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.
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.
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.
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.
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.