Plenty of fashions adopted by young people get under the skin of adults, but the opposition to sagging often has the feel of a moral panic. Robert Mecea/AP hide caption
Plenty of fashions adopted by young people get under the skin of adults, but the opposition to sagging often has the feel of a moral panic.Robert Mecea/AP
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.
There's certainly nothing novel about adults thinking that young people's fashions are distasteful — indeed, that's often kind of the point.
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 fervent 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 against bans like these.) And a group called the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts began airing public service announcements in Boston last year that pointedly used the threat of arrest as deterrent. "Our community and our people are tired of these kids walking around like this," Omar Reid, one of the initiative's leaders, told the Boston Globe.
There's certainly nothing novel about adults thinking that young people's fashions are distasteful — indeed, that's often kind of the point. Full disclosure time: Like an awful lot of people in my generational cohort, I used to sag. Here's what I'll say about that: Everyone who thought he was cool as a teenager and reaches his 30s will look back at photos of himself from high school and cringe mightily. But that isn't specific to sagging, of course. Like goth dress, it freaks out old people, and then most of its practitioners move on to other things. The difference is that the anxieties around something like goth dress don't get codified into laws that threaten jail time.
There's another argument against sagging, which you can see in this video that's part of the "Pull Up Your Pants Challenge," that tries to appeal to respectability and pragmatism: Black kids should jettison the look if only to avoid agitating unnecessary suspicion from police and strangers.
But if history is any indication, that suspicion has proven to be pretty sticky, and it's attached itself to a bunch of different styles — hoodies, construction boots, do-rags.
Sagging, though, has been a oddly long-lived source of agita.
The Murky Genesis Of Sagging
Los Angeles police officer Victor Vinson was talking to an audience of local parents, warning them about the lure of street gangs. He told them how they might recognize if their own kids had come under the thrall of gangs. The biggest tell, he said, was their sagging pants.
"Kids today are dressing for death," Vinson said.
That sentiment sounds a lot like the feelings of Mary Sue Rich, the Ocala, Fla., council member. But Vinson is quoted in a Los Angeles Times article from way back in 1988, one of the earliest mentions of the trend in the press. It's a reminder that people have been fretting about sagging for nearly three decades.
The world has changed a lot since then. Los Angeles in 1988 really was a violent place, especially compared with today, and much of that violence was gang-related. Hip-hop hadn't become a staple of mainstream music yet. Fashion has changed, too, as people have moved to more contoured, fitted clothing. Sagging has tracked with that: the huge, baggy jeans of the 1990s have been replaced with skinny jeans and pants today. (Unless, you know, you're Michael Jordan.)
But let's back up a bit. The most familiar origin myth for sagging goes something like this: Convicts prohibited from wearing belts often wore sagging prison-issued uniforms, and they carried that look with them once they were back on the outside. Another story goes that some prisoners would wear their pants low to let other inmates know they were sexually available. Both have been tentpoles of "scared straight" arguments against sagging for a long time. Um, literally so in the case of the latter.
"You want to walk around looking like a criminal? Pull up your damn pants!"
"You know that in jail that look meant you wanted to have sex with other prisoners? Pull up your damn pants!"
But it's murky as to how true this be.
"I don't think we can definitively say that sagging began in prisons," said Tanisha C. Ford, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who researches fashion.
An entry about sagging's genesis on Snopes, the online dictionary of urban legends, says the trend did in fact originate in prison, but the article doesn't link to its sources.
Consider the many other fashions that once carried the stigma of imprisonment that have migrated to the outside world. It's probably not an accident that the mainstreaming of tattoos and body art have coincided with the explosion of the American incarceral state.
Whatever the origins, people have actively courted that connection by positioning themselves against mainstream American ideas of propriety through their dress. But when that fashion itself goes mainstream, what counts as oppositional requires some occasional recalibrating.
It's highly possible, then, that sagging might still be a thing all these decades later because it hasn't lost its unique ability to rankle.
When 'Hoodlums' Wore Suit Jackets
But all this drama around young brown kids, baggy clothes and crime goes back much further than hip-hop and street gangs. In the 1930s, black and Mexican-American men in California began rocking big, oversize suit jackets, and pants that tapered down at their ankles: zoot suits.
Young men were stripped of their clothes and badly beaten as policemen scoured the streets in Los Angeles for zoot-suited young men they blamed for petty crime. Harold P. Matosian/AP hide caption
Young men were stripped of their clothes and badly beaten as policemen scoured the streets in Los Angeles for zoot-suited young men they blamed for petty crime.Harold P. Matosian/AP
Ford, the fashion historian, said the look was born out of improvisation, since many of those kids couldn't afford tailors. "A lot of kids would just go to the thrift store to buy those suits, and then get their mom or their aunts to taper the pants," she said.
