Though the denim industry has spent years investing in technologies to make jeans stretchy and comfortable, when the pandemic struck in March 2020 and drove millions to adjust to working from home, jeans were among the first items they ditched in favor of pajama bottoms, sweatpants and yoga-ready fare.
The renewed demand for comfort, however, bodes well for denim’s athleisure-influenced cousin: the jegging. New arrivals of jeggings were up 13 percent in 2020 from the prior year and they remained consistently higher throughout the year, according to Edited data.
“Jeggings’ comfort factor buoyed their steady performance throughout the pandemic, with February, March and June the peak time for sell outs,” said Kayla Marci, market analyst for the retail market intelligence platform.
The highest spike was noted in October 2020, following a new drop of American Eagle Outfitters Ne(x)t Level offering, which flung the forgotten style onto the radars of Gen Z consumers, thanks in part to the teen specialty retailer’s attention to trendy details like ripped knees, high waists and jogger hybrids.
Despite this, jeggings’ success was “torpedoed” by sweatpants, Marci said, which sold out of 329 percent more styles in 2020. Traditional leggings fared better as well, up 185 percent in sell outs for the year. But if fashion history repeats itself—and the denim sector, of all the fashion categories, knows all too well that it does—this unrivaled demand for comfort may only be the beginning of a jeggings revival.
The rise and fall of jeggings
According to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of “jegging” came in 2009. The word was added to the lexicographical leader six years later in 2015, defined as “a legging that is designed to resemble a tight-fitting pair of denim jeans and is made of a stretchable fabric, usually plural,” alongside other millennial colloquy such as “meme” and “emoji.” In 2010, denim producer Isko stated that it trademarked the term “jeggings” and its woven construction.
Indeed, stretchy pull-on bottoms have long been a mass-market category in women’s wear under the guise of leggings. Inspired by dancewear, leggings entered the fray in the 1960s and have since cemented their place in every ensuing dance or fitness craze, from the svelte silhouettes of the ’70s disco era to the aerobics fad that defined the ’80s. Leggings petered out in the ’90s when grunge and hip-hop ushered in looser silhouettes, but the subsequent rise of low-rises and skinny stretch jeans at the start of the new century swung consumers’ preferences back to the form-fitting fashion.
In fact, by the 2010s the unprecedented popularity of skinny jeans, which are typically made from 9-10 oz. woven stretch denim, was one of several factors that led consumers to warmly embrace their knitted counterpart.
Today, the term ‘jegging’ has almost become a catch-all for a high-stretch super-skinny silhouette, according to Michelle Branch, founder of the denim consultancy Markt & Twigs, but the main difference between a jegging and a jean initially was the construction.
The first jeggings on the market had faux pockets and a non-functional fly that mimicked the look and fit of a skinny jean, she said. They simply substituted knitted material for actual denim fabric made with industry’s trademark woven cotton and indigo dye.
The garment’s jeans-centric makeover, however, might have been born more out of necessity than in the name of fashion. Christine Rucci, founder of Godmother NYC Inc., a design and product development company, says the garment’s production peaked following Pakistan cotton shortages almost a decade ago.
“American growers could not keep up with the demand and China price gouged,” she said. “So the denim industry created a trend by showing lightweight and knitted denims out of supply and demand.”
The market was certainly open to the idea of stretchy knit bottoms. Yoga pants—jeans’ stretchy synthetic spandex nemesis—had evolved from their roots as gym-specific garb to a status symbol of fitness-minded young urbanites, and those who at least wanted to look active. Yoga pants replaced jeans as the de facto bottom for running errands, brunching with friends and walking the dog.
“Jeggings were born to grab market share from the activewear market,” Rucci said.
In survival mode, jeans brands built up buzz for jeggings as the sharper-looking alternative to yoga pants by wielding athleisure terms like “all-day comfort” and “freedom of movement,” coupled with imagery of women practicing yoga and ballet dressed in the garment—a look, in hindsight, that thankfully failed to translate to the studio.
“Jeggings were never really jeans. You need pockets and some sort of fastening for that,” Branch said. “But the prospect of achieving a garment that’s both super skinny and comfortable was a watershed moment for the industry. And that confirmation created space for the proliferation of the skinny jean we know today—the impact of which we still feel today.”
