Telling women how to dress is an international pastime that transcends history, class and culture. Everyone does it, from religious sects, airlines and employers to taxi drivers. Sometimes things flare up like an eczema attack and the slight discomfort that usually accompanies the perennial question of what to wear becomes a full-blown condition, marring your life and sometimes even your life expectancy.
Pretty damning if you think that we are simply talking about fabric and its primary purpose, which is to cover you up. There is the rub – the covering up of human bits and how much covering up of those bits has reemerged as a talking point and social battleground. This time in the form of leggings.
A simple piece of clothing that can take a person from the gym to the college campus or the aeroplane. But you never know where social opprobrium will come down on an unsuspecting female for yet again, daring to tempt the male eye with her scandalous sartorial choices. Two teenage girls were not allowed to board a United Airlines flight in 2017 because they were wearing the offending item. Adidas cashed in on this random censorious act of sartorial oppression and offered anyone bearing a United Airlines ticket a substantial discount on their leggings.
Women are still being told what to wear and men are still being told that they cannot control themselves when women wear these things. It is insulting to all genders.
This year, to add insult to athleisure injury, a concerned Catholic mother objected in an open letter to the Observer, the University of Notre Dame’s newspaper. Her argument was classic: girls, if you respect yourselves, don’t make it hard for chaps by wearing your sexy lady pants – they simply cannot control themselves and their mamas don’t like it.
Naturally the University of Notre Dame’s female (and most gratifyingly its male) population took offence and started a viral campaign #LeggingsdayND. It questioned why women are still being told what to wear and why men are still being told that they cannot control themselves when women wear these things. It is insulting to all genders.
I am mystified why such an innocuous item of clothing – essentially a footless stocking – should cause so much fuss. But there it is. You may, like many, believe that this is a frothy “women’s fashion” issue and that clothes signify nothing. But dress has always been a crucial way to define social power and an individual’s position in the social hierarchy. Witness the way female politicians’ clothing is scrutinised and assessed in terms that are hardly applied to male politicians (unless they forgo a tie or wear a sweater).
“Shameful” and “respectable” clothes are always a means to redefine power relations and authority. Just as taxi drivers shame young girls and sexually assault them for wearing minis, now flight attendants shame young girls for wearing leggings. Neither will be allowed to travel, so their agency and freedom of movement is determined by what they wear. These are severe punishments for “mini” aberrations. The briefest of excuses, quite literally, for putting young women in their place. I think I am going to don a pair of leggings and take to the streets, goddamit. Lycra or bust.