Pants proposition

The Baltimore Sun

Add this to the list of dangers facing Baltimore, a city councilwoman says: baggy, saggy pants.

Councilwoman Helen L. Holton has introduced a resolution to implore the city's youths to pull up their trousers, becoming the most recent in a string of lawmakers around the country who want to teach the next generation how to dress. Their efforts underscore the discomfort many adults feel about exposed underwear, although opponents think attempts to legislate fashion are a waste of time.

Several towns in Louisiana have passed ordinances that carry fines for people exposing their underwear in public. Last month, an Atlanta city councilman proposed an ordinance that would ban visible bra straps, thongs and low-slung pants that show underwear. And in Trenton, N.J., a councilwoman is drafting a bill to outlaw saggy pants.

"This is an issue that everybody's talking about," said Holton, who represents the city's 8th District.

Holton says her resolution - which does not involve any penalties for offenders - is in direct response to the concerns among many older people in and around the city that baggy pants are a major problem, an indication of "moral decay" in society and "impede young people from garnering the respect they desire and deserve."

"There is a wide sentiment across lines of people in this city that have a problem with young people wearing these baggy, low-hanging pants. They're offended by the fact that they have to look at their underwear," Holton, reached on her cell phone yesterday, said. "And perception is reality. When they see young people out like this, there's a heightened sense of, 'Oh, they must be up to no good. They must be selling drugs. They must be a part of this violent crime that is plaguing the city.' So it sends a very negative message."

But not everyone hears the message the same way.

"Right now I'm dealing with more, in my opinion, important issues," Mayor Sheila Dixon said while on business in New York. "I believe in uniforms for schools. And that's what I'm pushing. Every kid needs to be in a uniform."

Morgan State University sophomore Shay McDaniels said he prefers his jeans baggy because they're just more comfortable that way. And the civil engineering major resents the implication that his clothing choices somehow link him to criminal activity.

"It makes me mad," McDaniels, 19, said yesterday, while standing on campus after an afternoon class. "It kind of dehumanizes me. If baggy pants made a person, look at all these people walking by - in college - with baggy pants. Pants don't make us intelligent."

Pants might not indicate IQ, but they can affect a paycheck, said David Bositis, senior political associate at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank on black issues. He said the center published a study in 1999 that showed how "soft skills," such as personal grooming, affect people in the business world.

"How you dress is an important aspect of what your economic prospects are," Bositis said, adding that that is particularly true for African-Americans.

"There's a little bit of bias in almost all aspects of American society," he said.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, said it's too easy for people - particularly those of an older generation - to be fearful of the fashions of the generation coming up behind them.

"Because we have a generation of adults now who are very fearful of hip-hop, it's very easy for them to criminalize the behavior than to actually engage young folk," Neal said. "No one wants anyone going to a job interview wearing baggy pants. But if they [young people] want to wear baggy pants with their friends or even to church, I don't have a problem with that.

"I think it's a problem where we have folks who are so willing, basically, to criminalize our youth without equipping them to make decisions on when it's good to wear baggy pants and when it's not good."

Neal said disdain for the fashions of a younger generation is nothing new.

"I think this is young people just trying to express their individuality," he said. "It's not a new phenomenon. Young folks have done that throughout the years. A lot of these folks [who criticize baggy pants] probably wore bell-bottoms in the '70s, or Afros, and their parents hated them."

Indeed, Holton - of the West Hills community - said her mother implored her to cut off her Afro when she graduated from college many years ago.

"My mother politely said to me, 'I know that this is fashionable, but when you go to an employer to get a job, they're going to see this as radical. People judge you by what they see before they ever get to hear you.'"

But Holton argued that the Afros and bell-bottoms of the 1970s were different from today's popular low-slung pants.

"It started in prisons," Holton said, about the underwear-baring practice. "When prisoners were issued their clothing, they were not issued belts, so their pants hung low. What type of an image is that instilling in our young people?"

But Antonio Gray, buyer for the popular urban chain store DTLR (Downtown Locker Room), said he has been in the urban-wear business for close to 15 years and has never made any connection between low-slung pants and inmates.

"I've never verified that," Gray said. "And at this point, it's certainly evolved from wherever it originated. I am literally, at this moment, at a trade show with young urban professionals - black and white - and there are plenty of people here who ... wear our clothes a little more loose. They like a little more sag."

Gray also said Holton's proposal to do away with pants that dip too low would have been better discussed five years ago. Urban fashion - as evidenced by popular hip-hop stars Jay-Z, Diddy and rapper Jim Jones - already has started moving to a slimmer, sleeker look.

"She's completely late," he said. "My fashion-forward customers are guys who four or five years ago might have had on a jersey or a bigger T-shirt, and today that same guy is going to have on a more form-fitting T-shirt or track jacket with a slimmer jean."

And politicians need not take on the issue, Gray said, especially since young women, the real arbiters of men's fashion, have begun to nudge potential dates toward a neater style of dressing.

"I don't like the baggy look myself. I don't think it's attractive," said Sierra Myers, 20, a senior at Morgan State University. "But I don't think a ban is necessary. My brother, he wears baggy pants, but he's not a criminal."

Gray said he gets concerned whenever politicians try to legislate fashion.

"It's too subjective. How do you say what's too baggy? Are you going to measure it by the inch? Are you going to measure it by how much underwear is showing?" he asked. "If that's the case, you'll be fining plumbers."

Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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