When Fashion is a Crime


A crackdown on sagging pants is triggering a debate among civil liberties advocates, police and community groups.

Justin Smith sauntered down Jay Street in Brooklyn, N.Y. on a crisp November morning, taking wide steps as his jeans slid down his hips. A good ten inches of his white boxer shorts showed above his belt.

Smith, 21, was sagging his pants, a style popularized by young African American men in the early 1990s, when Kriss-Kross topped the charts–and soon copied by youth everywhere.

While wearing pants slouched low to expose some, or all, of one's underwear has become commonplace around the country, many in the older generation—and some in the younger—are still horrified. “Indecent,” observed Roxanna Townsend, whose son is Smith's friend–adding, for extra emphasis, “indecent exposure.”

As far as Townsend is concerned, sagging is a crime against good taste. But now it's starting to appear in the criminal code.

In recent years, cities from Dallas to Rivera Beach, Fla. have launched efforts to make sagging punishable by fines and jail time. Some of the most vociferous supporters of these efforts claim the fashion was born in prison culture and, by implication glorifies criminal behavior. Others just argue, like Townsend, that it offends community taste.

“It's a horrible fad,” said City Councilman Anthony Davis of Paterson, New Jersey. The 40-something legislator, who spearheaded an anti-sagging campaign in his city, traces the trend to correctional institutions, where belts are often banned, and says many in the African American community worry that young black men are embodying a “prison mentality” when they let their pants sag.

But civil liberties advocates respond that going after young men because of the way they wear their clothes is as unconstitutional as banning free speech. Moreover, they argue, anti-sagging codes encourage racial bias in law enforcement.

Are you what you wear?

In 2007, Delcambre, Louisiana became one of the first jurisdictions to criminalize sagging when the town board voted unanimously to add “exposure of…undergarments” to the local indecent exposure ordinance. Conviction could bring a $500 fine, six months in jail, or both.

Starting in the mid 2000s, the criminalization trend spread almost as fast as the fashion itself.

At least 20 cities and towns across the country have tried to add sagging to the list of punishable minor offenses like jaywalking and indecent exposure. At least nine have succeeded. The most recent is Dublin, Ga., a city of about 17,000 people. Since passage of the ordinance in early September, Dublin police can write tickets to anyone wearing pants or skirts that expose skin or undergarments “more than three inches below the top of the hip.” The penalties range from community service to a fine of up to $200.

The Crime Report created a map of jurisdictions around the country where sagging has become an issue of law and order.

Dublin's measure attracted national news. Dublin Mayor Phil Best told CNN that the town was responding to complaints from citizens, “I think the overwhelming response of the people we represent was 'please, lets do something about it.'” Best says he hopes that the measure will be effective enough in discouraging the fashion, so that prosecution won't be necessary.

However, once such ordinances are passed, many other local authorities are not shy enforcing it. Four young men were sentenced to community service in September after being arrested last summer in Jeanerette, La

“How is that helping young black people?” wonders Shelton Grant, Brooklyn, N.Y. native in his 20s neatly turned out in a flat-brimmed red hat, neat cardigan and narrow jeans cinched half way down his hips.

Grant grew up in the heavily-policed housing projects on Brooklyn's west side, and now works full time for a delivery service, He worries that many young people living in low-income neighborhoods are being unfairly criminalized simply because of the way they dress.

Answering his own question bluntly, he says, “It's not.”

Zoot suits and bandanas

Sagging is hardly the first clothing choice to be frowned upon by authority, tied to criminality, or linked to ethnic or racial prejudice.

The Zoot suits worn by young black and Mexican-American men in the 1940s remain one of the most famous examples of conflation between clothing and social ills. The natty, tapered suits became to mainstream society a marker of crime and alienation, and a focus of social fears. In the 1990s, schools and prisons began to ban “gang-related” clothing and colors, which ranged from bandanas to red and blue clothing–colors linked to street gangs like the Bloods and Crips.

