The Message Matters When Dress Is Form of Expression

Far be it from me to criticize another mom, especially one I've never met, so I'll say this carefully: Um… Michelle Ebbert? If it were my daughter who had been reprimanded by the flight staff of a Southwest Airlines crew for dressing so inappropriately that her attire was deemed offensive, I don't think I'd be parading around on the Today show making a fuss.

I certainly wouldn't be engaged in a public relations war or threatening a lawsuit against the airline. In fact, I'm virtually certain I would be hiding under a rock wishing I had done a better job of teaching my daughter how to make more appropriate clothing choices.

You may have missed this story a couple of weeks ago unless, like me, you follow news of the trite yet somehow culturally significant. Apparently, a 23-year-old college student (and Hooters waitress) named Kyla Ebbert, after taking her seat on a Southwest Airlines plane, was asked to deplane because of her overly revealing attire.

Miss Ebbert asked the airline employee specifically what was wrong with her outfit and was told by the attendant, identified in the media only as Keith, "Everything."

As you might imagine, the media folks who covered this story slanted it sympathetically toward Miss Ebbert — and who wouldn't? She was humiliated and publicly embarrassed, allowed to fly to her destination only after agreeing to put a blanket over herself.

To be clear, Miss Ebbert was dressed in a way we see most young women attired these days — tight T-shirt, cropped sweater, supershort miniskirt and high heels (though here the words "supershort miniskirt" should be read to mean "microscopic scrap of fabric.") To be blunt, it was an outfit only a Hooters waitress could pull off.

On Today, Miss Ebbert, her mother and her attorney appeared to make the point that she was wronged. The young lady even wore the offending outfit on the air and, to be fair, it doesn't appear particularly offensive at first. Yet this assumes Miss Ebbert wore her micro-miniskirt on the plane in the same way she wore it on TV. In truth, if adjusted slightly (not for nothing, in the manner the designers, manufacturers and purchasers intend) this particular style of skirt allows for just a hint of fanny to be seen under the exceptionally short hemline.

Now, I can appreciate the defensive posture taken by the elder Ms. Ebbert. Her daughter was embarrassed by an airline employee, reprimanded for her attire and initially asked to deplane in favor of a change of clothing before flying on another Southwest flight. (After protesting, she was permitted to stay aboard.)

By the time young Miss Ebbert reached her destination, she was understandably upset and called her mom in tears. What mother wouldn't be livid?

And yet… I have daughters. As the mother of three girls ranging in age from pre-adolescence to young adulthood, I'm deeply concerned about the message we send girls and young women when we defend even their most inappropriate choices.

We're long past the days when people dressed up to fly or go to the movies or a restaurant. Some aspects of our casual culture are a welcome relief from the stodgy, uncomfortable conventions of a bygone era, but some of our commitment to comfort and self-expression has left our culture undone, so to speak.

Comfort and self-expression are great, but they're not always paramount. When my daughters go out in public, I want them to project their true character and to be perceived as smart, strong, capable and competent young women.

I'm certain they won't project such an image by strutting through an airport in skirts that rightly might serve as dust rags.

The most disconcerting aspect of the Ebberts' Today appearance was their righteous indignation, their moral umbrage that someone — anyone — might challenge the appropriateness or social convention of the young Miss Ebbert's attire. In fact, her mother argued that Kyla's sexy clothes are typical of the way most young women dress these days.

So there it is — the justification. If most young women dress in sexy, skimpy clothes, it must be okay, and moreover, Miss Ebbert ought not to have been singled out, embarrassed and held accountable for the fact that her wardrobe choice offended others on her flight.

The elder Ms. Ebbert may feel great about her public relations campaign, and perhaps they'll even win a nice settlement from Southwest Airlines, which, it turns out, apparently does not have a written dress code for customers, thus leaving Keith flapping in the breeze, legally speaking. But still.

There comes a time when a mother really should say to her daughter, "I'm so sorry that happened to you, and certainly the attendant should not have embarrassed you. But honey, you cannot wear a micro-miniskirt on an airplane where there are business travelers, families, elderly folks and others who don't take kindly to being confronted with the upper portion of your thighs. Wear the skirt to the bar, the beach or the bathroom… but not on a plane."

Had this mom responded in such a way, she might have done her daughter a real service. Instead, I fear her anger will only serve to win her daughter a big wad of cash but no more good taste or sense of propriety than she had the day she got on that plane.

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  • Guest

    This girl was also featured on Dr. Phil last week, along with her lawyer.  After going on and on about how all she wanted was an apology, Southwest issued her an apology on Dr. Phil and gave her a free airline ticket.  Dr. Phil then asked her whether she would refrain from seeking legal action, and she and her lawyer made it pretty clear that she probably would not.  He was incredulous, and pointed out that she finally got what she said she wanted, but she wouldn't back down.  I think the way Southwest handled this was poor.  They should not have publicly embarrassed her, and because they don't have a dress code, they really didn't have a leg to stand on (the truth is that there probably have been plenty of young girls who have flown Southwest in similar outfits, and because there's no dress code, whether or not they've been asked to change has depended on the discretion of individual flight attendants).  Southwest could easily prevent this situation in the future from having a clearly defined dress code that spells out what is and is not acceptable attire for flying.  But I also agree that the way this girl and her mother have responded is ridiculous, particularly after the girl got the apology that she claims is all she wanted in the first place.

  • Guest

    Where is the father?

  • Guest

    Sillyfuzz, you asked the right question. The airlines will now have to measure from the knee up the thigh to see if the dress is appropriate. If this bimbo and her mother had anything else going for them that lawyer would be with another client. As it is there's nothing there from the shoulders up so it's either a job at hooters or Aruba after the settlement. Keith will make a good father someday if he isn't already.

  • Guest

    It strikes me as too bad that a female attendant didn't tell the girl that soliciting is not allowed on the plane!  I would have.

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