But Luis Alvarez, a historian at University of California, San Diego who wrote a book on that period called The Power of the Zoot, said that just like the origins of sagging, the genesis of the zoot suit is pretty murky. "Some might argue that [people started wearing it because] it looked better when they were spinning girls around the dance floor," he said. "I argued with a guy who said they got it from [Clark Gable] in Gone with the Wind because he was sort of wearing a baggy suit in that movie."
What isn't in doubt, he said, is that the look was spread by black jazz musicians as they traveled around the country.
Today, those zoot suits are synonymous with Jazz Age and World War II-era cool. But back then, they were seen as the wardrobe of black and Mexican-American delinquents and gang members. Zoot suiters' opponents — and there were lots — saw them as harbingers of a moral decline. In his book, Alvarez cites a 1943 Washington Post article that was typical of the way the trend was covered in big-city newspapers. The language in it sounds an awful lot like the speech Officer Vinson would give those Los Angeles parents decades later on the dangers posed by saggers.
"Chief features are the broad felt hat, the long key chain, the pocket knife of a certain size and shape, worn in the vest pocket by boys, in the stocking by girls, the whisky flask of peculiar shape to fit into the girl's bosoms, the men's haircut of increasing density and length at the neck — all of which paraphernalia has symbolic and secret meanings for the initiates. In some places, the wearing of the uniform by the whole gang is a danger signal, indicating a predetermine plan for concerted action and attack."
In 1943, Noe Vasquez and Joe Vasquez — both 18 years old but not relatives — told Los Angeles police that they were roughed up by sailors who tore their zoot suit-style clothes. And even after all that? Swag. AP hide caption
In 1943, Noe Vasquez and Joe Vasquez — both 18 years old but not relatives — told Los Angeles police that they were roughed up by sailors who tore their zoot suit-style clothes. And even after all that? Swag.AP
"The style is linked to jazz music, it's linked to urban spaces, it's linked to a criminal underworld — gambling and numbers-running," Ford said. And those crimes were associated with blacks and Latinos.
Alvarez wrote that "[z]oot syle came to represent what was morally and politically deficient with the home front during World War II — violence, drinking, premarital sex, and the threat of street attacks." That distaste for the clothes and the culture associated with it persisted even though a good number of the people in the military and war industry were themselves zoot suiters.
As the war ramped up, Americans were, uh, tightening their belts. (My bad, y'all.) There were strict rations put on textiles and fabrics, which angered zoot suit opponents even more — those baggy, bulky threads weren't just criminal, but an affront to the nation's war goals.
"In '42 and '43 it becomes a flashpoint for ideas that were larger than just youth style," Alvarez told me. "This is when it becomes the platform for arguments about who is or who isn't American."
That anger exploded into violence in Los Angeles when bands of white servicemen — joined by hundreds of police officers — left their posts to search for young black and Mexican-American men dressed in that style to beat up. People were pulled from streetcars and pummeled by crowds. They were bludgeoned in the streets. The violence went on for more than four days.
"These kids wearing those outfits were stripped by sailors and LAPD and their suits were burned in the street," Ford said. But the anti-zoot marauders were hardly picky; people who weren't wearing zoot suits were jumped, too.
Similar but smaller paroxysms of violence would unfold in other big cities across the country as zoot suiters clashed with the police and angry whites. When things calmed down, the Zoot Suit Riots became a kind of national scandal, with both left-leaning folks and conservatives arguing that they might have been part of a plot to sow disunity on the domestic front.
Dangerous Fashion Goes Mainstream
The war ended. Fashion moved on. Ford said that as time went on, looks like dashikis and Afros would come to take on their own aura of black menace, although the threat in those style choices was more about fears of militancy and political unrest than street crime.
"We look at the Afro and the dashikis ... as part of iconography of the 1970s, but we don't remember how controversial and political those were," she said. Some historically black colleges like Hampton University once placed bans on Afros, and the hairstyle was verboten in Cuba and Tanzania.
Untethered from their contemporary messiness, though, those looks have folded into mainstream life. Afros used to scandalize white folks and older black people alike. Today college-educated women post their "big chop" pics to Facebook, Instagram or the countless blogs dedicated to natural hair, and they're greeted with affirmation and cosigns.
And zoot suits? Ford joked that the "Steve Harvey suits" that were the preferred dressed-up look for millionaire athletes looked a whole lot like the zoot suits of the World War II era. "You'd see these huge, 6-8 basketball players walking with the big, long suit jackets," she said. (I've been looking for any excuse to link to this draft night photo of Jalen Rose. Thank you, Dr. Ford.)
