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How Were Leg Warmers Invented? Origins and Evolution

It All Started At Ballet Studios

Many pilates and yoga practitioners and fitness enthusiasts might not know this. Still, way before the leg warmers frenzy in the 80s, they were an essential garment worn by ballerinas and dance performers.

Back in the 40s and 50s, leg warmers were primarily made of ribbed knitted fabric - giving it the classic knitted look we know today, being used and extended from the calf to the middle of the thighs or placed below the knees.

Leg warmers were used mainly during rehearsals and warm-ups when dancers wore no costumes or the traditional ballet attire seen during performances.

Brigitte Bardot Leg Warmers

A very young Brigitte Bardot wearing leg warmers during a rehearsal in 1952.

Their purpose was simple.

To keep the leg muscles warm during performances, which then maintains better blood circulation to the region, reducing the risk of muscle strains, pulls, and cramps that can occur during movements - and, of course, keeping the legs warm and comfy!

The 40s, a golden era for ballet, had many renowned ballet companies - such as the American Ballet Theatre, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and the New York City Ballet, rising to prominence.

These companies significantly influenced dancewear and the artistic aesthetics of studios and stages during that period.

And while it's uncertain which ballet company or studio first started using leg warmers, their practicality and benefits quickly gained recognition among dancers, making their use spread like wildfire.

While at the time mostly limited to studios, leg warmers would continue to evolve throughout the decades beyond the 40s and 50s.

They became available in different lengths, colours, and patterns - and adapted to different preferences and fashion trends. While they were initially made of ribbed knitted fabric, other materials were added. Leg warmers started being made of acrylic blends and synthetic fibres, as they offered more breathability and stretch.

Leg Warmers In The 80's Fitness Mania

Fitness and aerobics, as we know, have been around since the 60s, but in the 80s, they were elevated to new levels.

The explosion in popularity of TV, music videos, celebrity culture and the rise of consumerism started bringing significant changes in people's values and perceptions. Icons like Madonna, Princess Diana and Whitney Houston would set the trends of what was fashionable and attractive at the time.

These caused baby boomers to become far more image conscious. People desperately looked for ways to get in shape - and preferably in a fun, interactive, and enjoyable way.

With all this demand in place, right at the start of the decade, two catalytic events happened that would turn leg warmers into the 80s icon they're known today.

In 1980, David Lee and Trisha Kate, two dancers from the prestigious Oakland Ballet Company, opened KD Dance, a dancewear store in the East Side of Lower Manhattan, New York - that would have leg warmers as its main selling item.

David Lee and Trisha Kate

David Lee and Trisha Kate in their subterranean leg warmers knitting studio in East Village, NYC.

Being in the heart of the world's dance capital, KD Dance grew fast - with their hand-knitted leg warmer collections becoming popular among dancers in the area.

But while the company's growth was still substantial - the couple did not realise that an even more giant wave of demand would soon come.

In 1982, sparking the trend of home aerobics, Jane Fonda released her very first video fitness training - with Jane Fonda's Original Workout proceeding to sell 17 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling VHS of all time.

Jane Fonda wearing leg warmers

A snippet from 1982's Jane Fonda's Original Workout.

Starting an unstoppable trend - Fonda's home workouts would create a surge of imitators and TV shows that'd hop in the wave not to miss in action.

That momentum came accompanied by other pop culture moments, such as the release of Flashdance, an 80s classic romantic drama, of Fame, and Physical, by Olivia Newton, a breaking hit that'd become a workout anthem that was released a few years prior, in 1981 - forming the perfect storm for the popularisation of fitness and their aesthetics.

And just like that - you'd hardly turn on your TV without coming across tights, leggings, leotards and the 80s signature accessories: sweatbands and leg warmers.

Leg Warmers in Pop Culture

Post its peak in the 80s - the fitness workout fad would eventually fade, and so would the widespread popularity of their aesthetics. Fashion trends continued to evolve, and as the 90s approached, the focus shifted to different styles and visuals.

While the dance and fitness communities such as Yoga & Pilates' would continue to use leg warmers primarily for their practical benefits - once synonymous with fitness and dance culture, they gradually became far less prominent in mainstream fashion.

But just like every other trend, every 20 years or so - leg warmers return to prominence in pop culture and streetwear.

You can still find leg warmers throughout pop culture - from TikTok to fashion shows and the feet of celebrities. While you'll often see them in their classic hand-knitted style, there is no shortage of adaptations.

billie eilish and bella hadid with leg warmers

Billie Eilish and Bella Hadid are celebrities commonly seen wearing leg warmers.

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