Do it for your fellow long-suffering air travelers. Do it for that seatmate who is feeling a little violated after the indignity of a TSA pat-down. Do it for all the good citizens who, just like you, wish that their knees were not practically tucked under their chins, whose seat backs don’t recline and whose tray tables are too small to hold a laptop. Do it for the thoughtful vacationer who resisted the urge to buy that comforting black-bean burrito and instead purchased a non-odoriferous mixed-green salad to sustain her on a three-hour flight though she knows full well that a few cups of mesclun will leave her more than a little hangry.
Dress not for yourself but for the strangers whose personal space you will be forced to invade.
The conversation about air travel attire once again rose to a roar after United Airlines recently denied boarding to two teenage girls wearing leggings. A third girl was also stopped at the gate but had a dress with her and pulled it on over the offending spandex. When a nearby passenger tweeted about it, the incident went viral.
In the midst of a thunderstorm of protest, United Airlines explained that the girls were traveling on an employee pass. Thus, they were expected to adhere to the company’s dress code for employees, which does not allow leggings or flip-flops or cropped tops but does allow the equivalent of walking shorts, T-shirts, sundresses and sandals. The dress code bars miniskirts, which are favored by women — but it also bans clothes that reveal any type of undergarment, presumably including low-slung jeans, which are favored by men. It also bars folks traveling on these passes from wearing pajamas, which are favored by people who simply don’t care.
But what really seems to have struck a nerve is the banning of leggings. The outcry suggests that before leggings were popularized as streetwear, women had absolutely nothing comfortable to wear and were routinely forced to truss themselves into girdles and petticoats before wedging into a coach seat.
It should be noted, however, that if you’re flying on your own dime, United has absolutely no problem with you wearing leggings. But should you?
There are dressy leggings, after all, that are meant to be worn outside of a gym — paired with sweaters or jackets, as part of fashion’s unrelenting athleisure trend. There are cashmere leggings, for example, and jeggings, if you must. Recently, the designer Giambattista Valli paired his luxurious, elaborately designed jackets with Nike leggings — on the runway in Paris. In many cases, leggings look incredibly chic and sophisticated and cool.
But that’s not why most people are devoted to them. It’s because they’re comfortable. And easy. And when airlines are making travel as miserable as possible, many travelers feel the airlines should be happy they’re not just showing up naked.
But dressing for an airplane isn’t the same as dressing for Saturday morning errands or Sunday brunch. It’s not the same as dressing for any other public space. It’s tight quarters and a sealed environment, which is why most of us understand it’s horribly rude to freshen up with perfume, cologne or scented lotions on a plane. (What are you trying to do? Asphyxiate your fellow man?)
On a plane, clothes register differently than in other places. Who has not received an unwelcome, embarrassing eyeful when a fellow passenger — in a short skirt, an untucked shirt or baggy jeans — reached into the overhead bin to store a bag? On an airplane, passengers regularly and inescapably find themselves looking directly into another traveler’s backside and crotch.
This isn’t to say that air travelers should never wear leggings. But it’s to remind you that when you do, it’s likely that people are going to get an up-close and personal view of your rear end. A view that, despite their best effort, they probably won’t be able to avoid. At least make sure those leggings aren’t see-through, that they aren’t so tight that you resemble a walking anatomy sketch. Make sure they do not smell like day-old yoga sweat. Wear them with intention, not resignation.
This has nothing to do with sexuality or gender. It’s not about body shaming. It’s just being polite. When nothing else about air travel is.