Maxwell: Campus disputes over leggings and sports bras recall earlier era

Renewed social battles over how women choose to dress recall the 1960s.
Published April 5

I came of age during the early 1960s as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts college. America was just beginning to send troops to Vietnam, the civil rights movement had become muscular and student political activism was spreading nationwide.

Most remarkable was the emergence of feminism. Seeing and hearing outspoken women, especially fellow students, was new to me. My greatest shock came when I met my first serious girlfriend. I was in the library struggling with James Joyce’s Ulysses when she came to my table.

I was immediately embarrassed for staring at her. She was not wearing a bra under her T-shirt. She grinned at my discomfort. She and other female students introduced me to the emerging feminist movement. I asked why she and others didn’t wear bras.

Going braless was their right, she said. I was impressed when they declared ownership of their reproductive rights.

Other movements, including fashion, were sweeping the nation. Who can forget the ubiquitous miniskirt, short-shorts, hot pants and other designs? All the while, however, America’s Puritanism lurked just below the surface, ready to break free when the right circumstances converged.

That time has arrived.

With Republican electoral victories, women are losing hard-earned rights and freedoms. Several states, including Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky and Mississippi, have passed or are considering state laws that would ban almost all abortions. These lawmakers are counting on the new conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade.

Meanwhile, fashion is back in the news as it was when I was in college. Some garments again are under attack by conservatives. This time the targets are leggings and sports bras.

One controversy involves leggings. It started in full when Maryann White, a mother of four sons, wrote a critical letter to the University of Notre Dame’s student newspaper, The Observer. The paper also serves St. Mary’s, the nearby women’s college.

“I was at Mass at the Basilica with my family,” White wrote. “In front of us was a group of young women, all wearing very snug-fitting leggings and all wearing short-waisted tops…. Some of them truly looked as though the leggings had been painted on them.

“A world in which women continue to be depicted as ‘babes’ by movies, video games, music videos, etc., makes it hard on Catholic mothers to teach their sons that women are someone’s daughters and sisters…. I thought of all the other men around and behind us who couldn’t help but see their behinds. My sons know better than to ogle a woman’s body – certainly when I’m around…. They didn’t stare, and they didn’t comment afterward. But you couldn’t help but see those blackly naked rear ends. I didn’t want to see them – but they were unavoidable. How much more difficult for young guys to ignore them.”

Another headline-making garment event involves sports bras. At Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., the university men’s and women’s cross country teams recently gathered on the track for an afternoon workout. The timing wasn’t planned. Some of the women runners took off their shirts and finished the workout in their sports bras. Some male runners ran bare-chested.

“We were dead and sweaty,” women’s team member Hannah Vendetta said.

The women said one of the football coaches, whose team was practicing on the field inside the track, approached the women’s cross country coach and told him the women were distracting the football players.

A few days later, the cross country teams learned that university guidelines required all runners to wear shirts during practice. The women also learned that cross country teams could no longer use the track while the football team practiced. If the women wanted to run in the afternoon, they had to use the high school track across the street.

I asked a friend, a journalist and former college professor, for her thoughts on the sports bra and leggings incidents.

“The demand by a mother of four sons that women stop wearing leggings represents a tiresome reiteration of a centuries old conservatism that positions women as evil,” she said. “No wonder so many women have left the Catholic Church and other faiths and denominations.

“I grew up in an ultra-conservative region in Indiana and attended an ultra-conservative church, one that was so bad my dad raced to the church camp to get me out of there. At 10 years old, I was being denied breakfast every morning because my shorts came above my knees that spring. I was tall and was still growing.”

She said women in all walks of life are wearing leggings and will continue to do so for work, play and simple relaxation.

“And even more important, leggings reflect a commonality among women,” she said. “They represent a democratic coming together that women don’t talk about or maybe don’t recognize.”

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