Who’s Afraid of Baggy Jeans?

Below I’m posting an article I wrote about urban teens. This is an issue I have a strong opinion about. People tie themselves in knots about baggy jeans because of their prison element. And, to that argument, I would say that all fashion comes from an outlaw culture. Spurs, jacket fringe, leather jackets, jeans, facial hair, tattoos, the list could go on. All of these items come from outlaw culture, become popular, and then fade. The same will happen with baggy jeans.

Who’s Afraid of Baggy Jeans?

School dress codes are not a new phenomenon. Most school districts have a list of acceptable clothing and ways of wearing said clothing. These codes are distributed to students and parents as a way of informing the pertinent population of what is acceptable and what is punishable. In these same school districts, towns and cities typically have obscenity laws on their books. These laws can be enforced in the same way laws similar to public drunkenness, lewd behavior, and vandalism is enforced. In most places these two types of rules do not overlap. But, with more frequency, many towns and cities are enforcing dress codes using obscenity laws to restrict certain types of clothing and the way the clothing is worn. In particular, baggy jeans have been singled out. The style of baggy jeans, many times with boxer shorts exposed, has been a controversial fashion style for many years. But, as the sagging has gotten farther down the leg, more and more laws have been enacted. The effect these laws have had on urban teenage boys marginalizes their personal choices and profiles them based on common urban fashion.

These laws have in the past five years have become more and more common. In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, for example, the city council enacted an ordinance that fined anyone with exposed underwear a $200 fine. “The proposed ordinance says displaying your underwear, ‘is a hazard to public safety by creating an unnecessary distraction. Provokes a disruptive or violent response.’ And, ‘increases the chance of personal injury to the wearer and surrounding persons by the risk of individuals tripping over their clothes.’” (Baldwin, 1) This ordinance uses language that appeals to safety rather than being uncomfortable with the fashion being displayed. However, the law implies many things about the wearer of the baggy clothing. The idea that baggy clothes would create violence equates the clothing with a wearer that is involved in violent behavior. It also connects gang activity and baggy clothing.

All of these assumptions work to create a feeling of distrust in the people of young minority males and also creates a feeling of negativity within the community itself. “Negative images can take control of one’s presented identity. As a result, one may face, if only momentarily, the perceptions of animalism and criminality from a Black male-phobic public as well as the abyss of nothingness or nihility within themselves.” (Stevenson, 60) The anti-sagging laws that have been popping up in minority-majority neighborhoods seem to work at creating a lack of choice for young minority males. Adolescents are already typically more self-conscious. A minority youth is self-conscious and also aware of how many in society perceive them. For many teens, they are already profiled as being disruptive just because they are teenagers. When the teens are minorities they are doubly profiled as teens and minorities. They are seen as aggressive. The dress code laws look at them through their clothing. The laws single out the fashion style that is popular a way to profile teenage boys that they feel might be threatening. All of this is extremely damaging to a teenage boys self esteem. Things like clothing are the way a teenager expresses themselves. By, fining and penalizing teenagers for their fashion choices, there becomes a feeling of isolation from adults and institutions that a teenager should feel safe with.

The penalizing of teenage fashion choices outside of the school house is not a new phenomenon. Many teenagers in the 1950’s and 1960’s were kicked out of school or faced profiling based on their hair or leather jackets. But, the concerted effort to banish baggy jeans and exposed boxer shorts has been pushed more forcefully. In fact, the dress codes themselves have been posted in places like bars. In St. Louis, Regis Murayi, a college student was kicked out of a club for his baggy jeans. His experience is not a unique one in most metropolitan areas. “I’ve been to places where [bars] have posted dress codes saying no baggy jeans, no dreadlocks, no cornrows, no chains, no jerseys, no backward baseball caps. I’ve seen dress codes posted that pretty much try to explain what they see as a stereotypical black man.” (Powers, B2) These dress codes are a way of discrimination that continues to marginalize urban youths. Urban teens are much more likely to dress this way and this leads to further feelings of low self-esteem and insecurity about their role in the larger society. The goals of the dress codes are to create a situation where discrimination is acceptable. By placing signs visible to all those who frequent a public place, the establishment is now safe to exclude members of the public and to discriminate with impunity.

So, in many places dress codes have been enacted. But, what lead to the rise in the fashion of baggy jeans and the distaste for those styles within the larger community. For many, the reason of the distaste for most baggy clothing and certain styles is because of where the baggy style began. “There was a period when baggies were only socially acceptable for African American males between 14 and 25 and a select group of young men who were members of gangs or drug dealers.” (East, 22) The baggy fashion started in prison because of the lack of belts and one size fits all clothing. After a time, the style evolved from prisons to urban streets and finally, to the larger culture. Urban youth culture, especially for males, became linked with baggy clothing. Many young men made the baggy look their uniform. But, the acceptance of a prison style was distasteful to many adults and other aspects of society. Local law enforcement and governments found the clothing to flaunt illegality. As time went on, community boards and other groups began to lobby for laws against the clothing. Because the clothing style was seen by many as part of an unlawful lifestyle, many saw the dress code laws and postings as a way to stop other crimes.

