We're more likely to find leggings in athletics rather than the work attire section of our favorite store. We're used to business skirts we have to pull down every five seconds, or tight dresses that make it hard to even walk from our desk to a team meeting. But we're not just working at desks anymore or stuck in office environments where those in the suits rule all. It's time to reclaim the dress code in a way that allows us to be professional, comfortable, and confident.
New waves of office fashion point to sleek patterned pants rather than the skirts of the 50s. While leggings may seem akin to the best and brightest of this modern office wear, they are still often considered unacceptable in professional environments.
It starts with what we associate leggings with: comfort. Leggings often live in the realm of intense workouts or lazy Sundays at home, not the fast-paced, high-pressure atmosphere of a work environment. Many don't qualify leggings as pants at all. This might be due to the sheer quality of the leggings — the fact that you may be able to see a pair of polka-dotted or bright pink underwear sneaking out — or the skin-tight quality. Leggings are often thin compared to pants like jeans or slacks, which makes them slightly more questionable.
Yet while leggings may not be considered part of the professional attire wardrobe, they can still be professional.
Because leggings are tight to your legs, balance your upper half with a great loose-fitting shirt. Wearing a shirt that covers your behind and hits lower thigh will create a more modest, conservative look great for professional atmospheres. Flowing blouses work well to draw attention to the top of your outfit. When chillier winter days arrive, you can pull on your favorite oversized sweater to stay cozy and professional all day.
Have a dress that got a little short in the wash? Missing one of your favorite summer dresses as the fall sets in? Try pairing your leggings with a dress to get the best of all seasonal attire. This style trick works especially well with leggings that are more opaque, see-through and tight-like.
If you've decided to wear a flowing tank top or a loose blouse, a blazer can tie your look together with a professional bow. If you're leaning toward a tighter or shorter top, wearing a long cardigan or vest can up your game and make you more comfortable with your less professional bottom half. While leggings shouldn't be completely hidden, they may not be the most professional part of your outfit — wearing a jacket can rightfully draw attention away from that fact.
Because leggings appear more casual, choosing footwear that knocks the socks off your coworkers is important. If you're up around on your feet and looking for something more comfortable, opt for a pair of flats. If you have basic black leggings, a fun printed or colored flat will complement your everyday legging look; if you're wearing leggings that are slightly more exciting (bows, a racing stripe or a bold color), a pair of simple black flats will do the trick.
Boots, especially with heels, can make leggings shift from workout wear to office wear with just a little bit of lift. By wearing leggings with boots, you get to avoid the annoying crumples involved with fitting jeans into boots and don't need to worry about pantyhose.
While leggings can totally be transformed for the office, not every pair deserves to be the next Cinderella. Your yoga leggings from six years ago? Maybe not the best option. A neon pair fit for an '80s Jazzercise class? Perhaps at the next office Halloween party.
The right leggings for the office are dark and don't expose anything in the bright fluorescent lights of a cubicle. They are thicker than most leggings — if it’s not summer, thermal leggings do the trick — and they don't have too many bells and whistles. As upsetting as it is that your office may not be the set of the next Cheetah Girls movie, there’s probably not much room for a flashy animal patterned pair of leggings in a more uptight office environment. Read the room, and make sure you offset whatever pair you have with the right top and shoes.
While a legging’s print matters in your choice, the material of your leggings also makes a difference. Stretchy yoga pants give off an athleisure vibe, which doesn't work in all offices — especially if your team doesn’t do group Zumba at lunch. Investing in faux leather leggings can bump up your professionalism and work well especially in the cooler months with oversized sweaters or jackets.
If you want to convince the legging haters that leggings can be part of a professional outfit, make sure the rest of that professional outfit shines. Jewelry can elevate your look from casual to formal, especially if you choose statement pieces that draw the eye. If you've chosen a long, loose blouse and heels, long necklaces and earrings will continue to elongate your look. Layering necklaces can show off your jewelry collection and your ability to style and mix and match.
While you may not use it the whole workday, purses can come in clutch here. Try a long, crossbody bag or a big handbag to draw attention to what's by your side.
If you decide to wear leggings to work, consider how you may try to infuse a little professionalism into the rest of your look. Because leggings are more casual than other work attire pieces, balancing your outfit with effort in your hair and makeup can make all the difference. A bold lipstick will draw attention to a beautifully made-up face, and a fun hair clip can sweep the stray baby hairs away.
The controversy over the "professionalism" of leggings arises because the definition of "professional" paints a picture that not everyone wants to or financially can adhere to. Leggings can be part of a new picture of what professional looks like. It's about how we decide to wear them — keeping our own style close to our hearts while remaining inline with our office expectations.
Want to join in the conversation? We have a community discussion about leggings, right this way.
Zoë Kaplan is an English major at Wesleyan University in the class of 2020. She writes about women, theater, sports, and everything in between. Read more of Zoë’s work at www.zoëkaplan.com.