• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


The Year of the Leggings

The discussion goes national (again).

March 29, 2017

This might be called the year of the leggings. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course. Created in the 1960s, it was a popular fashion trend in the 1980s, and reached a second wave of fame in the last decade, as this article illustrates. Leggings have also always had its critics. Some decry them as deplorable fashion. Others see them as the cause of health problems. More recently, leggings have become a feminist cause. Some middle schools have banned them, leading to concern that only girls are being targeted to avoid certain clothing. Leggings became a public concern yet again this weekend when a United Airlines attendant asked some girls to change out of their leggings or cover them up and a passenger who overhead this started a twitter legging war. Later, United Airlines stood by their decision, indicating that the clothes violated company policy because the family was traveling as part of a “pass traveler,” traveling for free as family of an employee and thus bound to employee dress regulations. 

Because I always love an opportunity to talk about feminism, the idea of leggings being a conversation about girl empowerment is an intriguing one. Yet, I’m not sure I’m on the side of the leggings (I’m always on the side of female empowerment). One Washington Post writer argues that wearing leggings on a plane is simply not polite because they show off too much. For me, it’s less a problem with how leggings look than what they represent: a completely casual attitude about where you are and what you are representing.  Leggings and other casual clothing are leading to a blur in life between fancy occasions and casual ones.

The other day I attended a special ceremony, complete with local politicians in attendance, at my daughter’s school and almost every fifth grade girl was wearing black leggings while walking across the front of the room to receive a certificate. Now, I’m not saying they needed to all be wearing dresses but it did seem rather casual (note: my own daughter was also wearing black leggings despite my best attempts to get her to dress it up). It’s not just this event, though. Whether it’s school, church, synagogues or weddings, graduations, or holiday, everyone is just so informal. Even the first day of school, once a ritual where you dressed to impress now just seems like a regular clothing day.  The only thing that distinguishes the first day of school pictures on facebook with any other pictures are the bitter expressions on the faces of the children and the school bus in the background. When I go to graduation at the end of the year, both the men and the women often are dressed in casual clothes. Not me- even under my (extremely hot) gown, I wear a dress and shoes, not because it’s comfortable but it’s a sign of my recognition of the formality and importance of the occasion.  I’ve even seen people dressed in sneakers for a job interview.

I’m not particularly interested in fashion trends but the idea of dressing in a more formal way to indicate respect for a time or an institution seems less like a fashion issue and more of a societal concern about ritual and formality. I understand I may  just be a product of an older generation. Millennials, apparently don’t like dress codes.  Apparently, dressing casual may also be a sign of freedom for some, as detailed in this interesting piece on the history of casual clothes in the United States.  Yet, if casual dress represents freedom from rules and rituals, what is the freedom for? Why do we need to wear leggings to signal our freedom? And, what will take the place of our dress in demonstrating our adherence to rituals, respect, and institutions?

I don’t really care what people wear on a plane and I’m certainly not interested in defending United Airlines (big companies don’t need my help) but I can understand a desire to have a dress code. A strong desire for people and institutions to demand dress codes may be a reaction to the freedom and tendency to go ever more casual. I’m not interested in dictating a specificity to what we wear but acknowledging that how we dress on certain occasions may matter. Perhaps discussing gender bias in dress codes may be something I can get behind in fighting, but first, can we at least decide as a society that there are occasions which demand dressing up in the first place?


Share Article


Laura Tropp

Back to Top