Leggings: Pants or not pants? A confusing investigation

Leggings are pants. We're pretty sure.

Leggings are pants. We're pretty sure. Getty Images/iStockphoto

Like every woman who once idolized Kelly Kapowski, I’ve gone through a real legging journey in my 30ish years living in the Midwest.

Stirrups, neons, florals, capris, long underwear, pajamas, lined, unlined, those Lululemon sheer yoga pants — I can confidently say I’ve worn almost all the leggings the leggings world has to offer. Recently I started getting daily Facebook invitations to join something called LulaRoe, which I’ve gathered is the Jamberry of leggings world. (Jamberry, for those not in the know, is the Mary Kay of the nail decal world.)

Who would’ve thought this basic, low-quality fashion item could have such a long and fruitful life?

Yesterday, two of my fellow legging-lovers were forced to cover up before they could board a United plane bound for MSP Airport. According to influential Twitter personality Shannon Watts, some comfort-hating United gate attendant told the girls spandex is not allowed.

Pro-leggings-as-pants celebs like Chrissy Teigen, Patricia Arquette and LeVar Burton (the “Reading Rainbow” guy!) took to social media to speak out against this injustice.

United rushed to issue clarifying statements, informing the public that the girls were flying as “pass travelers,” a fly-for-free benefit reserved for United employees and their dependents.

Had those leggings been on any regular Jane or Joe, who’d paid full fare, United assured its customers they’d be welcomed aboard.

Delta sensed an opportunity to slam the competition, and maybe even make customers forget about that time Delta lost their bags.

You, reader, are probably expecting a rage-spewing hot take directed at United Airlines for their humiliating treatment of these young, stretchy pants-loving women. Instead, let’s tug at the very seam of this issue. As a leggings expert (did you see all those synonyms I’ve worn?), I will try to answer the question, once and for all.

Are leggings pants? Or are they just long socks with a waist? Why do humans sweat, and wear pants, while dogs pant, but prefer to go bottomless?

What makes pants pants?

WTF even are pants?

According to Webster’s: “pants are an outer garment covering each leg separately and usually extending from the waist to the ankle — usually used in plural.”

Legging-related takeaway: Leggings cover each leg separately and usually extend from the waist to the ankle. It would seem that the people at Webster’s think leggings are pants.

But perhaps we need to explore our understanding from a historical perspective. Could it be that the human interpretation of pants has grown apart from its dictionary definition?

Where did pants come from?

Pants, called “trousers” in many English-speaking countries, are believed to have originated between the 13th and 10th century B.C. in western China. Those early styles were made of wool and likely invented to accommodate horseback riding. Thanks to nomadic pastoralism, pants, people, and livestock spread (very slowly) across Asia.

Legging-related takeaway: Leggings are not made of wool. But they can certainly be worn to ride horseback. We’ll give leggings half a point here. Then again, since leggings aren’t made of heavy material, like the original trouser, perhaps they’re not pants at all. Maybe they’re tights.

What are tights though?

Again, we consult Webster’s: “Tights are a skintight garment covering the body from the neck down or from the waist down; also, British: Panty Hose.”

To be thorough, we better define Panty Hose as well: “a one-piece undergarment for women that consists of hosiery made with a panty-style top — usually plural in construction.”

Leggings-related take-away:
Leggings do not cover the body from the neck down, and don’t cover the feet. They typically don’t have a “panty-style top.”

Personal takeaway:
I’m having trouble picturing a “panty-style top.”


  • Leggings are probably pants, because
  • Leggings are definitely not tights or panty hose.
  • Seriously, what’s a panty-style top?
  • Wool pants might be better than leggings for horseback riding.
  • I have not ridden a horse since 4th grade.
  • Wool pants are due for a comeback.
  • As with all modern emergencies, when the pants watchdogs come for you, make sure there’s an influential Twitter personality standing nearby.