Whether jeggings’ ascension in fashion was the serendipitous result of agricultural quandaries or a strategic move to remain relevant with an athleisure-crazed market, its star power began to fade as millennials began to step away from super-skinny silhouettes and embrace normcore styles like high-rise jeans and vintage-inspired Levi’s 501 fits instead.
Jeggings’ lapse wasn’t a disappoint to most denim heads, however. “There were segments of the market in which the term ‘jegging’ was mocked from its inception,” Branch said. Though the garment generated sales during a low point for the category, jeggings lacked authenticity, heritage and durability—the defining qualities that arguably built the global denim industry into the $69 billion behemoth it is today.
“I have never been a fan of the jegging,” Rucci said. “You are either a denim brand or an activewear brand. You can make comfortable jeans, but that does not mean jeggings. You can’t be both.”
In fact, Rucci believes jeggings have brought more harm than good to the jeans industry, particularly when fast-fashion retailers began to churn out versions made with low-quality spandex. Most jeggings, she said, fall apart since they are worn and laundered more often than truly sturdy denim. Their destiny? The landfill.
“Stretch is a privilege, not an obligation,” Rucci said.
The future of jeggings
A result of normalizing ultra-lightweight stretch fabrics, jeans brands now have to work harder to promote the benefits of durable, non-stretch heavyweight cotton fabrics. It’s a product profile that may appeal to heritage and workwear enthusiasts, but the majority of consumers spending more time than ever at home continues to prioritize comfort.
As consumers begin to look at life after the pandemic and choose clothing that will bridge their home and professional lives, could jeggings enjoy a rebirth not unlike what the once-mocked Mom jean has enjoyed in recent years?
Perhaps, but the language around jeggings is due for an upgrade. Instead of likening jeggings to workout gear, Marci said retailers are highlighting high rises and super-stretch properties within new jegging arrivals.
“I think jeggings now live in a separate but parallel lane with super soft, high-performing stretch jeans,” Branch said, adding that there are many ways now for jeans brands to achieve comfort through true denim constructions. “There’s really no need for resurrecting a buzzword,” she said.
Indeed, brands and retailers are ditching the term ‘jegging’ all together. NYDJ touts pull-on jeans with functional back pockets, made with Coolmax technology and its patented Lift Tuck technology that flattens the front and lifts the posterior. Liverpool Jeans offers a pull-on legging made with soft stretch denim. The brand also offers a hybrid style called the Gia Glider that has a pull-on waistband and faux zip-fly, as well as all-important jeans details like rivets and five functional pockets.
Meanwhile, a new seamless style by AG Jeans provides the sleek and smooth look of jeggings, but with all the hallmarks of a true jean. “AG’s Seamless is simply an authentic update to a timeless body that we all love,” said John Rossell, AG’s head of creative and marketing. “It’s not over the top, but it’s significant in that it’s more flattering, it fits better, it moves better, and you feel sexier wearing it.”
The narrative around the concept of jeggings is also changing to better reflect contemporary views on inclusivity and sustainability. “With the hype around comfort showing no signs of slowing, jeggings’ ultra-stretch qualities are being reimagined into denim with the concept of jeans that adapt to body changes,” Marci said.
NYDJ recently debuted SpanSpring, a line of skinny jeans that stretch to fit three sizes. In 2020, premium denim brand Frame launched Le One, a jean that comes in two sizes—one for sizes 23-28, and one for sizes 29-34. Fellow L.A. brand Good American also entered this space with Always Fits Jeans, a line of 5-pocket jeans that offers 100 percent stretchability, meaning they can accommodate a range of three to four sizes without sacrificing fit. Size categories include 00-4, 6-12, 14-18, 20-26 and 28-32.
“With the emphasis on sustainability within the fashion industry, rethinking sizes and offering better-engineered and adaptable garments can prolong shelf life, avoiding consumers throwing them away when they no longer fit,” Marci said.
This article appears in Rivet’s report “Blueprint: Today’s State of the Industry” sponsored by Coterie Digital and Project Digital. Click here to download the complete report.