What We’re Really Asking When We Question Whether Leggings Are Pants

Photo: Getty Images.
Are leggings pants? Or are they just underwear with legs, and thong-level inappropriate to wear in public without some sort of other piece of fabric covering your rear? Whenever the topic of leggings comes up, the what-are-they question inevitably gets dropped as if it’s a conversation closer. But it’s not final at all, it’s dancing around a much more offensive question, and one with a clear-cut answer. If we take a second to recognize the bait and switch that’s going on, it’d put a stop to all those news stories about women running into trouble with their leggings. Like the latest entry: #LeggingsGategate.
This weekend, three teenage girls (along with nearly 4 million other women) pulled on their leggings before heading to the airport; they were catching a flight to Minneapolis from Denver. There, they were told by a United gate agent that, as pass holders who qualify for free or discounted tickets, they had to follow a certain dress code — and their leggings were a no-go. The girls changed into different outfits, but not before having their story tweeted out by a fellow flyer, Shannon Watts. Then, predictably as anything involving teenage bodies, leggings, newsmakingly poor customer service, and the opportunity to hate on an airline, her tweets went viral.
At first, this was a story about what happens when you approach a customer service snafu without a human touch. How easy would it have been for United to privately remind the passengers about the dress code and send them on their way? The reason this story caught fire was because it’s a story about leggings — not a short skirt, nor ripped jeans, nor a graphic tee (all also banned). Ten years after the Olsens and Rachel Zoe made black leggings a fashion insider must-have, both hating and defending the style has practically become national sport.
Leggings are as ubiquitous as they are reviled. Back in January, Kellyanne Conway served up some shade, when her red, white, and blue inauguration outfit became the butt of a million Twitter jokes. She “apologized” to the “black-stretch-pants women of America,” in a move that was meant to shame leggings-wearers as a frumpy community who couldn’t possibly “get” the spiffy Paddington Bear-esque Gucci coat she wore. What she was really saying was that women who wear leggings are too sloppy to understand the value of dressing up.
Girls and young women in schools are frequently subjected to no-leggings dress codes that assume that teachers and male students have a harder time focusing when they can see the outlines of female students’ legs. Every time a teenage girl gets sent to the office because of leggings, the message is that by putting on that pair of bottoms, she was making it harder for others to see her as anything but a sexual object.
Every six months or so, a local newspaper will publish an op-ed by a pearl-clutching old about how offensive it is to see “unfit” women wearing spandex; a particularly tone-deaf one from last October in Rhode Island inspired a stretchy-pants protest march. Here, the author didn’t even bother to obscure his real thesis: He only considers leggings to be appropriate if he approves of your body.
In each case, water-cooler conversation and the internet were abuzz with debate: Are leggings pants? You’d think that leggings were as politicized as pussy hats or as provocative as fetish wear — not the single most popular clothing item for women today, full stop.
In the past decade, leggings have become the number-one trend among teens; they are bought and worn at a higher rate than jeans. Leggings are the cornerstone of the athleisure movement, which means that if you wear them the “right” way, you can look on-trend and fashion-forward. Make a “wrong” move, though (read: not being thin, young, and wealthy enough to afford certain leggings) and you’re labeled a slob. Conway would never consider supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whitley as part of the “black-stretch-pants women of America,” even though there are more photos of her in them than there are days in the year.
Leggings do not “sexualize” a woman’s body (or, in this case, teen girls’ bodies) any more than a black turtleneck does. They outline the shape of a woman’s legs, which should not be shocking to anyone who knows what legs are. Are they appropriate for the office? That depends on the dress code. Are they appropriate for people wanting to take advantage of an exclusive work perk that comes with its own set of use guidelines? That also depends on the dress code. But they are common fare in public spaces, like airports and many schools, across divisions of age, size, gender expression, and economic bracket. When the public perception of a brand is that they believe leggings are inappropriate (never mind the fact that United attempted to walk things back by stating that leggings are welcome on all paying customers), it’s basically saying that they think leggings are offensive to other passengers and a public nuisance.
So, in hopes that we’ll be able to close the chapter on this argument, I’ll answer this question: Are leggings pants?
No. But leggings aren’t underwear, either, nor are they tights, pantyhose, culottes, trousers, or joggers. Leggings are leggings. In a time when women have dozens of categories of clothing to pick from that aren’t neatly defined as “pants,” “dresses,” and “shirts,” it’s an incredibly stupid question to couch what leggings-haters are really wondering in that kind of A or B debate. What they're really asking is: Does this woman have the right to wear an outfit that doesn’t obscure the shape of her ass? And we’re pretty sure the black stretch pants wearers of America could tell you the answer to that.

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