Sagging Pants And The Long History Of 'Dangerous' Street Fashion

For adults, “sagging” has long been a marker of slovenliness or something more sinister. But the style might just be the latest iteration of fashion freighted with some old anxieties.

Mary Sue Rich finally had enough.

The council member from Ocala, Fla., was tired of seeing the young people in her town wearing their pants low and sagging, and successfully pushed to prohibit the style on city-owned property. It became law in July. Violators face a $500 fine or up to six months in jail.

“I’m just tired of looking at young men’s underwear, it’s just disrespectful,” Rich said. “I think it would make [people who wear sagging pants] respect themselves, and I would wager 9 out of 10 of them don’t have jobs.”

The rationale behind the ban enacted last year in Wildwood, N.J., was similar. “I’m not trying to be the fashion police, but personally I find it offensive when a guy’s butt is hanging out,” said Ernest Troiana, the town’s mayor, after he announced that his city would very much be policing fashion.

Pikeville, Tenn., switched it up a little: Officials there said they were doing so in part because of health concerns related to the “improper gait” of the saggers. The mayor even pointed to a study from a Dr. Mark Oliver Mansbach of the National American Medical Association that supposedly found that around 8 in 10 saggers suffered from sexual problems like premature ejaculation. One problem: Neither Mark Oliver Mansbach nor NAMA actually exist; the much-referenced study was an April Fools’ joke.

This isn’t merely the hobbyhorse of small-town politicos — no less a figure than President Obama has weighed in on sagging. “Brothers should pull up their pants,” he told MTV a few years ago. “That doesn’t mean you have to pass a law … but that doesn’t mean folks can’t have some sense and some respect for other people. And, you know, some people might not want to see your underwear — I’m one of them.”

For sagging’s many detractors, kids wearing their pants below the waist — or below the butt cheeks, in the case of the look’s most committed adherents — has doubled as a reliable shorthand for a constellation of social ills ostensibly befalling or propagated by young black men. A dangerous lack of self-respect. An embrace of gang and prison culture. Another harbinger of cultural decline. Those are all things that people say about hip-hop, which helped popularize the sagging aesthetic. And if those are the presumed stakes, it’s hardly any wonder why opposition to sagging sometimes has the feel of a full-on moral panic.

Such is the apoplexy around the styles that many of the most vocal proponents of sagging bans are people who might otherwise be wary of putting young black men into unnecessary contact with the criminal justice system. When Jefferson Parish, La., banned sagging last year, the move got a big cosign from the head of the nearby chapter of the NAACP. “There is nothing positive about people wearing saggy pants,” he told a local TV station. (The national NAACP, it should be noted, has fought back [ … ]

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