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 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 uniquely long-lived source of agita.
The Murky Genesis Of Saggy Pants
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, an Indiana University historian 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.
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.”
“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.”