You might still see teenagers rocking them, too. "Nowadays I can't go a week or two in May or June without driving past some kids wearing zoot suits to their prom," Alvarez said.
I wondered if sagging was likely to ever make that same transition into ordinariness. "Once historians go and tell the story of the late 20th century — which we haven't done yet — there's a way that sagging and hoodies and t-shirts will be revered as markers of a particular era," Ford told me. She said that the hoodie and sagging pants look might even become the way we remember the youth resistance of our time. But, she said, "it's definitely still going to be tied to [ideas of] criminality."
Alvarez said zoot suits and sagging share much of the same DNA: They were ways that people made statements about their relationships to other people and their circumstances.
"[For the wearers,] it's a mechanism to reclaim dignity that's been taken away from them," he said.
A lot of people would roll their eyes and shake their fists if you told them that there was anything dignifying about sagging pants, I said.
"Youth culture, in general, is not always decipherable to those outside of the inner circle," Alvarez responded. "In many ways, our dress and our vocabulary and our vernacular becomes powerful because [outsiders] can't understand it."
By Vanessa Lopez-Littleton
UCF Forum columnist
For years I've debated the issue of people wearing sagging pants with anyone who cared to listen. I've hesitated to speak publicly for fear people would think I was condoning the style of dress. For the record, I believe style is a matter of personal expression.
Consider it this way: Some Americans grow up in neighborhoods where they are exposed to people who wear sagging pants almost every day. They see it inside of their homes, around their communities, in magazines, on the Internet and on TV. As a result, some would argue, it's a part of their culture.
Fashion and trends come and go, some of which reflect the social consciousness of those who participate in them. As such, young people should be allowed to express themselves and their culture with their style of dress. The mere fact that it is offensive to others does not negate their constitutional rights. The only intervention necessary should come from parents, who instill morals and values in their children, and the government, when the child is in a public school setting. Beyond that, style should be a matter of personal choice and not subjugated to the taste and preferences of others.
What is the real issue with sagging? Is it the fact that underwear or shorts are exposed, or is it something else? I would argue for the latter of the two.
The day after the recent Academy Awards presentations, Good Morning America aired a performance by Eden singing her new hit, "The Weekend." What was so striking about this performer was that she was sagging, or so I thought. She was wearing a leotard and MC Hammer-style pants down below her natural waistline exposing the upper part of her hips. As I feverishly scoured the Internet looking for outrage and backlash, I quickly realized none existed.
Later that day, I saw a video on Facebook of a very cute toddler "teaching" a dance class while three adults mimicked his moves. It was kind of cute, except every time he bent down, a large portion of his diaper was exposed. The video had over 29 million views and not one comment on the sagging pants.
So that I was clear on what sagging was really about, I did some research. Sagging is a male fashion trend of wearing pants low to expose underwear. Thus, women who wear jeans below their waistline to expose a G-string (known as a "whale tail") and dancing toddlers are not considered to be sagging.
I was perplexed, so I mentioned the issue of sagging pants to a former student who is white. Without prompting, he acknowledged that he had also worn sagging pants while in high school. When he started college, however, he stopped wearing sagging pants and was shocked to learn they were still common around town.
Another student offered an even more interesting perspective. She was appalled by the trend, which she said started as a way for gay/bisexual signaling in prison. After more research, I found no evidence to support the signaling-in-prison theory but found backing for the notion that inmates were often provided ill-fitting pants in jail without belts or elastic.
The more I asked about the issue, the more intriguing it became. I was told by some that people who wear sagging pants are hopeless and crying out for help. This statement was a bit more shocking as it represents a gross overgeneralization. Many saggers have become productive members of society, including my former student who is now interning at the state capital and preparing for law school.
I've come to realize that the issue of sagging pants is not about fashion, hopelessness or the historical significance of the trend; it's about black males and the way they are viewed in American society. Some argue that if they would pull their pants up, others would respect them. But as many black males -- who have never sagged their pants -- can attest, they have been disrespected regardless of the anatomical positioning of their pants.
As we know, America struggles with its own issues of diversity. There are strong undercurrents of racism and discrimination and alarming health statistics for minority groups. When subgroups, such as young black males, seek to express themselves or posit their own cultural elements, many of our laws - and us -are slow to accept them. In fact, sometimes we create laws to temper them.
In order to understand the uniqueness of the lenses through which others view things, we must be open to understanding subcultures with different sets of norms and values. If we are on the outside looking in, we are prone to make judgments based on our own set of morals and values.
Each of us is unique and should be appreciated and valued as such.
Vanessa Lopez-Littleton is a lecturer and internship programs director in UCF's School of Public Administration. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.