Sagging Pants Butt Up Against the Law

Yet the droopy trousers trend lives on

Low pants
Super low-slung pants Wikicommons

A campaign in Massachusetts is determined to put an end to wearing saggy pants by enforcing a law enacted back in 1784 and amended in 1987. According to Section 16, “Open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior,” under the “Crimes Against Chastity, Morality, Decency, and Good Order”:

A man or woman, married or unmarried, who is guilty of open and gross lewdness and lascivious behavior, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars.

Up to three years in jail and a few hundred dollar fine just for wearing your pants low?!

Omar Reid, president and founder of the Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts, doesn’t think it’s such a minor offense. He initiated the campaign, upcoming billboards and the accompanying video “to address the growing issue of young men walking in the streets of our communities without regard and respect for themselves and their community.” Reid explains:

For the BMHAM it’s a behavioral health issue in our neighborhoods and communities that must be addressed the entire community….This is just the beginning of our public strategy to encourage parents, schools, police, social service agencies, housing agencies, faith-based organizations, along with men and women in our community, to take a collective stand and tell our young men and boys to pull those pants up.

How does Reid not recognize that punishing someone for wearing pants at butt level isn’t exactly going to imbue that person with respect for his community—and that the long-term consequences are likely to do more harm than good?

While the Massachusetts campaign may seem straight out of an Onion article, sagging pants have been a hot topic since the early 2000s, particularly because states, cities and local communities around the United States have tried to enact laws that would provide fines, penalties, potential jail time for those who sag. Memphis, Tennessee, Delcambre, Louisiana, and Fort Worth, Texas are just a few of the cities to try to enforce anti-sagging laws to mixed results, including a successful “Urkeling” enforcement strategy derived from the character Steve Urkel from the television show “Family Matters.”

The enforcement of these laws is controversial because the majority of people who choose to make this fashion statement are young African American males. As a result, prosecution is generally equated with racial profiling, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union to write the blog post, “Why does the ACLU care about saggy pants“:

Government policy-makers have no right to dictate or influence style, nor do they have the right to protect themselves and the greater public from seeing clothing they dislike. In fact, clothing is a form of expression protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. A governmental body seeking to regulate content based expressive conduct, such as wearing saggy pants, must show that a substantial government interest exists in regulating the conduct, that the interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression, and that the regulation actually furthers that government interest. The courts have been clear that government cannot ban speech simply because others find it distasteful. There is no evidence linking saggy pants to crime or public safety.

President Obama has even weighed in, calling anti-sag ordinances “a waste of time.” In a New York Times article from 2008, he explained:

“Having said that,” he continued, “brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on.”

“Some people might not want to see your underwear,” Mr. Obama said. “I’m one of them.”

Wearing one’s pants really low makes the wearer walk penguin-like.  The person waddles around, maintaining a stilted gait so that the pants stay in place. Cinched with a belt, in extreme cases underneath the backside with boxers visible, the pants make legs look overly short. Oversized shirts elongate the torso leading to skewed, caricature-like proportions.

Remember when it was totally acceptable to wear men’s boxer shorts as regular shorts in the early 1990s?  How about corsets as outerwear? Or, ever see a woman whose leggings are stretched so taut across her derriere that her cellulite is visible through the Lycra? And let’s not forget super low-rise jeans with thongs peaking out. The list goes on and yet, you don’t hear towns passing laws against these styles, which are just as, or even more, explicit. What we have is a double standard.

Saggy pants got started in prison. Men weren’t allowed to wear belts for fear of self-harm and uniforms weren’t exactly well-tailored. That meant that more often than not, prisoners wound up wearing drooping pants. Outside of incarceration, the low-rise look stuck and ex-prisoners would identify one another by continuing to wear that style in public.

That look got co-opted by the hip-hop community and made its way into pop culture when groups like Kriss Kross wore their pants low (and backwards, but that’s another story, one that continues today with one of the members still wearing his pants backwards 21 years later) in music videos.

Today, everyone has an opinion on the subject, and teens’ views are as much a reflection of this issue’s divisiveness as are those of grown-ups. The Charlotte Observer posed the question, “Should people be punished for wearing saggy pants or exposing midriffs in public? Should wearing saggy pants be banned?” in its Young Voices section and responses varied. Adrian Delgado, 18, was strongly against the fashion: “I think that they should ban sagging pants because it just looks ridiculous seeing someone sagging.” Aaron Nash, 17, had more moderate views: “There should be a punishment for doing such actions as sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs but not that severe, coming from a young perspective. All sagging and wearing shirts that show stomachs are just a fashion statement.” And Mario King, 18, supported the style: “I don’t think the government has the right to tell people how they can wear their clothes that they worked hard and paid for.”

Does a violation on a permanent record for sartorial choices really have more lasting positive effects than negative ones? Doubtful. As Benjamin Chavis, former executive director of the N.A.A.C.P. stated in a New York Times article, “I think to criminalize how a person wears their clothing is more offensive than what the remedy is trying to do.” Plus, wearing saggy pants is the punishment itself; much like the hobble skirt from the early 20th century, the movement-stilting, limp-enabling, malfunction-prone clothing is awkward enough to make you think twice about the price you pay for fashion.


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