Are leggings ‘appropriate’? United Airlines steps into dress-code debate

Leggings: are they real clothes?

You may laugh, but this is a matter of heated debate. As more offices embrace casual clothing, the boundaries of comfort are something every office-worker has wondered about: what does “appropriate” office clothing mean?

It depends heavily on the workplace, of course, in the way that hoodies are standard at Google but rare at IBM or McKinsey.

United Airlines stepped right into the center of the controversy this weekend when a customer, Shannon Watts, noted young girls boarding in Denver being pulled aside and asked to change their clothes before they were allowed on the airplane. The girls were wearing leggings, according to Watts. Their father, wearing shorts, was not asked to change his clothes.

After hours of outrage, the reason emerged: the girls and their father were flying as friends and family of United staff, and the airline keeps a dress code in place for those passholders. Here is the policy:

The disclosure of the policy did very little to soothe the outrage, as many noted that banning leggings (most likely under the rubric of “form-fitting spandex” in the policy above) is hardly suited to world in which leggings are considered actual, respectable clothes. In its public replies to irritated passengers (and would-be customers), United doubled down on its policy.

The airline clarified that the rules did not apply to paying customers — only to pass holders, who were presumably thought to be representing the company even when off-duty. Even so, United hit upon the paradox many companies face: dress codes that may considered regressive.

In a Medium post, Watts said the policy was not a good one: “I was outraged and disappointed by the lack of respect and customer-oriented strategy from United Airlines…as a frequent traveler and a mother of four daughters who live and work in yoga pants, I couldn’t help but wonder why the father — who was wearing shorts — was allowed to board the plane showing so much leg. How many times has United stopped young boys or men for ‘improper’ clothing?”

Watt’s objections highlight a trend in recent years of resistance to strict office dress codes. A recent example of  against such company policies is the case of Nicola Thorp, who refused to wear high heels to her office despite the dress-code requirement — and, in the words of one newspaper, “ignited a rebellion.” Even JP Morgan, one of the oldest and largest banks in the country, has embraced “business casual” for every day, according to a memo last year. The bank’s new dress code allows “polo shirts, casual pants, capris, and dress sandals.”

JP Morgan, does, however, still ban leggings — which makes us ask, what do corporate HR departments have against leggings?

“People always seem to want to put a disclaimer on their leggings-wearing. In any discussion about leggings, someone will inevitably croak that they’re not pants. Fashion publications, including ours, often note that they’re more comfortable than truly fashionable — but if Beyoncé and Gigi Hadid can pull them off, why can’t we?” asked Refinery29’s Natalie Gontcharova, who wore leggings to work every day for a year.

There’s no question that leggings have moved up in the world. Once considered lazy weekend wear, or good only for jogging, the legging has upgraded. The legging has become a catch-all term for “stretchy pants for women,” and guess what: stretchy pants for women are everywhere. Upscale retailer Nordstrom has an entire section devoted to leggings you can wear to work. There are designer pairs of work-appropriate leggings that cost $450, and in cool workplaces, leather leggings or the leggings-plus-blazer combo is a chic option. Shoe designer Tamara Mellon has even made boots that are just really long leggings.

Just because something is available, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate. But high-ranking women have embraced leggings as appropriate work wear. St. Louis-based entrepreneur Erica Harris told The Today Show that she regularly wears leggings to work, dressed up with a nice sweater. Glamour magazine advocates pairing leggings with brogues or military jackets for work.

Variations of leggings are also office-appropriate in many places, from “jeggings” to the trousers produced by one company, BetaBrand: yoga pants that look like office-worthy dress pants. The brand WhoWhatWear has written about how to accessorize leggings for office-appropriate looks.

Yes, we know not all leggings are a good look, as one of our Twitter correspondents pointed out with this simple Google search.

But there are good leggings out there, and we suggest it’s time to finally liberate the legging for work. Sweatpants are irredeemable, but the legging has really made an effort to fit in at the office. Now it’s just time for companies like United and JP Morgan to catch up.