More Than Swag: Analyzing the ‘One Leg Sleeve’ Effect

Spotted on the court, the eye-catching asymmetrical leg look enhances the players’ style, performance, and personal branding. 

When identifying the distinct style elements that represent the WNBA, fans often zoom in on the popularity of players wearing single-leg sleeves with their uniforms. Apart from being eye-catching on screen, the asymmetrical look sparks online debates on whether this accessory serves a medical- or performance-related function or it’s simply meant to enhance on-court style. While most games currently include multiple players sporting this style, there’s even debate whether A’ja Wilson or Te’a Cooper was the first to introduce the one-leg sleeve to the league. 

Studying in-game photos taken prior to 2018, when A’ja Wilson was drafted to the league, there weren’t any players with a single leg sleeve look. A serious A’ja fan on Twitter has also documented the timelines of Wilson’s and Te’a Cooper’s leg sleeve debut. In the summer of 2018, A’ja was spotted in the WNBA with a leg sleeve, and it was in the fall of 2019 Cooper wore a leg sleeve while playing at Baylor University. A’ja Wilson also confirms that she started wearing the look “summer heading into [her] rookie year.” Wilson says her leg sleeve keeps her leg warm and ready for games, and “I tuck my jersey in my sports bra and my shirt into my spandex because I love the cute tight look and my leg sleeve.” Establishing her presence with her signature accessory look, Wilson gives fans a way to dress like their role models. Recently, a Detroit-based fan shared that someone came into her store to ask if they had an “A’ja Wilson leg sleeve.”

Joining Wilson and Cooper, other players frequently seen with the one-leg sleeve look include Queen EgboMichaela OnyenwereDiJonai Carrington, and Chennedy Carter. They’re committed enough to even rock the single-leg sleeve for their official team media day photos, which proves the importance of this accessory for players. Adhering to the Official Rules of the WNBA, which requires players to be “uniformly dressed,” accessories like headbands, shooting sleeves, knee or calf sleeves, tights, goggles, and the rare face mask become an effective way to stand out. Since the single-leg look isn’t that mainstream, a closer look at the WNBA players reveals that they often cut their tights themselves to achieve this sleek look.  

Although each player has their own reasons for their on-court style, New York Liberty player Michaela Onyenwere shares that she started wearing her sleeve after experiencing a minor knee injury in college. “We came together with the medical staff, and they’re like, ‘Well, you can wear a sleeve.’ I was not somebody who wore stuff on my legs at all, so I agreed to the one sleeve because I didn’t want it to cover both,” says Onyenwere, “Then, that knee problem got better, and it became a staple of my on-court style. Ever since my senior year of college, it feels unnatural to play without it.” Understanding the importance of incorporating your personal style on-court, Onyenwere also adds that since everyone is in the same uniform, “It’s really important to be able to stand out, make yourself known, and brand yourself on the court.” Wilson echoes a similar sentiment, “Stand out always! That’s how I was raised, never blending in. Always be Top Tier.”

While basketball players of any level are always accessorizing with leg sleeves, tights, and other compression gear, the leg sleeve has a contentious history within the NBA. Fans noticed how Michael Jordan wore a single black knee pad on his left knee in 1986 and how other prominent players like Patrick Ewing and Jerry Stackhouse got creative with their leg accessories. In 2006, Commissioner David Stern placed a brief ban on tights, which elevated knee pads and knee sleeves into a more expressive accessory. Off the court, the single-leg sleeve look is also reminiscent of Florence Griffith Joyner, an Olympic track star who famously ran in one-legged catsuits. Inventing her look by cutting off her tights, Griffith Joyner is a leader in styling sportswear to make a statement– her one-legged look felt fresh and fashionable but also emphasized the strength of her dominant leg. 

Echoing the powerful statements made by Griffith Joyner, the sleeves are more than a superficial on-court accessory for accentuating the legs. This asymmetrical style creates an important combination of serious, performance-enhancing strength and the beauty of a tight, form-fitting look. The one-legged sleeve or tights look also extended beyond basketball, as seen in recent releases from Drake’s NOCTA collaboration with Nike, Kim Kardashian’s SKIMS, and a pair of FLOJO ASYMMETRICAL ONE LEG LEGGINGS by independent designer Barragán. Although the one-leg sleeve look has only been spotted on players for a few years, it has great potential to become a defining accessory of the WNBA. 

WNBA reporter Kirsten Chen writes a lifestyle & fashion column on throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter through @hotgothwriter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.