To use of clothing as marker of criminality raises complicated questions–does style profiling help identify criminals, or does it criminalize all who wear that style? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, those questions have become most charged around Muslim men's robes and the hijab, or veil, worn by women who observe Islam have become sartorial flashpoints in the public discourse.

In a recent controversial example, NPR commentator Juan Williams was fired by his organization after remarking on Fox TV last month that “when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

Because sagging is a trend favored by (but not limited to) young men of color, race or ethnicity surfaces each time a new city floats the idea of a ban. While local law enforcement and civic leaders regularly insist the laws are not meant to single out one race or even gender, critics from local teachers to the ACLU have said criminalizing a fashion style has real-life consequences, mostly for young black and Latino men.

“When we create a piece of legislation about sagging, we sort of know in advance that we are criminalizing those two groups,” said Delores Jones-Brown, director of The Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Brown sees the trend as sending a kind of 'screw-you' message to authority. Cracking down on the trend is likely, therefore, to be counter-productive, Jones-Brown says. “To the extent that it is a form of resistance, to make it criminal only builds the resistance,” says Jones-Brown. “It will not have the desired effect.”

While she questions the efficacy of the ban, Jones-Brown says one outcome is sure: “More black and Latino men will be swept into the [criminal justice] system.”

But the sagging question is not black and white–opinions cross racial lines. Black leaders have headed up several of the efforts to ban sagging, using laws and public awareness campaigns.

Dallas' Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway launched a public awareness campaign about sagging in 2007 that received national attention. Caraway, who is black, sponsored an anti-sagging campaign with billboards featuring a sagger with happy-face boxer shorts sticking out of his pants.

The message: “Pull'em up!”

“Someone needed to get out and speak out in volume,” Caraway told The Crime Report. “Dallas was on the front end of teeing this baby up.”

The campaign, declares Caraway, has been effective. Not only are other cities joining the ban-the-sag movement, but the fashion itself is losing traction–at least in Dallas. “Some are beginning to sag less,” he says. But, he adds, there are holdouts, “Those that are still sagging are sagging worse.”

New York State Senator Eric Adams launched a “Stop the Sag” campaign in Brooklyn last spring, with billboards and TV ads exhorting young men to “Raise Your Pants, Raise Your Image.” Adams, a former NY cop, says sagging's association with prison culture stigmatizes black youth. “Free people should not duplicate the behavior of those who are incarcerated,” Adams said in an interview last April.

Debate on the Street

The message has resonated on Jay Street in Brooklyn, where it has sparked some intriguing fashion debates.

“I don't sag!” insists Justin Smith. “Sagging is, like, wearing your pants around your knees.”

“Yes you do!” Otilia Lamont pipes up, walking right behind him.

While New York City doesn't yet explicitly ban the fashion, some offenders have received tickets for disorderly conduct. Lamont, a grandmother in her 60s, thinks the punishment is deserved. “It is not appropriate to show them body parts,” she says in a deep Caribbean lilt.

A judge in the Bronx saw it differently when the issue came into his court last summer. Judge Ruben Franco dismissed a disorderly conduct charge leveled against a Bronx man for wearing “his pants down below his buttocks exposing underwear” and “potentially showing private parts.”

“While most of us may consider it distasteful, and indeed foolish, to wear one's pants so low as to expose the underwear,” Judge Franco wrote in his decision, “people can dress as they please, wear anything, so long as they do not offend public order and decency.'”

Franco added a brief rap on the knuckles to the arresting officer. “The issuance of this summons appears to be an attempt by one police officer to show his displeasure with a particular style of dress,” the decision continued.

Such judgments, along with the constitutional issues raised by the ACLU and other civil liberties activists, suggest that many cities may think twice before adding fashion notes to their law books. But even if sagging fades like its fashion predecessors, it's almost certain that something else will replace it.

Youthful rebellion, after all, is always in style.

“I don't call it sagging,” says Justin Smith, as he strolls through a busy crosswalk, hitching up his pants one more time. “I call it swagger.”

Lisa Riordan Seville is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY

Photo by Jesse757 via Flickr.

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