how did leggings get so controversial?

Over the weekend, United Airlines stopped teenage girls from boarding a plane because they were wearing leggings. It's hardly the first time the athleisure garment has sparked controversy, nor the first time young women have been unfairly sexualized...

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Mar 27 2017, 8:24pm

Balenciaga spring/summer 17

Yesterday I was scrolling through Twitter moments at the Burlington airport in Vermont, wearing a fresh pair of leggings with speed holes ostensibly for CrossFit but also for walking between terminals. Among the top-trending stories: the president blaming his own party for failing to kill Obamacare, the president marking that failure with five hours of golf, and United Airlines barring young girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings. Just an average day in 2017 America.

According to the airline, "The passengers this morning were United pass riders who were not in compliance with our dress code policy" for people traveling on special passes for employees and dependents. And according to gun control activist Shannon Watts, who live-Tweeted the confrontation, one of the girls was only 10 years old. "A @united gate agent isn't letting girls in leggings get on flight from Denver to Minneapolis because spandex is not allowed?" Watts tweeted yesterday. "She's forcing them to change or put dresses on over leggings or they can't board. Since when does @united police women's clothing?" One of the girls was eventually allowed to board the flight after being inspected and putting on a dress. Two were not allowed on the flight.

As part of its attempt to justify the crackdown on girls wearing leggings, United tweeted a link to the rule in its passenger contract allowing the airline to refuse service. Just below the clause about passengers who cause such a disturbance that the captain must leave the cockpit, and above the one about passengers who are so drunk they endanger others, is a vague clause about passengers who "are barefoot or not properly clothed." So just how did leggings come to be deemed "improper"?

When United Airlines was founded in 1926, it would be another few decades until are-leggings-pants would become the subject of national debate. When she was photographed for Vogue as one of magazine's 60s "youthquakers," Edie Sedgwick caused a stir with the bodysuit and black tights she wore daily despite having enough money to buy nearly anything at Bergdorf's. Then came the 60s and psych-mod styles from designers like Mary Quant, the 70s and Olivia Newton-John's second-skin latex in Grease, and the aerobics-era 80s now archived on YouTube.

By the 90s, leggings were firmly considered legwear by everyone from Azzedine Alaïa to Norma Kamali. The decade turned out some bitchin' bike shorts that paired well with classic T-shirts, while the 2000s saw leggings randomly layered with everything from denim miniskirts to cowboy boots and plastered on your dorm room moodboard. Soon we had "meggings" (aka man leggings) and "Dress Pants Yoga Pants."

Then came the flood of anti-leggings think pieces penned with the level of vitriol normally reserved for political figures. Sometimes the two subjects intersect. Responding to backlash over her bizarre Inauguration Day outfit, Kellyanne Conway said she was "sorry to offend the black-stretch-pants women of America with a little color."

But United Airlines's issue with girls in leggings doesn't appear trend-related. Rather it's yet another reminder that the female body is constantly being scrutinized and sexualized. It's relevant that the girls' father was apparently wearing cargo shorts, yet was not halted at the gate and instructed to put on something more appropriate before boarding the flight. (It's pretty likely he was traveling on a similar employee pass to his daughters.) Arbitrary dress codes are frequently used to affirm ideas that are homophobic, racist, sexist, or just plain stupid. As Patricia Arquette tweeted at United yesterday, "Leggings are business attire for 10 year olds. Their business is being children." United's business is ensuring passengers fly safely, and maybe revising their outdated, arbitrary, gendered dress code every few decades. 

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Text Hannah Ongley