Are leggings trousers?
Leggings – comfortable, stretchy, and easy to wear. The perfect garment, you might imagine, to pull on for a long-haul flight. But you might need to think twice before heading to the airport in your spandex…
A US airline recently stopped two female passengers from boarding a plane because they were wearing leggings. The story stirred up a storm of protest on social media, with twitter users outraged at the airline’s apparent policing of passengers’ clothing. The airline was quick to point out that the passengers in question were flying as guests of employees, and were therefore subject to a stricter dress code than other travellers.
But the uproar has brought up an ongoing debate – are leggings trousers? According to the Oxford Dictionaries Online definition, they most certainly are. We define leggings as ‘tight-fitting stretch trousers, typically worn by women or girls’.
A key concept in a dictionary entry is the ‘genus term’ – the part of the definition which answers the question ‘what type of thing is it?’. The genus term is a broader category into which the word being defined fits, and can be used to place closely related words into groups, or semantic categories. Our entry for leggings, therefore, uses the genus term ‘trousers’, firmly placing them in that group alongside jeans, cords, and culottes. And they certainly seem to fit our definition of trousers: ‘an outer garment covering the body from the waist to the ankles, with a separate part for each leg’.
Some critics however, have an issue with leggings as an ‘outer garment’. They feel that, because of their tight, form-fitting style, leggings are not actually suitable as outerwear. They would instead class them alongside tights or pantyhose, which we place in the semantic category ‘underwear’ (defined as ‘clothing worn under other clothes, typically next to the skin’). However, when writing our dictionaries we always rely on evidence of a word’s actual use – and it is clear from all of our sources that leggings are most commonly worn as trousers rather than underwear. As the Oxford English Corpus shows, leggings are more than twice as likely to be paired with shirts and tops as they are with skirts or dresses.
And what of the history of these fine garments? The Oxford English Dictionary has evidence of leggings going back to 1718. In this early use, however, the word referred to ‘coverings for the legs, or the lower part of the legs from the ankle to the knee, typically of leather or cloth’. These sturdy garments were often used to give extra protection to the legs in bad weather or rough conditions, with the word chiefly used in North America. By 1809, leggings were starting to take on their modern form, defined as ‘any of various close-fitting garments for the legs, resembling trousers or tights, and worn especially by children’. By the 1970s, they had become ‘tight-fitting trousers made of a stretch fabric, worn especially by women and girls’ – and comfort-seeking fashionistas haven’t looked back since.