“Don’t you hate pants?!” —Homer Simpson, 1998
In a word, yes. While they were once a symbol of female empowerment, pants eventually grew to be just another means of constraint. They were — and are — too tight, too restricting, too inflexible. They don’t fit everybody the same way, and trends are tailored to appease certain body types and leave anyone on the outside behind. They’re limiting. They’re constraining. And, depending on what type you’re into, they can be really difficult to dance in. Which is why we’re seeing many female artists forgo them in music — especially when there’s something bigger at play.
Not that a lack of pants is anything new. But while bodysuits, onesies, and leotards were commonplace in the punk and disco scenes of the ’70s and ’80s (and in Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” video), they took a backseat in ’90s pop as synthetics found themselves reserved for tube tops, pleather, and faux-fur. But as the 2000s progressed — after pop-punk and softboy indie prioritized makeup-free women with a penchant for modesty — pop began to re-embrace shameless exhibitionism.
Britney Spears’s 2007 VMAs comeback may have been upsetting for many reasons (mainly that she clearly wasn’t ready to perform live yet), but she made her comeback triumphantly pantsless. And while Madonna’s video for “Hung Up” (2005) may have been an homage to ABBA and the era it thrived in, she still showcased her dance moves in a leotard and heels, proving she wasn’t about to be held down by excess fabric.
Which is important in and of itself. But in 2008, Beyoncé changed the game. Appearing in a one-shouldered leotard in the video for “Single Ladies,” she married two important concepts: (1) that women are more than who (or if) they marry, and (2) pantslessness is power.
And so the age of pants-free pop began: Lady Gaga made her debut in similar-looking onesies (before transforming into an avant-garde performance artist) in 2008/2009, Rihanna donned a rhinestone-clad onesie on her Last Girl on Earth tour in 2010, and in 2011 Britney donned a leotard at the Billboard Music Awards (the same year Kesha embraced the look). Meanwhile, 2012 saw Pink and Nicki Minaj forfeit traditional pants or skirts, and 2013 brought us more Beyoncé (at the Super Bowl) and J.Lo (at the Billboard Music Video Awards) — all pairing onesies with opaque or fishnet tights.
But it’s not like we’re just talking about a trend. Had pantslessness hung around for a year or two, we could dismiss it as a fashion moment, then move on to the new look defining music’s aesthetic landscape. But as pop has ground itself deeper into social and political awareness, the lack of pants we’re seeing is less a look than it is a statement: It’s the rejection of norms, an act of self-love, a call for attention. Onesies and leotards are the de facto battle garb for pop’s biggest female stars; they are free from pants.
While Bey’s style go-to has been a leotard (in concert) for the last few years, the accessorizing of it has spoken volumes in terms of how it has evolved as her uniform. While “On the Run” in 2014, she paired it with a mesh mask and leather jacket (like an outlaw, as her role dictated), but during the Super Bowl this month, we saw her build on the look, modeling her style after the Black Panthers, and then dressing her backup dancers the same way. On top of this, we’ve also seen Nicki Minaj adopt the leotard to accompany her sex-positive, feminist messages, effectively giving the onesie two functions: (1) allowing her (or any performer) to move and dance comfortably, and (2) driving home the fact that the female body isn’t something that needs to be hidden or ashamed of. Turns out you can be smart and political and still live a pants-free life. And that can be your style norm.
Which is likely why we’re continuing to see the abandonment of pants (or skirts or dresses). Selena Gomez’s latest album is arguably about her reclamation of self in the wake of her breakup with Justin Bieber, and in celebration of its release, she wore a onesie to last year’s Jingle Ball and as well as to the AMAs, further asserting her step in a new, empowered direction. Meanwhile, J.Lo wore one to her performance at iHeartMusic in Las Vegas (where she’s currently doing a residency), driving home the idea that she’s arrived (and that she’s still got it, thank you very much). And two days after the Kanye/Wiz Khalifa Twitter debacle, Amber Rose was seen in spandex, furthering her reputation as a woman who does whatever (and dresses however) she wants.
Ultimately, by opting for a pants-free approach to fashion, female pop stars are creating a uniform for the assertion of power. To proudly display one’s body while also proudly delivering a message — whether on a grand scale (Beyoncé) or a personal one (Selena) — is to reaffirm that power and pants are not mutually exclusive, that style norms are subjective, and that to move is also to be free. And while this certainly isn’t to say that those who wear pants are weak (especially since I’m wearing pants now — hi!), it is to say that the idea of “wearing the pants” certainly is.