pair of Nike leggings.
Like many clothing stories this year, the shift is largely driven by circumstance – the coronavirus pandemic – rather than the catwalk. If tracksuits, in all their drawstring, slouchy glory, were the defining item of working from home, then leggings – statistically, anecdotally and hopefully – symbolise a bridge, however naive, between a pandemic existence mired in entropy and a return to something approaching normal life.
For many of us, this “normal” may involve a return to work, at least some of the time. The Inclusion Initiative, a new LSE research centre, calls this part-time return “hybrid working”. It is not a new term, but thanks to the staggered vaccine rollout, it may well become a common one. The future of workwear, then, is probably not tracksuits, but neither is it suits. Rather, it is something that straddles home and work, private and public. Pinterest even has a word for this hybrid-working wardrobe: “clofficewear” (closet/office). As Alice says, “from a distance, my leggings also resemble skinny jeans”.
The appeal of leggings is not exactly universal. “Haven’t our bodies been through enough?” says Molly, 29, a PhD student, when asked whether she would wear hers (“Sweaty Betty, navy, only used for online yoga”) to her part-time job as a legal clerk. For others, this is almost the point. Caroline, a designer from Northumberland, has been wearing a black Lululemon pair since June in part, she admits, because her ferocious pilates schedule has made her fitter than ever. If tracksuits are clothes designed not to be seen, then leggings are the opposite – designed for the external gaze, even if it is yours in your bathroom mirror. “I don’t need to get dressed at the moment, so wearing anything that isn’t a tracksuit feels like an achievement,” she says. If tracksuits have kept us cosy inside, at least leggings corralled us into taking our daily constitutional.
Gideon Haigh, the author of book The Momentous, Uneventful Day: A Requiem for the Office, thinks this erosion of suits and ties has been on the cards for some time; he says working from home simply “consolidated a code rather than creating a new one”. Just last year, Goldman Sachs introduced a casual dress code for its employees that made the cast of BBC’s Industry look as if they were in fancy dress.
He says: “The casualisation of workwear is a kind of coercive egalitarianism, concerned with obscuring distinctions of wealth and status, which make us feel uneasy as they grow greater and greater – just as modern CEOs have sacrificed the ostentatious trappings of the big corner office even as they rake in grotesquely outsized salaries.” This, says Haigh, “finds its apotheosis in Mark Zuckerberg’s belligerently rejectionist wardrobe” – referring to the Facebook founder’s infamous preference for slim-fitting tracksuits (surely legging-adjacent) over pinstripes. What was once seen as improper, even galling, is now simply common sense.
Leggings in the contemporary sense, as dictionary-defined in the 70s, first appeared in the 50s. The uniform of ballerinas and dancers, they were soon indiscernible from the sort of tight, black stretch pants worn by Debbie Reynolds, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren, twirling in piazzas and jazz clubs in the suddenly Technicolor parade of late 50s cinema. By the 80s, leggings were everywhere, as much rooted in leisurewear as their physical connection to an ideal physical form. From Olivia Newton-John in Grease and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect to the catwalks of Jean Paul Gaultier and Kenzo, they were about Madonna, sweat and bottoms.
By the 00s, yogawear had shifted Goopily from weekend activity to holistic enterprise, pushing leggings brands such as Lululemon and Sweaty Betty from performative wellness into an entire lifestyle. People wore them to the beach, on dates and even, in 2017, on planes, lighting the touch paper for a policing of sartorial standards in crowded places.
All of which leads us to 2020, where there are fewer crowded places, but plenty of leggings. Mindy Kaling wears them, as does Katie Hopkins. Simona Halep plays tennis in them, while Sophie, Countess of Wessex, jogs in hers. Cher even campaigned for Biden in a black pair. The Crown’s fictional Diana wears a pair to dance around Buckingham Palace, while the nameless heroine of My Year of Rest and Relaxation does bodega runs in hers. Leggings may hint at a life well-exercised, but they also hint at a life in lockdown.
According to Haigh, the trendsetter is not Cher, Harris or Zuckerburg, but Jackie Onassis. “When she joined Viking Press in 1975, apparently all her female co-workers dressed themselves to the nines in anticipation of the world’s most glamorous woman. She turned up in ensembles of blouses, slacks, jeans and sunglasses – it was, as one colleague put it, as though she had ‘dressed at Target’”. Ironic, too, says Haigh, given that John F Kennedy is often cited as the reason hats fell out of fashion.
Looking around me, leggings are indeed everywhere. Whether it is on the school run or in the queue at the post office, it has become impossible to differentiate between ladies that lunch and ladies on a lunch break, such is the extent to which we have leaned into a WFH Lycra-casualness. In perhaps the latest trend to migrate from football to pavement (most Premier League teams train in a pair of technical leggings), I have even seen men wearing them, usually under a pair of shorts. But not everyone has the luxury of wearing leggings to work – nor, say some sociologists, is that sensible. A study by Adam D Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University, coined the expression “enclothed cognition” to describe “the systematic influence that clothes have on a wearer’s psychological process”. That is to say, dress for the office, not Zoom.
Susanna Cordner, a fashion historian, thinks it is this line of thinking that could be responsible for leggings’ office rebranding: “Whether choreographed or subconscious, decisions about how you dress still create a defined distinction between yourself and others who, perhaps, follow more traditional codes”. Wear leggings and you seem more important, more capable. They also speak to the bumper-sticker wisdom of Mark Twain: “Find a job you enjoy doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Or to quote that other doyen of workplace wisdom, Kanye West, in Start It Up: “These ain’t even real clothes … I’m pyjama rich,” articulating what we perhaps always knew about the wealthy – that they do what they want, when they want and wear what they want while doing it.
“I can count on my hand the number of times I didn’t really get up and worked in pyjamas – so not many,” says Dan, a 37-year-old designer who has worked from home throughout the pandemic. Unlike those footballers, Dan prefers the kinder fit of “a pair of airline sleep pants” or his slim-fitting Slazenger jogging bottoms. For Dan, whose work takes him to six offices worldwide, the pandemic revealed “how much of a shit I give to looking smart when I usually am working for myself”. He is now wearing jeans, a T-shirt, a jumper and a pair of woollen socks.
Dan’s wardrobe is music to the ears of Haigh. “What is disturbing about the new zeal for WFH is how readily it may become living at work,” he says. “The home has aspects of sanctuary and trap; work has been a place to experiment with our persona in a playful and non-binding way, often through attire. The idea of discreet workwear was one way we preserved the distinction. Working in our pyjamas (or perhaps leggings) will not be a gain if we’re doing it for twice as long.”
“Furthermore,” he says, alluding to leggings, “without dressing up, there is no dressing down. How will we ever leave work behind?”