There is also another effect in all this, the discrimination of urban teen boys. For many teens this style of dress lost much of its meaning. It was a way to fit in, be comfortable, and be in style. But, because of the early origins of the style, it was looked down on. Schools, communities, and public establishments all looked at what they believe to be unacceptable. This has led to a wide variety of cases involving dress codes. In many cases, the schools or establishments have a small amount of knowledge and use what they know to discriminate against students sporting the urban style. In a suburban Atlanta school, a young man took his case all the way to federal court because of his school’s dress code which caused his suspension. In this case, the young man, listed as “John Doe” in the court documents was wearing what would be called standard urban teen apparel. “They included a University of North Carolina jersey and a red Ralph Lauren polo shirt. The punishments- which included a suspension, detention, and Saturday school- made her (his mother) think her son was the victim of racial profiling because he is black.” (Associated Press, 1) What makes this seem so ludicrous is that the school district is looking at two outfits, one blue and one red, worn by the same student and labeled them as gang related. There is a truth to this statement. Blue and red are the two colors associated with the Crips and the Bloods respectively. However, each color is significant to only one gang. The authorities in the school understood that blue and red signify gang membership, but the lack of knowledge of any higher relation was not developed. The student was punished because of a little bit of knowledge.
For teenage boys, this cursory amount of knowledge by adults and authority figures can lead to feelings of anger, confusion, and many times lead to even more feeling of disengagement with the society at large. “Adolescents who perceived their parents as constantly hassling them were more likely to express a bravado attitude than those who did not have such experiences with their parents. Additionally, negative neighborhood experiences such as being followed in public places (e.g., shopping malls) or perceptions of being harassed by police while ‘hanging out’ with friends were linked to bravado attitudes.” (Cunningham and Meunier, 221) These urban teenage boys begin to exhibit behavior that is in line with what people already expect of them. The tightening of loitering laws and clothing laws, make for a situation where teen boys begin to feel excluded from the rest of society and begin to engage in more anti-social behavior. The clothes profile the young men to then be persecuted for other offenses in relation to their clothing. These dress code school rules and city ordinances find a way of further marginalizing urban teen boys.

These rules have become a larger part of the landscape. They started with schools, bar, and clubs, and have become more and more a part of the urban males life. “Starting in Louisiana, an intensifying push by lawmakers has determined pants worn low enough to expose underwear poses a threat to the public, and they have enacted indecency ordinances to stop it.” (Koppel, C3) These laws appear to have a high racial component. Many minority teens are profiled because of their age and skin tone, the clothing is just another component. “Racial profiling of Black males while they drive, walk, talk, stand, and gather in groups has reached epidemic proportions (ACLU, 2000). Black males are twice as likely to be arrested and seven times more likely to be held in detention facilities as White youth (Children’s Defense Fund, 2000). Black males consistently receive more severe and lengthy punishment than white males who commit the same offenses (Children’s Defense Fund, 2000). Black males are over-represented at every level of the juvenile system, constituting 70 percent of all juveniles in American correctional facilities.” (Stevenson, 61) These new dress code ordinances create a situation where a group of people who already suffer from a disproportionate amount of their populace going to jail or being cited for minor violations are currently in an even more precarious position. Young minority males are being placed in a situation where they cannot express themselves through their clothing. For many, clothing is one of the least aggressive ways to express one’s self. With dress code ordinances, young men find themselves further being placed in the crosshairs of law enforcement.

The rise in dress code ordinances in cities has led to some legal cases involving the dress codes. The American Civil Liberties Union (A.C.L.U.) has been instrumental in trying to get many of these laws changed or stricken all together. “The American Civil Liberties Union has been steadfast in its opposition to dress restrictions. Debbie Segraves, the executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Georgia said, ‘I don’t see any way that something constitutional could be crafted when the intention is to single out and label one style of dress that originated with black youth culture, as an unacceptable form of expression.’” (Koppel, C3) For most young urban teens, jeans that sag off the waist are their style, there is no larger significance. The style for many is just fashionable; it has no connection to prison or an outlaw lifestyle. But, as the fashion style appears to communities, it can lead to ordinances that profile and single out a group of young men already struggling with profiling and legal issues.

Urban teen boys have been wearing pants that sag of their waist for quite some time. Styles have trended away from baggier legs. The styles of rappers like Kanye West, Pharrell, and Lupe Fiasco is one that is geared toward a skinnier leg to the pants, but one thing has not changed and that is the loose waist and the “sagging” this creates. Underwear is still partly exposed, even in this style of clothing. The baggy waist does not appear to be going away in the foreseeable future. Minority youths will continue to wear their pants this way. The real question is what will happen in cities, businesses, and schools? Will dress codes continue to discriminate and persecute young minority males, or will a compromise be reached? For many, the concept of changing their personal style appears to trump old fashioned ideas about acceptable clothing. Minority youths facing many obstacles appear to continue wearing their clothes. But, what will happen with society is still a work in progress.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Tyler. “Clothing Controversy.” Fox 16 Little Rock Arkansas 8/31/2007 2007: 1-2. Print.

Cunningham, Michael and Meunier, Leah Newkirk. “The Influence of Peer Experiences on Bravado Attitudes among African American Males.” Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures of Boyhood. Ed. Way, Niobe and Chu, Judy Y. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 219-232. Print.

East, Darlene F. “Baggy, Baggier, Baggiest!” NCAT Journalism Magazine 2002: 20-26. Print.

Koppel, Niko. “Are Your Jeans Sagging? Go Directly to Jail.” The New York Times 8/30/2007 2007, sec. Styles: C3. Print.

Powers, Ella. “Break it Down: Inside the World of Clubs, Lounges, and Dress Codes.” St. Louis Beacon 11/15/2008 2008: B2-B9. Print.

Stevenson, Howard C. “Boys in Men’s Clothing: Racial Socialization and Neighborhood Safety as Buffers to Hypervulnerability in African American Adolescent Males.” Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures of Boyhood. Ed. Way, Niobe and Chu, Judy Y. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 59-77. Print.

The Associated Press Staff. “Ga. District’s Anti-Gang Dress Code Gets Bad Review from Judge.” Associated Press 12/02/2005 2005: 1-2. Print.

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