By now you've probably heard about the dramatic brouhaha over Leggings on a Plane that erupted over a week ago. And you would think that Etiquetteer would start a column concerning Proper Dress with a lament that we, as a civilization, don't dress with the same Perfect Propriety that earlier generations did. And that's coming, so don't worry.
Etiquetteer wants to point out first how this story is a lesson in the value of Minding Your Own Business and Not Going Off Half-Cocked. Because if a certain gun control activist hadn't decided to live-tweet what she was witnessing without having all the information, we wouldn't even be talking about this.
What happened was this: two teenage girls were kept from boarding a United Airlines flight by the gate agent because they were wearing leggings. This led the mother of a ten-year-old girl nearby, passengers on the same flight, to put a dress over her daughter's leggings. Gun control activist Shannon Watts, seeing all this anti-legging activity, started live-tweeting to her over 34,000 followers about the Wickedness of United Airlines.
What Ms. Watts didn't know was that the airline was entirely within its rights to do so, since the two girls in leggings were traveling on free passes issued by the airline, and one of the conditions of traveling free was following the airline's dress code. The dress code forbade tight and revealing clothing, specifying Spandex but not specifying leggings. Still, it's obvious that leggings are both tight and revealing.
Rather than meditate on her folly and then come back strong on the issue she's already championing so wonderfully, gun control, Ms. Watts has decided to deflect by speaking out on the issue of dress codes anyway. "I don't get why that's the issue here," she said. "A dress code still shouldn't be gendered and sexist. To be clear, this was happening very publicly right here in the gate." Based on that statement, Etiquetteer has to wonder if Ms. Watts believes each airline gate should have a tiny VIP room or tent for gate agents to handle such issues out of the public eye. Ms. Watts elaborates further on this issue, and her conduct, in a PR Week interview. Whatever the issues there are around a dress code, any kind of dress code, Ms. Watts shouldn't have tweeted about all this without having accurate information to begin with.
So that's the whole MYOB issue. Let's talk about the Propriety of Leggings in Public.
Etiquetteer misses the days when people cared about the impression they made on other people and dressed accordingly. There shouldn't have to be a dress code in the first place because people should already know how to dress properly before they even leave home! Etiquetteer's Dear Mother would say "If they knew better, they'd do better," but Etiquetteer fears that day has passed. Standards have been conquered by Sloth, even among those who were Brought Up Right.
Now, let's talk about how fashion innovations work their way into daily life. It's messy, and usually involves conflict, followed after a decorous amount of time with adoption. When Lily Hammersley spent an entire summer at Newport dressed entirely in white, she was shunned - only for Newport society ladies to appear next season all in white*. When Rita Lydig introduced the backless evening gown in 1913 it was nothing less than a scandal; not too long after New York matrons also adopted them.** When hemlines rose above the knee after World War I and women began bobbing their hair, worldwide outrage subsided into worldwide adoption. The long, complicated history of pant suits for women finally gathered enough steam in the early 1970s for them to become defiantly mainstream. (Remember that episode of All in the Family when Edith gets a pant suit?") Fashions change, and that changes standards. Certainly we aren't wearing codpieces, knee breeches, bustles, or corsets any more, now are we?
We have reached this same moment in fashion evolution with leggings, still very much in the conflict stage before greater acceptance. Leggings, to Etiquetteer, represent the fashion moment when Convenience trumps Good Judgment. For their purpose, exercise, they're admirable. But Etiquetteer just can't approve of them for daily wear. It doesn't matter if one's buttocks are what used to be called "shapely," absent, or the Giant Prune That Ate Brooklyn, leggings for street wear or travel just aren't Perfectly Proper.*** They are far too revealing, especially when, for whatever reason, they have achieved a "wedgie" state. In an advice mashup of Roxie Hart and Henny Youngman, "Always leave 'em wanting more - please."
Most of the airlines, however, seem to be more relaxed about this than Etiquetteer is. The Points Guy provides an excellent summary of current policies on six different airlines.
As to dress codes being "gendered" or "sexist," Etiquetteer can only point out that men and women have not dressed alike, do not dress alike****, and those differences will show up in a dress code. Indeed, it could be argued that ladies have much more freedom in dress than gentlemen do. (That would be an argument for another column.)
Etiquetteer contends that the greatest challenge for 21st-century air travel for all is to combine Perfect Propriety with Comfort. Even Etiquetteer acknowledges that the challenge of appearing as the cast of The High and the Mighty has been made near insurmountable by the airlines themselves (mercy, those seats are cramped and narrow! And they want how much to check a suitcase?!), not to mention airport security, but that's no excuse to appear as though one has just rolled out of bed or the gym.
***Etiquetteer doesn't even like to think of the dangerous possibilities leggings present by those vulgar terms "cameltoe" and "moose knuckle."
****Etiquetteer vaguely recalls attempts at a unisex dress code in the 1970s resulting in some rather hideous sweaters and his-and-hers drip-dry underwear. On the other hand, thinking of Michael York in Logan's Run, a world in which everyone wears only caftans is something worth considering. A caftan is sort of a unisex tea gown for all.