In Defense of Saggy Pants

“Pull up your pants already.” “All these guys with their pants around their knees, waddling…”

Hey look, it’s the fashion police. Seems like everyone has something to say about sagging pants, from the president to the mayor of Dallas, who took out billboards to say it. Now Newton, N.J., is the latest town to try to ban sagging.

News flash, everyone: fashion trends look dumb. And sometimes they limit your movement in stupid ways.

But listen up close: Do you heap the same derision on women who wear 5 inch heels or pencil skirts that limit them to walking in little mincing steps? How about miserable looking men wearing full suits in 90 degree summer heat? How about anyone who maintains a hairstyle or makeup regime that sends them scurrying indoors when it’s drizzling? Or shoes so expensive you have to get an exploited manicurist fired, after her pay is docked to reimburse you, if she splashes something on them? For that matter, how about people who starve themselves to fit into “skinny” clothes? Tongue piercings? Bushy beards that catch food at every meal?

Look, I’m a low-maintenance kind of person when it comes to fashion. I prefer my clothes to be comfortable and to allow me freedom of movement. One of the first times that I put my foot down hard with my kids on a principle was about whether my toddler could wear a not-quite-warm-enough-for-the-weather coat because the warm-enough one wasn’t the color she wanted to wear that day. Never choose appearance over safety and comfort, I told her.

But. People do, and we should be very careful why we think it’s our business to care. It’s pretty human to seek to communicate belonging and identity and rebellion and resistance and a million other things through our clothing choices. It’s also pretty human to at least sometimes do that to the detriment of our perfect movement and comfort.

If restrictive clothing is imposed from the outside as a means of control (anything mandated by the government, or overwhelming cultural pressure on restrictive clothing that will get you shamed and cast out if you violate it, for example), then maybe we’ve got an issue that’s worth challenging. If it’s not, why should strangers care so much?

At least some people argue that sagging arose from the realities of poverty, where belts, and new jeans every few months when an adolescent was sprouting up, were an unaffordable luxury, and so jeans were bought big and grown into. Others say it’s a prison style, since belts aren’t allowed in prison. I’m not a fashion historian, and I don’t know that the origins are provable or that they matter, though I think either of those is more legitimate context than most head-scratcher fashion choices get.

What does matter though, is that the Wikipedia article on sagging is primarily devoted to a long cataloging of the towns and schools that have attempted and are still attempting to ban the practice, and the celebrities who have bother to publicly denounce it, all based on the apparently civil rights– and personal autonomy–trumping argument that “no one wants to see your underwear.”

Does this apply if your underwear covers substantially more than the shorts of the person next to you? Or is less tight and revealing than their leggings? Do you really, really want to go down that rabbit hole of a justification?

Oh, and can I pass laws against people wearing things I don’t want to see? Oh boy, where do I start? Confederate flags? Blood diamonds? Fur coats? Just looking at some high heels makes my ankles want to run screaming for safety.

The Wikipedia article on high heels, for reference, has a very substantial section on the negative health effects and dangers of regular wearing of them. And yet not a peep about anywhere that has tried to ban them. Just saying.

There’s a difference between “I don’t personally find that attractive” and “I’m willing to publicly scorn anyone who does this and assert my right to tell them what to do.” And with sagging pants that line seems to get crossed all the time by people who would fight to the death for a woman’s right to wear clothing as revealing or not as she saw fit. It’s that hypocrisy that really sets me back on my heels.

Whether you are trying to actually ban it, or just talking trash about someone, what does it mean if you actively disparage one and only one of the multitudes of goofy and awkward fashions out there, and it just happens to be the one you choose is the one adopted almost exclusively by young black men?

I think it means you have a problem that is deeper than fashion commentary and recommend that you take a long look in the mirror. And maybe your own closet.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Aug. 27, 2015.)

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