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Fashion Police

Bans on sagging jeans raise the question:
What happens when fashion moves from being merely objectionable to illegal?

By Niko Koppel

Jamarcus Marshall, a 17-year-old high school sophomore in Mansfield, Louisiana, believes that no one should be able to tell him how low to wear his jeans. "It's up to the person who's wearing the pants," he says. Marshall's sagging pants, a style popularized in the early 1990s by hip-hop artists, are becoming a legal issue in a growing number of communities, including his own.

Lawmakers in at least three states—Louisiana, Georgia, and New Jersey—have decided that pants worn low enough to expose underwear pose a threat to the public, and they are trying to enact indecency ordinances to stop it.

Since June, sagging pants have been against the law in Delcambre, Louisiana, a town of 2,200 that is 80 miles southwest of Baton Rouge. Offenders face a fine of as much as $500 or up to a six-month jail sentence. A law that took effect last month in Mansfield, a town of 5,500 near Shreveport, also mandates a fine or jail time for sagging pants. Similar measures are being considered in Atlanta and New Jersey.

But when fashion moves from being merely objectionable to illegal, constitutional questions about freedom of expression arise: Can the government tell you what to wear?

The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't think so. "This style may be distasteful to some, but do we really think it should be legislated?" says Benetta Standly of the A.C.L.U. of Georgia. "Our answer is no. We don't think this is in the realm of public policy. We don't think it's the government's role."

In fact, efforts to outlaw sagging pants in Virginia and statewide in Louisiana in 2004, failed because of such concerns. In August, the Town Council of Stratford, Conn., rejected a baggy-pants ban, deciding it was unconstitutional and would unjustly encourage racial profiling.

School Dress Codes

Roger Pilon of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is even more blunt in his opposition: "This is the kind of officious meddling in personal behavior that makes a laughing stock of the officials who do it."

But advocates of the laws say these measures are about enforcing public decency.

"It's a fad like hot pants; however, I think it crosses the line when a person shows their backside," says Councilwoman Annette Lartigue, who is drafting a sagging pants ordinance in Trenton, N.J., the state capital. "You can't legislate how people dress, but you can legislate when people begin to become indecent by exposing their body parts.''

While some communities are trying to crack down on what they see as indecency, school districts have become more aggressive in enforcing dress codes, as the courts have given them greater latitude in this area. Schools have placed restrictions on miniskirts, long hair, piercings, logos with drug references, and gang-related clothing, including hats, jewelry, and particular colors.

Public outrage at particular fashions is nothing new—especially when the fashions are popular among young people. In the past, there have been outcries against fashions when they "challenge the conservative morality of a society," says Andrew Bolton, the curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Lurking behind the sagging-jeans laws in Louisiana and the various proposals for similar measures elsewhere may be the real issue—hip-hop style itself, which critics say is worn as a badge of delinquency, with its distinctive walk conveying thuggish swagger and a disrespect for authority.

Sagging pants began in prison, where oversize uniforms were issued without belts to prevent suicide and their use as weapons. The style spread through rappers and music videos, from the ghetto to the suburbs and around the world.

Some see the recent sagging prohibitions as racially motivated, because those who wear the style are young, predominantly black men. "We think this is part of a national trend that is criminalizing youth, and specifically African American male youth," says Standly of the A.C.L.U.

"The 'In' Thing"

Ironically, much of this legislation has been proposed by black public officials. In Atlanta, for example, Councilman C. T. Martin is the force behind the proposed ban.

"Little children see it and want to adopt it, thinking it's the 'in' thing," Martin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I didn't want young people thinking that half-dressing is the way to go. I want them to think about their future."

But Benjamin Chavis, the former executive director of the N.A.A.C.P., says, "I think to criminalize how a person wears their clothing is more offensive than what the remedy is trying to do."

Chavis, who is often pictured in an impeccable suit among the baggy outfits of the hip-hop elite, is a chairman of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, a coalition he founded with the music mogul Russell Simmons. He says the coalition will challenge the ordinances in court.

"The focus should be on cleaning up the social conditions that the sagging pants come out of," says Chavis. "That they wear their pants the way they do is a statement of the reality that they're struggling with on a day-to-day basis."