Fashion police

By Michelle Chen Apr 13, 2009

Grown-ups have been fretting about what kids are wearing for generations. In the 1960s, black armbands worn in protest of the Vietnam War were banned, ultimately leading to a landmark Supreme Court ruling. During the 1990s, courts ruled that some bans on provocatively worded T-shirts and other controversial fashion flunked the constitutional test because they didn’t serve a valid safety or disciplinary purpose. The politics of regulating dress get sketchier below the belt. Around the country, new laws and ordinances have cropped up to bust “baggy pants.” Some of the anti-sag rhetoric parallels the arguments for anti-gang school dress codes: droopy pants symbolize some kind of threat to civility and decency, maybe even moral turpitude. While youth of every hue and background sport baggy jeans—and MTV has elevated the look into pop-cultural iconography—it seems to raise some hackles around the image of Black America. The fashion apparently originated with the beltlessness imposed on prison inmates (somehow coverall jumpsuits haven’t caught on quite as well). The pants patrol may have been emboldened by Barack Obama’s famous admonishment to young people to ditch the low-riders in a television interview last year. The well-tailored candidate was clear, however, that “You don’t have to pass a law” to persuade kids to be more mindful about showing their underwear. The fashion police are nonetheless out in force: Lynwood, Illinois, Flint, Michigan and other areas have moved to clamp down on bagginess. One proposed bill in Tennessee would impose a fine of up to $1000 for pants drooping “below the person’s waistline… in a manner that exposes the person’s underwear or bare buttocks.” The rules may seem quaint compared to some of the hardline policies that have expanded police contact with youth (such as a recent racially charged incident of alleged brutality on a Mississippi school bus). But regulating youth fashion falls on the same slippery continuum of discipline by government decree. It’s difficult to strip the racial undertones from any ban on an emblem of hip hop culture. And compared to anti-gang dress codes, the pants laws overall seem less tied to public safety. An ongoing prosecution in Riveria Beach, Florida—under an ordinance that swept into law by popular vote—suggests an authoritarian creep underlying the pants laws. More broadly, the legal penalties would likely fall largely on demographic that is much more exposed to the criminal justice system—those who, not coincidentally, tend to look like the incarcerated people who inspired the trend to begin with. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee warned of the inherent subjectivity of fashion regulation: “We cannot criminalize a style of dress just because we find it distasteful… Banning saggy pants violates freedom of expression and promotes racial profiling.” Flawless Hustle reflects on the cyclical perversity of fashion crackdowns:

If you’ve ever come to wonder how it is that America has become a nation of jailers, where 25% of the world’s prisoners are housed, despite us only accounting for 5% of the world’s population – an astouning, horrific figure – you only need to look at measures like these. We criminalize everything. Even taste…. Don’t like kids wearing baggy pants? Give the police the right to arbitrarily decide which pants sagg and allow them to arrest offenders. And remember, no “but, officer, this is the way I like to dress” – that’s showing disrespect to an officer of the law.

The baggy-pants backlash has taken some less punitive forms as well. At Miami’s disturbingly named Plantation High, the administration hopes students will voluntarily embrace a tighter waistline. They’ve handed out belts in the hallways and piping the exhortation “Today is your chance to pull up your pants.” Will the war on sag win over young hearts and minds? The logic of the pants crusaders is apparently that subversive fashion threatens authority, and banning symbols of disrespect would promote social order. There’s remarkably little reflection on why young people express themselves this way. It may be tied to mindless trend-worship, but it also embodies what provocative fashion has always been—from zoot suits to mini-skirts to bondage pants—a statement of individual identity in defiance of the status quo. You either get it or you don’t.