AFTER SATIRIZING EVERYTHING from the western to the Stone Age, Mel Brooks in 1993 released the movie “Robin Hood: Men in Tights,” a sendup of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” which had come out two years earlier. Although Brooks’s parody was uniformly idiotic — Maid Marian wears an Everlast chastity belt; Blinkin, a blind servant, gropes a Braille edition of Playboy — many of the laughs were at the expense of so-called feygeles, a Yiddish slur for gay men. During a musical number with a cancan interlude, the heroic outlaw assures the audience he’s not one. “We may look like pansies,” he and his Merry Men sing, “but don’t get us wrong or else we’ll put out your lights. We’re men. We’re men in tights.”
The joke would have confused William Shakespeare: In the Elizabethan era, noblemen customarily wore trunk hose (baglike silk breeches described by Richard Thompson Ford in his 2021 book, “Dress Codes,” as the “parachute pants of their day”) over canions, fitted tubes of fabric that anticipated women’s leg warmers of the 1980s. The ostentatious style of the time — often accompanied by powdered wigs and high-heeled shoes trimmed with rosettes — was meant to telegraph wealth and status while also drawing the eye to a man’s calves, then symbols of virility. To protect the social order, sumptuary laws were passed that discouraged commoners from dressing above their class.
During the French Revolution, bourgeois radicals — known as the sans-culottes — traded their sheathlike breeches and silk stockings for the looser, more practical trousers of the proletariat. For centuries hence, wearing the pants has been a metaphor for wielding power. Although tights have occasionally made appearances on men’s runways (Jean-Paul Gaultier styled them under feathered skirts in 1986; Riccardo Tisci paired them with black skorts and thorny gold necklaces for his ecclesiastical fall 2010 collection for Givenchy), brosiery, as it became regrettably known, was mostly a costume for superheroes and a uniform for wrestlers or ballet dancers.
THEN CAME THE athleisure boom of the 2010s. With off-court endorsements from musicians such as Pharrell and ASAP Rocky, men’s leggings, worn with basketball or running shorts as streetwear, weren’t just about improving performance and hastening recovery. Tights were once again stylish — and if not exactly butch, at least somewhat practical. Such was the balance struck this past February at MSGM’s fall 2023 show, where the Italian designer Massimo Giorgetti, summoning the fraternal spirit of one of his favorite films, “Dead Poets Society” (1989), dressed models in collegiate hoodies with white leggings worn under striped cotton boxers. For his third collection as Ferrari’s creative director, also presented in February, Rocco Iannone offered brightly patterned knitwear that hugged the body like the aerodynamic shell of a racecar.
Of course, function only accounts for part of the garment’s appeal: As fashion continues to experiment beyond the gender binary, there’s no better laboratory than the site of countless projections and fetishes. “Women can wear trousers and a jacket,” said the London-based creative director Naeem Anthony, founder of the label Helen Anthony. “Why can’t men wear tights?” For the brand’s fall 2023 presentation, titled Structural Liberation, Anthony sent out men in sharply tailored jackets or coats with dark hose instead of pants — perhaps a cheeky reversal of Yves Saint Laurent’s groundbreaking 1966 suit for women, Le Smoking. The Chinese designer Feng Chen Wang, who splits her time between London and Shanghai, endeavored to translate Helmut Newton’s striking images of 1990s supermodels into more recent conversations about gender expression, or what Wang calls “the union of yin and yang.” Many of her models that season, some of whom walked in asymmetrical denim jackets, pink boxer briefs and sheer stockings, identify as nonbinary or trans.
Since the early days of his own line, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy, which debuted in 2015, the Glaswegian maximalist Charles Jeffrey has embraced not only sheer or colored hoses but fishnets, a look popularized by the female flappers of the 1920s and later deconstructed by the punks of the 1970s. (This season, Walter Van Beirendonck and Maison Margiela’s John Galliano also included fishnets in their collections.) “I think there’s something theatrical and flamboyant yet also quite chic and sexy about it,” said Jeffrey, who enacted a queer interpretation of “The Slab Boys Trilogy,” John Byrne’s set of plays from the late 1970s and early ’80s about working-class toughs in 1950s Scotland, for his fall 2023 Milan show in January. Some models emerged carrying paraffin lamps or wearing knitwear embedded with stones from the Thames riverbed, while one wore a black leather jacket and matching skirt with an electric blue lightning bolt motif and gauzy over-the-calf stockings held up with black garters. The collection wasn’t just about remembrance — it was about imagining an alternate history where a Teddy boy could also be a gay man and where subverting long-held beliefs about gender didn’t require a big statement.
“Supposedly, all the legs in tights adverts are men’s legs,” said Jeffrey. And while that’s not strictly true, the American football player Joe Namath did wear Beauty Mist pantyhose in a 1974 TV commercial. “I could try to intellectualize that but, to be honest, I just think it’s really fit.”