Perhaps this is why people said office leggings should be conservative—opaque and dark. Some did their hair and makeup more thoroughly on legging days to compensate. “I was the CEO, and I am a small female,” said Jenny Silva, who ran a sheet-music company in California. “I was worried I would not look sufficiently authoritative in leggings. That said, I had no issue with staff wearing leggings.”
Given these many caveats, it might seem that the safest path would be to leave your Lululemon at home. But many women want to have their leggings and wear them too, and there’s still a gray area for them. It can be hard to know whether leggings are actually allowed—does a term as nebulous as business casual encompass leggings? (It’s hard to know what to wear to work these days in general, as my colleague Amanda Mull has written.) The majority of respondents to my highly unscientific poll said leggings are not against their office dress code. Nine bold women said leggings do violate their office policy, but they wear them anyway. (“We get told once a year not to wear them but everyone ignores it,” explained one Lycra rebel.)
Read: The mystery of business casual
Sometimes it’s hard to even know whether you’re wearing leggings. As many people in the survey brought up, lots of women’s pants these days are basically just leggings in disguise—call them “I can’t believe it’s not leggings.” Jeggings, ponte pants, those Betabrand things that resemble old-school yoga pants with belt loops—these all feel and look somewhat like leggings. You can run from leggings, but you probably can’t avoid adding them to your cart.
“I now justify wearing black leggings because I doubt that most people, especially men, can even tell the difference if I wear them with a nicer, long shirt and booties,” says Leanna Smith, who works in a newsroom in Virginia. “Why be uncomfortable when the aesthetic difference is marginal?”
Indeed, leggings feel like the working-girl gods giving us a freebie. Women already have to deal with a persistent pay gap, gendered stereotypes about our personalities, and expectations to apply an assortment of powders to our faces every morning. At least give us stretchy pants to endure it all in.
Read: How do we close the wage gap in the U.S.?
That said, puritanical employers and concerned moms might not have to deal with the leggings scourge for much longer. Przybyszewski points out that the cycle of fashion is all about novelty, so eventually people might move on to a new pant style. For now, though, the relaxing reign of leggings shows no sign of ending. Younger women, in particular, seem fond of the look. Przybyszewski told me that one of her students at Notre Dame, who was going on to law school, had a penchant for wearing leggings. The woman’s mother, claiming they weren’t appropriate for law school, insisted on buying her a new wardrobe.
“But they’re so comfortable!” the woman lamented to Przybyszewski.
“Well, trousers are comfortable,” Przybyszewski said.
The woman replied, “What are trousers?”