As the mercury climbed over 100 on Labor Day, I called Southwest Airlines with a not entirely hypothetical question:
Could a young woman board a flight to Tucson today wearing a bikini top?
Angelique, the agent who took my call, assured me that a young woman could.
“We don’t have a problem with it if she’s covered up in all the right spots,” she said. “We don’t have a dress code.”
Tell that to Kyla Ebbert, who was escorted off a Southwest Airlines flight two months ago for wearing an outfit far less revealing than a bikini top.
Ebbert, a Mesa College student and Hooters waitress, was allowed to stay on the plane, but only after she put up a fight and, she says, was lectured on how to dress properly.
I don’t know about you, but one of my big gripes with the airlines is that they just don’t take the time to dispense fashion advice any more.
Southwest explained its treatment of Ebbert in a letter to her mother, saying it could remove any passenger “whose clothing is lewd, obscene or patently offensive” to ensure the comfort of children and “adults with heightened sensitivities.”
Ebbert, 23, says she was judged unfairly by the airline and humiliated by the experience. Who wouldn’t be?
She had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon in Tucson, where temperatures had topped 106 all week. She arrived at Lindbergh Field wearing a white denim miniskirt, high-heel sandals, and a turquoise summer sweater over a tank top over a bra.
After the plane filled, and the flight attendants began their safety spiel, Ebbert was asked to step off the plane by a customer service supervisor, identified by the airline only as “Keith.”
They walked out onto the jet bridge, where Keith told Ebbert her clothing was inappropriate and asked her to change. She explained she was flying to Tucson for only a few hours and had brought no luggage.
“I asked him what part of my outfit was offensive,” she said. “The shirt? The skirt? And he said, ‘The whole thing.’ ”
Keith asked her to go home, change and take a later flight. She refused, citing her appointment. The plane was ready to leave, so Keith relented. He had her pull up her tank top a bit, pull down her skirt a bit, and return to her seat.
Ebbert says several flight attendants overheard the conversation and, after an embarrassing walk down the aisle, she took her seat and spread a blanket over her lap. She kept her composure until the plane landed, when she called her mother and broke down.
She took a photo of herself with her cell phone so her mother could see her clothes. That’s when mom became livid.
“My daughter is young, tall, blond and beautiful,” Michele Ebbert told me, “and she is both envied and complimented on her appearance. She dresses provocatively, as do 99 percent of 23-year-old girls who can. But they were out of line.”
Who knows where the lines are drawn these days, particularly when it comes to dress? If you watch television, or visit the mall, or take in a game at Petco Park, you’ll see women dressed in ways that, 50 years ago, were pornographic. Today they are stylish.
A Supreme Court justice famously could not define “obscene,” and declaring a thing “lewd” imputes motive. Did Kyla Ebbert intend to excite sexual desire on that flight to Tucson? I doubt it, just as I doubt that flight attendants are proper judges of such matters.
But neither am I. So when I arranged to see Ebbert in the notorious outfit, I brought along my fashion advisers, writer Nina Garin and photojournalist Crissy Pascual, who for years collaborated on a feature in this newspaper called “Seen on the Street.”
The three of us met Ebbert and her mother for lunch at Nordstrom Cafe. Ebbert, who is 5-foot-5 and has green eyes, is pretty enough to be a model.
Yet even wearing the clothes that scandalized Southwest, she did not attract attention beyond some lingering glances.
My fashion advisers were baffled, saying they saw nothing you don’t see on a college campus or in Pacific Beach.
“I was expecting to be shocked, and I was shocked the other way,” Pascual told me.
“It wasn’t a big deal,” Garin said. “Her skirt was a bit short, which was only accented by her heels. If she had been wearing flip-flops it wouldn’t have mattered.”
Garin wondered if a jealous woman may have complained about Ebbert’s outfit. I asked her what she would have said had she been on the plane.
“ ‘I hope she’s not sitting next to my husband,’ ” Garin replied. “She’s pretty. She wears her clothes well. But I wouldn’t complain about it.”
Pascual detected sexism in the way Ebbert was treated, wondering if a man would have been asked to change clothes. Do men dress inappropriately? “I see butt cracks, a lot of butt cracks,” she said.
In its letter, Southwest said “there were concerns about the revealing nature of her outfit.”
I called Hollye ChacÃ³n, the Southwest customer relations representative who wrote the letter, to see if we were talking about the same outfit.
“What exactly was being revealed?” I asked.
She said yesterday she’d call back, but never did. That’s pretty revealing in itself.