Last month a woman named Maryann White – the mother of four sons – wrote a letter to the school newspaper at the University of Notre Dame. In it, she addressed one of the most vexed issues of our time.
“I’m just a Catholic mother of four sons with a problem that only girls can solve,” she wrote. This problem is leggings.
Leggings, or tights, as they are also known, have overrun the public square. Unlike most pants, they are stretchy and skin-tight and leave not a bump or contour to the imagination. Unlike pants, they used to be worn with a dress on top. Today they are often worn the way they are in the gym, with tops that don’t even pretend to cover the butt. You even see them at mass in the basilica, where, as Ms. White lamented, some of the wearers “truly looked as though the leggings had been painted on them.” Her sons ought to be sheltered from such distracting sights. “Could you think of the mothers of sons the next time you go shopping and consider choosing jeans instead?” she pleaded.
The response was fast and furious. Ms. White was heaped with abuse for perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women, and the offended women quickly organized a protest event where everybody showed up in leggings. “Every time leggings or yoga pants come up, there appears a need to explain, yet again, that the existence of a woman’s body is not, in and of itself, offensive,” Kaitlyn Tiffany wrote in Vox. In other words, it’s a girl’s right to wear whatever she wants, and it’s a boy’s obligation to respect her choices and pretend that she might as well be dressed in a paper bag.
The leggings problem has engulfed parents, high-school principals, office managers and other authority figures, who are all are stuck with the thankless task of patrolling female dress in an age when young females are determined to break the dress code. It’s worse than the era of the miniskirt.
One person is largely to blame for this mess. He is Chip Wilson, the man who founded Lululemon back in 1998. Lululemon began by selling stretchy yoga pants out of a second-floor store in Vancouver. Mr. Wilson had a specific customer in mind: young, affluent, fitness-oriented women whom he called the “Super Girls." Super Girls are devoted to wellness and positive thinking. (They are also very fit.) Soon he started seeing his yoga pants everywhere. Women were having coffee in them, shopping in them, walking their babies in them. They had become a feature of urban life.
Mr. Wilson has always paid fanatic attention to design. “Solving the camel-toe problem was probably the key invention,” he writes in his self-published book, Little Black Stretchy Pants. “Without that solve, the pants couldn’t be worn on the street.” (If you don’t know what a camel-toe is, you can look it up.)
Lululemon’s stretchy pants sold for three times more than ordinary sweat pants. They created a revolution in the way women dress. Today, leggings are outselling jeans in the U.S. There are more than 11,000 kinds of “yoga” pants (or “active bottoms,” as they’re sometimes called). Most are worn by women who never set foot inside a yoga studio. Even the no longer young and fit, like me, have several pairs, because they’re comfortable and make you look reasonably good as long as you wear them with a big sweatshirt on top. And Mr. Wilson (who has parted from the company he founded) is worth around US$4-billion.
Lululemon’s next target for expansion is men. I wish them luck, but I suspect men won’t be that promising a market. Most men don’t give a damn about how they look. Nothing could pry my husband (a stereotypical geezer) from his baggy low-tech, no-name sweat pants. He simply doesn’t care.
As for the pleading mother of four sons, of course she’s right. Leggings are distracting, for the same reason miniskirts used to be. They expose vast new expanses of the female anatomy to the male gaze.
Girls in skin-tight fabrics must be aware of the effect they have on males, and they’re not exactly unhappy about it. Their arguments that leggings help women cast off the shackles of misogyny are disingenuous, to say the least. They are not so different from the arguments I made for wearing miniskirts 50-something years ago. As for the protest that sexual allure has nothing to do with it, trust me on this. It does.
And although I am not a frequent attendee, I can assure you that mass is no place for leggings. The way you dress signifies your respect for the institution, and, like it or not, you will be judged on that by other people. The reason you don’t wear tights to church is the same reason a lawyer doesn’t wear a see-through blouse in court.
Having put in my two cents for decorum, I’m convinced the fight against tights in the public square has been well and truly lost. If I weren’t so old and baggy, I’d probably wear my tights to the supermarket myself. After all, they’re cozy. And maybe some geezer would mistake me for a babe. I can dream, can’t I?