BANNING THE BAGGY

The Baltimore Sun

As head of a Park Heights children's mentoring program, David Edmondson, 30, is constantly telling his young charges to keep a neat haircut, tuck their clothes in, and most important, "Pull up your pants!"

But that doesn't mean he's in total agreement with an Atlanta city councilman who has caused quite a buzz recently by proposing a ban in his city on visible bra straps and thongs and low-slung pants that expose underwear.

"If I see my son [showing his underwear], I'm going to smack him straight in his head," says Edmondson, executive director of Children All Around Mentoring Program and a proponent of the neat-and-clean look. "Don't be out here dressing like a bum. But at the same time, if they're not really doing anything wrong, just wearing their clothes a little baggy, that's where it becomes a sticky situation."

Longtime Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin has raised the eyebrows of rap stars, fashionistas and even civil-liberties advocates with his proposed dress code, which will be publicly discussed for the first time today at a Public Safety Committee meeting in Atlanta.

His proposal has garnered ink and air time and stirred debate in the blogosphere, both nationally and internationally.

The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Georgia called the proposal "racial profiling," and said it was unenforceable.

In the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, rapper Yung Joc has vowed he would defy the law at a coming concert.

And Antonio Gray, buyer for the popular urban chain store DTLR (Downtown Locker Room), says such a proposal leaves too wide a space for interpretation and could contribute to further harassment of urban youth.

"I can't imagine it would be enforced equally," Gray says.

'A call to action'

Reached on his cell phone yesterday, Martin defended his position and said detractors are helping his crusade for public decency.

"The one success already is that it has created a dialogue. It is causing people to talk who have not been talking," Martin says. "It isn't something that we are whining about anymore. It's a call to action."

Not everyone is heeding the call to ban.

Shaun Adamec, spokesman for Baltimore City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, says the council's office has received calls in the past from constituents concerned about loose-fitting clothes, "specifically as it relates to being able to hide weapons."

But that's not enough to warrant writing a new law, he says.

"If that's something that someone wants to take on as a social issue, I think it has more of a place there than it does as a piece of legislation," Adamec says.

Others try legislation

Several states, however, such as Florida, Texas and Virginia, have debated the sagging-pants issue. And several towns in Louisiana have passed ordinances that carry fines for people exposing their underwear in public.

Martin says his proposal was generated by a social outcry. People in his and other communities, he says, have long been offended by the popular tendency - particularly among African-American young men - to wear pants so low and loose that their boxer shorts peek from the waistband, or in some cases are fully visible.

"It is a public-policy issue," says Martin, who is black. He adds that the problem extends to other racial groups, and to women's attire, as well. "It was disrespectful, degrading, and we just need to say something about it."

If Martin's proposal becomes law, violators would not be given jail time, just fined a still to be determined amount, he says.

"I'm trying to get some rational thinking out of our young people," he says.

Legal experts say Martin's proposal will likely never become law.

"You can argue that [showing underwear is] grossly unattractive, but I'm not sure that you can really argue that it's obscene," says John Armor, legal counsel to the American Civil Rights Union. "You can't legislate people dressing better."

Armor agrees with the ACLU that there is a racial element of the proposal that is is problematic - despite Martin's assertions that he isn't targeting black men.

"[The ACLU would] say primarily certain students of a certain racial group tend to dress this way and therefore to shut this down is an attack on a racial group," says Armor, who is white. "And you could argue that there are people who are not of that racial group who dress equally villainously. That includes some of my own grandchildren."

Keep government out

Questioned recently, some young people, both black and white, bristle at the notion that their exposed underwear should be any business of the local government.

"It may be indecency or whatever, but that's someone's own opinion, and if they want to wear that, then that's their decision," says Harold Ellison, 16, of West Baltimore.

Ellison, for example, is opposed to wearing a belt. As a result, his pants occasionally slip a little low.

"But when they do, I pull 'em back up," he says.

Community College of Baltimore County student Rebecca Brashewitz - who would prefer it if guys her age would stop "pulling their pants up every two seconds" - doesn't want to see laws governing what she or her friends wear.

"I think we could have other laws on other things besides baggy pants," says Brashewitz, 18, of Towson. "And even with showing your thong, I don't personally do it, but even if it's just a little skin showing, I think that's kinda cute."

That's just one of the problems with Martin's proposal, some experts say. When is uncovered underwear really indecent and when is it just a momentary flash? Or fashion?

Cindy Post Senning, director of the Emily Post Institute, which dispenses etiquette advice, says one guideline of good manners is to evaluate whether your behavior is offensive to others.

"Generally speaking, having your underwear showing is what some people consider offensive," Senning says. "We would recommend not having your underwear showing."

But there are too many gray areas to make that a hard and fast rule, she says. And certainly not a law.

"I think some of the sports bras and jogging bras are really like tank tops. If someone is at the gym, that obviously is not offensive," Senning says.

Instead of criminalizing sagging pants and visible bra straps, says youth mentor Edmondson, parents should teach their kids at home to take pride in how they look.

And because no one can legislate good parenting, Edmondson says he'll just have to work harder to get kids to understand what good grooming looks like.

"They have to see the other side," he says.

There's good news for Martin, says Gray of DTLR. Urban fashion already has begun moving toward a slimmer, sleeker silhouette.

"While there are guys who are still wearing that [baggy] look," Gray says, "there are equally as many guys - especially the fashion-forward ones - who are wearing the slimmer cut."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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