A couple of years ago, on my way to Texas, I was summoned by a TSA agent at JFK. It was December, and I was already hankering for spring, so I was in a flouncy floral dress layered over leggings with boots. When she summoned me, I was hopping hopelessly on one stocking foot, yanking the boot off the other.
It took a few tries on my part to understand that she meant for me to get out of line and go to her. I did, but, the whole walk over, I swung my face back and forth in a dramatic way, as if searching for someone else she might more reasonably be summoning. By the time I got to her, I felt satisfied with my effort to mark her behavior as atypical.
“Hi,” I said.
“Just thought you should know that your dress is really short, and you’re flashing the men behind you,” she said.
I suppose she was just looking out for a sister, but, at the time, I felt she was taking a tone with me. Some combination of indignation and vulnerability spread from my gut to my limbs and head and then spilled right out of my mouth: “Um, yeah, I’m wearing leggings, so, you know, whatever, it’s fine.”
In Of Grammatology, Derrida lays out the logic of the supplement in a critique of Rousseau’s The Confessions. Here’s how it goes: Rousseau argues that writing supplements speech. Speech is primary, abundant in its presence, immediate, complete. Writing merely adds to speech: it is secondary and inferior to it.
But supplement means both addition and substitution. Derrida suggests that Rousseau’s use of supplement-as-addition invokes its other, oppositional use: supplement-as-substitution. The very existence of writing implies that speech is, in fact, somehow incomplete. Writing takes the place of—or substitutes for—what’s inadequate or absent in speech.
For Derrida, this isn’t simply a matter of inconsistency in Rousseau’s argument. It’s that each use of the word necessarily entails the oppositional meaning. Supplement can never just mean addition because the very presence of a supplement calls to mind the insufficiency of what’s there primarily, and so it must also mean substitution. It is by this logic that Derrida shows how the speech/writing binary that has shaped Western thought is already corrupted.
A year later, I was back at JFK and dressed comfortably in a long-sleeved black tee shirt, black leggings, and an oversized belted sweater dress, reminiscent of this. I removed my flats and my belt before I queued up. I was about to step into that big Minority Report machine thingy when a male TSA agent told me to take off my sweater.
“It’s not a sweater. It’s a dress.”
“It’s your outer layer. You have to take off your outer layer.”
“Certainly not when the outer layer is a dress.”
“It’s a sweater, and you have to take it off.”
“This is my outfit. See?”
“You have to take off the sweater to go through security.”
“You want me to take my outfit off?”
“You have to remove your outer layer.”
“I’m not walking through security without my clothes on.”
At that point, I asked to speak to one of the female agents. One sauntered over in a way that suggested she takes no shit, as they say, so I leveled with her: “See, this is my dress. I’m only wearing leggings underneath.”
“No, you have to take off your outer layer.” (!)
“But these are just leggings.”
The guy interjected, “You’re wearing pants.”
“Leggings aren’t pants.”
I appealed to the woman again. “Leggings aren’t pants.”
“You have to take it off.”
I took it off. And I slinked through the checkpoint like a cat burglar in nothing but my skintight all-black.
These two incidents, when read against each other, highlight the ambiguity of leggings—a necessary ambiguity, as you will see. In the first incident, leggings were a sufficient presence. There’s no way I was flashing the men behind me; I might as well have been wearing pants. In the second incident, however, my leggings (probably the same exact leggings, I should note) were not sufficiently present. They didn’t count as clothes or as part of my outfit.
The everyday assumption (if a stroll down 6th Avenue is any indication) is that leggings are sufficiently present, sufficiently pants. That’s what the agents in the second incident and the me in the first incident assumed.
But the agent in the first incident and the me in the second incident remind us that, if leggings must be supplemented by a dress of some sort (or a long sweater, or a tunic), they are not sufficiently present. They are, in fact, incomplete.
We wear leggings on their own often enough, but, when we do, we are subject to the rebuke of would-be fashionistas: leggings aren’t pants. We also, probably more often, supplement leggings with another garment. So, the other garment, the supplement, is both optional and not optional. It’s not just a question of opinion whether or not leggings require a supplement. My own appeal to both meanings of leggings reveals that the meaning of leggings is necessarily unintelligible. Leggings are both pants and not-pants. This very tension, the unintelligibility, is what makes leggings leggings.
I hope that, through this analysis, I’ve freed the leggings-aren’t-pants principle from the body-shaming and slut-shaming discourses of which it’s a part (admit it). Derrida would remind us that all words are at the mercy of how they’re used, and so too are all articles of clothing. Leggings are just as much and just as often pants as they are not-pants.
And that’s how leggings corrupt the pants/not-pants binary that has shaped Western thought.