Fashion Faux Pas – Leggings

I’m weighing in on the prudish site – leggings are not pants – they are footless tights and inappropriate for wearing outside in daylight unless the crotch and buttocks are covered by a top. 550 years ago, it was men who were wearing tight-fitting legging-like garments that did little to cover their assets. It was hard not to look when the tunic didn’t cover the buttocks or bulge. An English law enacted in 1463 asserted short tunics that revealed the male buttocks could be worn only by the upper classes. At first this appears to be elitist, but it is also a passive-aggressive way to use peasants, who have no power to push back, as a way to set a standard of decorum.

These are not pants.

Skip forward 550 years, and United Airlines bans two teenaged girls from boarding a Minneapolis-bound flight last week for wearing leggings, citing a company dress code that bans form-fitting Lycra tops, dresses or pants, mini-skirts or shorts shorter than 3 inches above the knee when in a standing position, any clothing that is considered provocative by being see-through or revealing the midriff or undergarments, any attire that is designated as sleepwear, underwear or swimwear, anything that has offensive graphics or is excessively dirty or worn, and flip flops or bare feet. Other major airlines have similar guidelines. American Airlines doesn’t allow workout clothes or beach attire which includes leggings and shorts, and Delta defines customers can’t wear clothing that is “excessively dirty, vulgar” or “violates public decency laws and community standards.”

We used to call these nude pantyhose…

I don’t have a problem with most of these rules, although the 3 inches above the knee rule is a bit archaic sounding. The problem is not so much the rules as much as their erratic interpretation by control-freak peons. A dress code has to be logical, clearly stated, and enforced, not brought up on a whim referencing rules you aren’t aware of or can not rationally interpret. Otherwise you get instances like the two visitors to Butchart Gardens last spring who were turned away for wearing Victorian-inspired garb. The broken rule Butchart Gardens cited was that their ‘costumes’ could confuse visitors who might mistake them for park uniforms, but the two visitors were then offered park uniforms to wear instead of what they had on… If the visitors had been Amish, would the same kerfuffle ensued?

Nothing to say

United Airlines tried to get around the flak about their legging rule by saying it was a dress code required of pass travellers (friends and family of United Airline employees.) Jonathan Guerin, spokesman for United said “The passengers this morning were United pass riders and not in compliance with our dress code for company benefit travel. We regularly remind our employees that when they place a family member or friend on a flight for free as a standby passenger, they need to follow our dress code. To our regular customers, your leggings are welcome.” In other words, because United is paying all or part of their ticket, they have the power to say what you can or cannot wear – some call this the power of Capitalism – ‘My company, my rules’. Sounds a lot like the powerless peasants from 1463 with no recourse but to do as they were told as an example for all to follow. I feel that either leggings are or are not offensive and nobody on the plane will guess who is a pass traveler or a full-paying customer by their clothes, unless they are wearing a United Airlines uniform.

Women knew how to wear leggings in the 80s – with a LONG top – I am not offended by this outfit – it even looks like a great outfit for travelling by plane.

Worn modestly (with crotch and buttocks covered), leggings are not a bad choice for air travel. A security pat down should be unnecessary (you can’t even hide cellulite in those things), and they are apparently comfortable, which in these days of shrinking leg room and no walking about during flights allowed, unless you are heading for the bathroom, makes the trip less confining. The big problem is who decides what is and what isn’t offensive and what power do they have to embarrass, harass, and otherwise ruin someone’s trip. I personally found the recent video of a boy wearing a T-shirt and shorts being repeatedly frisked extremely offensive. This really isn’t about the rules, its about the abuse of power by little Napoleons and we are seeing more of it happening all the time.

About Jonathan

Jonathan Walford is a fashion historian and co-founder of the Fashion History Museum in Cambridge, Ontario. The FHM maintains a collection of nearly 12,000 artifacts dating from the mid 17th century to the present. Jonathan has authored various books and museum catalogues, including The Seductive Shoe, Shoes A-Z, Forties Fashion, 1950s American Fashion, and Sixties Fashion.
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