A bystander who touched off a social media furor after she saw United Airlines stop two teenage girls dressed in leggings from boarding a flight admitted on Monday that she did not fully grasp the situation when she started tweeting her indignation.
The girls, who were flying standby on Sunday from Denver to Minneapolis using free passes for employees or family members, were told by a gate attendant that they could not get on the plane while wearing the form-fitting pants.
Passengers using the passes are considered airline representatives, United Air Lines Inc spokesman Jonathan Guerin said, subject to a dress code that prohibits sleep or swimwear, torn clothing and revealing attire.
The girls were fine with the policy, Guerin says, but a traveler named Shannon Watts who overheard the exchange took offense.
Watts was further incensed when another woman who was listening told her 10-year-old daughter to put a dress on over her leggings, apparently thinking United's policy applied to all passengers, not just those flying free.
I have a friend who works in transportation who commented on Facebook that even though he works for a different employer, the same rules apply. Enforcement seems to be left up to someone at the gate, which was part of the problem, not unlike when vague school dress codes are interpreted by teachers and administrators. The issue also seems to have been resolved -- eventually -- so I will confine my comments to generalities, rather than the United situation.
The courts have ruled, over the last forty years or so, that employers are well within their rights in establishing dress codes to enforce a pleasing, uniform appearance, as long as the rules did not prevent a class of people (men, women, African Americans, Muslims) from being able to gain employment. Leisure wear and sloppy or revealing clothing is usually prohibited, though what Americans consider "leisure" is a moving target, and the line between "sloppy" and "casual" is practically invisible at times, and "revealing" -- forget trying to define that, beyond nudity.
In my study of dress code litigation in the 1960s and 70s, I found that the authorities usually argued that conformity and submission to rules was especially necessary for boys and young men. Girls’ dress codes, in contrast, placed a premium on modesty. The rhetoric in the dress codes reinforced this distinction. Boys’ regulations were more likely to mention “conventional” standards; girls' restrictions were more likely to mention "revealing" styles or parts of the body that should be covered. Not much has changed since then; men and women are still expected to abide by gender rules that are very different. The rules for women dictate careful management of an image balanced between girlish/ladylike and seductive. For men, there is very little space or place for sexual display, or even individual expression. Instead, boys and men are trained to operate with a very limited visual range.
Recently, I have been asked if leggings are pants. (Sort of, but some of them function more like a combination of stockings and foundation garments.) I have also been asked if they are going to go out of style. (Most likely; doesn't everything?) I know some school administrators and parents who will be very relieved when they do. Until they see the Next Big Thing.