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Leggings refer to several types of leg coverings. Modern usage from the 1960s has come to refer to elastic close-fitting garments worn over the legs typically by women, such as leg warmers or tights. Usage from the 18th century refers to men's wear, usually made of cloth or leather that is wrapped around the leg down to the ankle. In the 19th century, leggings usually referred to infants' leg clothing that were matched with a jacket, as well as leg-wrappings made of leather or wool and worn by soldiers and trappers. Leggings prominently returned to women's fashion in the 1960s, drawing from the form-fitting clothing of dancers. With the widespread adoption of the synthetic fibre Lycra and the rise in popularity of aerobics, leggings came to further prominence in the 1970s and '80s, and eventually made their way into streetwear. Leggings are a part of the late 2010s athleisure fashion trend of wearing activewear outside sporting activities and in casual settings, which became a contentious social norm in the United States.

Leggings in various forms and under various names have been worn for warmth and protection by both men and women throughout the centuries. The separate hose worn by men in Europe from the 13th to 16th centuries (the Renaissance period) were a form of leggings, as are the trews of the Scottish Highlands. Separate leggings of buckskin leather were worn by some Native Americans. These were adopted by some Long Hunters, French fur trappers, and later by mountain men. They are the leatherstockings of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. The Buckskins were mostly a dull grey brain-tan, not the bright, glossy vegetable tanned leather commonly used today.

Cowboys wore leggings of buckskin to protect from chapping caused by riding, wear and tear to their pants, and bites from animals, such as snakes or insects in the scrub, such as ticks.

In many places, especially in colder countries such as Russia and Korea, men and women continued to wear wool leggings into modern times, often as an additional outer layer for warmth.

The linen pantalettes worn by girls and women under crinolines in the mid-19th century were also a form of leggings, and were originally two separate garments. Leggings became a part of fashion in the 1960s, as trousers similar to capri pants but tighter.

Leggings in the form of skin-tight trousers, a tighter version of the capris ending at mid-calf or near ankle length, made their way into women's fashion in the 1960s, and were worn with a large belt or waistband and slip-on high heels or ballet flat–styled shoes.[citation needed]

Leggings made from a nylon-lycra blend (usually 90% nylon, 10% lycra) have long been worn during exercise. Nylon lycra leggings are often referred to as bicycle or running tights, and are shinier in appearance than those made from cotton. Some have racing stripes or reflective patterns to further distinguish them as athletic wear and provide extra safety. However, since the 1980s exercise-style leggings have also been worn for fashion and as street wear.

Leggings made from cotton-lycra, or a cotton-polyester-lycra combination, are more typically worn for fashion, but are also worn as exercise wear. Cotton-lycra leggings are available in many colors, prints and designs; but black, navy and various shades of gray remain the most commonly worn.

Wearing black leggings under long, often diaphanous, skirts was part of a general fashion trend of wearing gym or dance clothes as street wear that evolved along with the fitness craze and under the influence of the movie Flashdance and the long-running Broadway show A Chorus Line. A more recent trend has been the wearing of black leggings with miniskirts.

By the early-1990s, leggings were actually outselling jeans in many parts of the United States.[citation needed] It was very common to see leggings worn with long oversized tee-shirts, oversized sweatshirts or oversized sweaters, slouch socks and Keds by girls from toddler to over college age. Fashion turned against leggings for a short time in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2005, leggings made a "comeback" into fashion, particularly in indie culture, with capri-length leggings being worn with mini skirts and dresses. Consequently, leggings are also now popular to wear with oversized, long sweaters, denim mini skirts, plaid skirts, short dresses and short shorts. Leggings are also worn under athletic shorts i.e. Nike Tempo shorts especially in colder weather. Leggings also come in capri length and bike short length. The bike short length is popular under sports uniform shorts and under skirts and dresses as a fashionable item and to keep from showing too much.

There has been societal debate about whether leggings are clothing on their own, which can be worn without covering, or are an accessory only to be worn with other items covering them, such as skirts, dresses or shorts. In a 2016 poll of its readers Glamour magazine said that 61% of its readers thought that leggings should only be worn as an accessory, whereas an article that same year from Good Housekeeping concluded that "...Leggings do, in fact, count as pants—provided they are opaque enough that they don't show your underwear."

There have been a number of instances of people wearing leggings as pants who have been restricted or criticized for their actions. In 2013, schools in Sonoma County, California banned students from wearing them as outerwear, as did a Massachusetts school in 2015. Schools in Oklahoma, Illinois, and North Carolina have enforced or suggested similar dress codes. A state legislator in Montana introduced a bill in 2015 intended to ban leggings and yoga pants.

In March 2017, three children flying on a company pass were barred from boarding a United Airlines flight by a gate agent who decided that their leggings were inappropriate. United Airlines defended its position, while rival airline Delta stated via Twitter that leggings were welcome on its flights; United said in a statement that it does not bar regular female passengers from boarding if they are wearing leggings. Although some public figures, including actress Patricia Arquette and model and actress Chrissy Teigen, were critical of United's decision, a survey encompassing 1,800 travelers carried out by Airfarewatchdog found that 80% of their respondents backed the airline's decision to ban "inappropriate clothing", although the term was not defined in the poll.

Restrictions on wearing leggings is sometimes linked to slut shaming or body shaming, with critics noting that "...not being able to wear leggings because it's 'too distracting for boys' is giving us the impression we should be guilty for what guys do."

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