It’s 2019—Why Are We Still Debating the Appropriateness of Leggings?
MARCH 29, 2019
The great legging debate rages on. Just when we thought we’d discussed the subject to death—particularly after United Airlines sparked outrage when an employee stopped two young girls from boarding a flight for wearing leggings—a woman named Maryann White has published a letter in Notre Dame’s student newspaper asking girls to retire them from their wardrobes, stat.
“I’ve thought about writing this letter for a long time,” her plea begins. “I waited, hoping that fashions would change and such a letter would be unnecessary—but that doesn’t seem to be happening. I’m not trying to insult anyone or infringe upon anyone’s rights. I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve: leggings.” She then details a morning at Mass where leggings “obtruded painfully” on her vision: She saw a group of young women wearing “very snug-fitting leggings . . . Some of them truly looked as though they had been painted on them.” White then treads lightly into feminism by waxing on about the portrayal of women as “babes” in movies and how she taught her sons that Princess Leia’s slave-girl outfit in Star Wars was demeaning: “[Media depictions] make it hard on Catholic mothers to teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters. That women should be viewed first as people—and all people should be considered with respect.” Sure, that’s all fair and valid, but her argument quickly falls apart. “My sons know better than to ogle a woman’s body . . . But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them—but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them.”
This, as any young or digitally savvy person would have guessed, was like tinder to a viral flame. Notre Dame students promptly organized a Leggings Pride Day on campus and snapped photos of themselves wearing leggings on Instagram and Twitter. Women in particular took White to task for insinuating that men like her sons shouldn’t be held accountable for their thoughts or actions when they see a woman in leggings (or any garment, for that matter). “We’re protesting our right to not be responsible for men and to not be constantly policed by morals or femininity,” one woman wrote on Twitter. Another shared a video explaining that she wears leggings “because what I wear is not an invitation to sexualize my body.” Her comments were echoed by other students who hashtagged #neveraninvitation.
The real takeaway, of course, is how young women and men are using social media to get their voices heard and effect positive change. But here’s the lingering question: Why are we still talking about leggings? Leggings surface in the press nearly as often as Hillary Clinton’s emails. The BBC’s article links out to a handful of related stories with headlines such as: “Are ‘yoga pants’ indecent?” and “Leggings and yoga pants: When tight trousers get controversial.” Perhaps it will require a complete rebranding of leggings to put an end to this nonsense. Should we start referring to them simply as fitted pants, stretch trousers, or even jodhpurs?
Unsurprisingly, plenty of Vogue editors feel strongly about the topic. “Women shouldn’t have to apologize for their leggings any more than men should have to apologize for their skin-tight muscle tees,” Vogue Culture Writer Michelle Ruiz says. “At this point, leggings are life.” She’s worn her favorite leather leggings for five years, “a much cooler and warmer alternative to tights under a dress,” she says, and she “lives in” a pair of Nike Dri-Fit leggings that are “as light and soft as a second skin.” Vogue Senior Fashion News Writer Liana Satenstein wears a similar pair of workout leggings for outdoor runs, even in the summer: “I hate shorts. What else am I going to wear? Sweatpants?” The same is true for women at most gyms and fitness studios; it’s unusual to see a woman walking into Equinox or Blink wearing anything other than leggings.
Vogue Market Editor Alexandra Gurvitch doesn’t even mention working out in her message of support: “If I could wear one thing for the rest of my life, it would be leggings,” she says. “The stigma has got to go. I was also just talking to a friend who was recently pregnant, and she said leggings were the only thing she wanted to wear.” Vogue staffers frequently wear leggings to the office, too: Market Editor Anny Choi favors stirrup leggings under tunics, and Associate Market Editor Madeline Swanson wore leggings not once but twice last week: “One day I wore them under a dress, and the other day they just functioned as pants!” (If you’re in the market for work-friendly leggings, consider Eres and Filippa K’s luxe new pairs.)
“I love wearing workout leggings not only to work out but during the day on a weekend, too,” Senior Fashion News Writer Brooke Bobb concurs. “There is something comforting about them, at least for me, and, yes, they do make me feel good about my body when I slip them on. Women should absolutely be free to wear any kind of pant they want. As for the uptight, Catholic, repressed Midwest mom, she needs to sit down. These are college-age women, and they have the freedom and choice to wear whatever they want. She should focus on teaching her sons how to treat women with respect, rather than pointing a finger at females for wearing Lycra.”
That mother (and other mothers) might argue that there’s a generation gap; not all parents have become “woke” in 2019, after all. But growing up in a different generation is hardly an excuse for policing women’s clothing choices and perpetuating the idea that men can’t help themselves. As Choi explains: “My grandma in Korea felt that leggings were inappropriate when Lululemon first became a thing a few years ago, when my sister and I would wear them when we visited her. When she was in school, she wore leggings underneath her uniform in the winter, so I can see how it was a shock to her at first. [But] leggings have become completely normalized, and even my 90-year-old grandma has accepted that they are perfectly fine to wear as pants.”
Isabelle Alix, the founder of leather-legging brand Offtrack, counts New York women and celebrities as clients and wears her leggings almost every day. “People who say leggings are inappropriate are stuck in the past,” she says. “Times have changed, and we must embrace those changes. Women now dress for speed and comfort, and they need clothes that can adapt to their lifestyle—not the other way around. We travel, we have busy social lives, we’re mothers, lovers, advocates. . . . We no longer have time to be uncomfortable or burden ourselves with complicated clothes. We want them to feel effortless, comfortable, and easy. Leggings are a perfect example of this shift in mentality.” Her leggings come in stretch leather or suede in a range of colors, and she wears them with sneakers, T-shirts, and blazers. “Since they’re high-waisted and the lines were conceived to allow you to move, they are super comfortable. They mold to your body but never constrict you.”
Would these testimonials change White’s mind (and the minds of other judgmental mothers)? Maybe . . . but the odds seem low. She signed off her letter with the following: “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead? Let Notre Dame girls be the first to turn their backs(ides) on leggings. You have every right to wear them. But you have every right to choose not to. Thanks for listening to the lecture. Catholic moms are good at those!”
Of course, her lecture had the opposite effect of what she intended, but anyone could have predicted that (including the newspaper’s editor, who surely published the out-of-touch letter in the hopes that it would go viral). As a former Catholic school student, I can also attest that nothing would make me want to wear something more than hearing a hyperactive parent or administrator tell me not to. It’s why I wore Ugg boots in eighth grade after they’d been arbitrarily banned and why I ignored the two-inch rule for tank tops in high school after my dean reached over and snapped my “bra strap” (which was really just my cotton dress).
If male students started wearing Under Armour leggings to class—the same leggings I’ve seen many guys wear to Equinox, either under their shorts or alone—it’s hard to imagine that the mothers and fathers of female students would plead with them to wear something “more decent.” Guys, are you up for the challenge? In the meantime, here’s hoping this is the last time we have to defend leggings—or any garment, for that matter—on this website.