Two women, two wardrobe messages, both intentional.

Dear ND Mom Maryann White,

I admire your guts. If, when my daughter was in college, I’d written and signed a letter along the lines of the one you wrote this week, “The Legging Problem,” only her pragmatic consideration of the next semester’s tuition would have prevented our permanent estrangement. I admire you setting the example for your sons of having the courage of your convictions, and being unafraid to publicly voice an opinion that you surely knew would result in a hashtag heyday of negative response and mockery.

I agree with you that clothing sends messages. After decades of working in fashion, I believe in the power of clothes as a conduit of self-expression in general and at a given moment. Look at the two women here. Each wears an outfit that sends a specific, non-accidental message. To pretend otherwise is ridiculous.

Yet to state that sometimes people, both women and men, choose a particular look because it’s sexy is a dicey enterprise in our modern world, particularly when talking about women’s fashion choices in the #MeToo era. Such acknowledgment is often twisted by critics to suggest that the person stating the obvious is trumpeting the old, warped viewpoint that inappropriate male behavior toward a woman can be outfit-induced, and if so, “she had it coming.” Also ridiculous.

At times in life, disparate and conflicting realities coexist. Some women sometimes make the deliberate choice to dress in a manner widely perceived as sexy. Dressing in a sexy manner often elicits a response of interest from men. Both of those statements are fact. (For Kim Kardashian to be oblivious to the overt sexiness of most of her fashion looks, she would have to be a blithering idiot. She is not; she is decidedly the opposite.) That no woman, regardless of her wardrobe choices, should be subjected to unwanted male advances, either well-intentioned or sinister, is also a fact. So, too, that nice guys have to learn how to negotiate it all. That those two sets of facts often exist in opposition (talking nice guys only, not the pigs) is a duality with which individuals and the culture must come to grips.

Ms. White, that brings me (albeit circuitously) to your position on young women wearing leggings. Yes, leggings are a second-skin item. But are they inherently sexy? As women across demographics — not only the young and collegiate — have for years embraced leggings as suitable-for-sidewalk wear, plenty of anecdotal observation suggests a range from sexy to slovenly, and from pulled-together to rolled-out-of-bed-and-don’t-give-a-damn. If those of the male persuasion from adolescence on up get excited at every sighting, they must have absolutely nothing else on their minds because women and girls in leggings are everywhere.

Touchdown Jesus, at Notre Dame, which this week became the focus of a leggings controversy.

Touchdown Jesus, at Notre Dame, which this week became the focus of a leggings controversy.  Steve Jacobson/AP

There are reasons to both love (comfort) and loathe (whatever happened to getting dressed?) leggings. In my opinion, your suggestion that girls wearing them make it harder for parents to raise honorable sons isn’t one. But that’s your opinion, to which you’re entitled.

My larger issue with your letter is its inference that you speak for Catholic mothers. You do not. Let’s start with the four young women who prompted your letter. You saw them at Mass. My considerable experience with young and young-ish people baptized and raised as Catholics is that not many view Mass as a go-to destination. So kudos to your fanny-flaunting quartet; at least they were there. As the practicing-Catholic mother of a former Catholic schoolgirl (pre-K through 12) and now infrequent churchgoer, I’m impressed.

More importantly, as a practicing Catholic, as a woman, as a mother, as a human being, I believe we Catholics individually and as a Church have far more important issues to reconcile and reform than the threat to boys of girls in leggings. The Catholic Church has a huge image problem in the secular Western world, much of which thinks we’re all reactionary buffoons. While short-sighted and ignorant, that view is fed by loosely fitting knickers getting twisted over non-issues like leggings.

Meanwhile, critics wonder how those of us who haven’t left the Church can remain card-carrying members knowing what we know about decades, and probably centuries, of sexual abuse by clergy of children and young adults, and the subsequent cover-ups. Both abusers and their protectors reached — God willing, the past-tense is correct — into the upper echelons of the hierarchy, their young, helpless victims overwhelmingly male.

I believe in my religion. I believe in its doctrine, the good it does, the social causes it champions and its potential to do ever more good. However, when challenged by friends about how I can reconcile what’s known of institutional Catholicism’s horrific dark side to the point of ongoing participation, I’m kind of at a loss. It’s a tough argument to articulate clearly to others, and even to myself.

The issue requires serious soul-searching on the part of all Catholics. By comparison, to focus on the perceived detrimental effects of leggings feels absurd. As a Catholic mother, I agree one thousand percent that boys — your sons, my nephews, their friends, all of them — should be protected. But the threat isn’t from girls wearing leggings.


Bridget Foley