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What is the Difference Between Tights and Leggings?

By Bethany Keene
Updated May 21, 2024
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The terms “tights” and “leggings” are somewhat broad in the fashion world, and depending on location and context they are sometimes interchangeable. Just the same, most people recognize a couple of key distinctions between the two, most commonly when it comes to length, material, and overall function. Tights are usually footed, which means that they cover the entire leg from toes to waist. They are typically designed to be worn underneath other garments like skirts or cropped pants, and tend to be made of thin or otherwise lightweight material. Leggings, on the other hand, can usually be worn either under other clothing or on their own as pants. It is rare to find footed leggings, and most are made of substantial, heavyweight fabric that is designed to stretch and move with the body.

Length

The most profound difference between tights and leggings usually involves length. In most cases, tights are meant to serve as a covering or “second skin” for the leg. They take the place of socks, for instance, and are usually worn in shoes. Leggings, on the other hand, more commonly stop at the ankle or mid-calf. People usually need to put socks on separately if they plan to wear sneakers or boots, or go barefoot in dress shoes or sandals.

Material

In addition, leggings are often made of heavier material, and as a result they can often be worn on their own. Many people wear leggings to the gym or while exercising, for example, and in many places it is considered somewhat fashionable to wear thick leggings as pants in their own right, often paired with a long sweater or tunic. Leggings are often made of thick, elasticized material that hugs the legs close the way tights do, but typically in a more substantial way. People often choose leggings over tights when they want something thicker and more pant-like covering their legs without the bulk or more traditional pants.

Tights tend to be made of more insubstantial fabric, which means that they tend to offer a less structured fit and may be someone transparent. Whereas leggings usually look somewhat like thin pants on their own, tights more often resemble long socks that take their shape only once a person puts them on. They can be made of many different sorts of materials, but cotton and polyester blends are common. It is rare to find tights made of the stretchy workout-like material of leggings, and even thick opaque tights often show some hint of the skin beneath.

General Appearance and Structure

Another difference between tights and leggings has to do with their overall structure. While there are of course exceptions, in most cases leggings are made to provide support snd structure to the leg much the way pants would. As a result, many are designed with thick waistbands, structured seats, and reinforced crotches. The same is not usually true of tights. Most manufacturers design tights to be worn underneath under garments, and as a result they tend to provide somewhat flimsy coverage of the backside. People are generally more hesitant to wear tights alone as pants for this reason.

Function

How people wear each garment is another important difference. In general, tights are worn underneath other clothes as a means of staying warm and covering the legs. Women who wear skirts to the office often find it unprofessional to show the skin of their legs, which can make tights an attractive option, particularly in cooler weather. Tights can also add color or interest to an outfit. Leggings, on the other hand, are less frequently worn with professional attire; they are generally seen as more casual, and tend to be paired either with exercise clothes or as a layering piece to sweaters, t-shirts, or other less formal clothing.

Different Styles

Both tights and leggings come in many different styles, which can make drawing firm distinctions somewhat difficult. It’s often possible to purchase footless tights, for instance, and many ballerinas and dance professionals use these for rehearsals and performances underneath a leotard or paired with other dance attire. True fashion experts might call these “leggings,” since they are often more structured and are designed for movement and exercise.

Some leggings, though, are thinner and less structured, and people may wear them like tights underneath skirts or dresses. It can be hard to objectively look at someone dressed this way and know whether they are wearing tights or leggings, and the true distinction is often hard to make. Tights often come in patterns or different textures the way socks do, but leggings sometimes follow this model, too. In many instances, the biggest difference comes down to labeling: how a manufacturer markets a particular product, and how the consumer intends it to be worn or used.

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Discussion Comments
By anon997521 — On Jan 19, 2017

What people are describing as tights used to be just colored nylons. Tights were a little thicker and not usually very see through. Leggings were things without feet but were very thick. None of these are really meant to be worn without something covering them. It's really disgusting to see women in these so-called "leggings" - they look like they just have on long underwear.

By anon335762 — On May 23, 2013

I love to wear tights. Microfiber opaque tights are my favorite.

By anon205087 — On Aug 11, 2011

"I always thought of both as almost the same and just now know the difference."

Sometimes they are the same, it just depends on who you're talking to as the definitions of different varieties of hosiery can differ from continent to continent, and even person to person. There's still a lot of people who call tights "stockings", even though they're really two different things, and there's lots of people who mix up "tights" and "leggings". There is no single authority on the English language, so popular usage is what dictates correctness.

To throw in some more confusion, many manufacturers sell what they call "footless tights", which are basically the thinner tights material but with no feet, like leggings.

Don't forget that in UK English, what we call "pantyhose" are commonly referred to as "tights", and there's no distinction between the sheer and opaque styles.

By anon189403 — On Jun 23, 2011

I always thought of both as almost the same and just now know the difference. nice article. Tight leather pants leggings and skinny leather pants are booming all around these days. Very informative. --James

By SauteePan — On Dec 24, 2010

Moldova-I know in the 80’s stirrup tights and leggings were all the rage. These were usually worn by dancers as was the footless tights.

But as the tights became more popular a series of fashion tights and leggings came out on the market. Lace leggings, printed tights and leggings and patterned tights and leggings were more common.

Women were wearing these as part of their fashionable attire and the advent of lace also became a staple of the eighties fashion trends.

I now only use leggings to exercise with because they are so comfortable and form fitting. They also allow your skin to breathe properly while you are working out making this the ideal workout clothes for any women.

I know that stars like Madonna and Cyndi Lauper made the leggings a fashion staple for women's wardrobe at the time.

By Moldova — On Dec 24, 2010

Opaque tights are most often used with dresses. I always buy either opaque black or white tights for my daughter to wear with her dresses.

Opaque tights are not sheer and are solid in color. They are usually a little thicker than the sheer tights and they do not run as often.

The opaque tights are ideal for little girls who might get their tights caught on something and then get a run on them and ruin them.

I usually buy the microfiber opaque tights because they are soft to the touch and appear very comfortable. Comfort is important especially when wearing tights.

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