Mary Sue Rich finally had enough.
The council member from Ocala, Fla., was tired of seeing the young people in her town wearing their pants low and sagging, andsuccessfully pushed to prohibit the style on city-owned property. It became law in July. Violators face a $500 fine or up to six months in jail.
“I’m just tired of looking at young men’s underwear, it’s just disrespectful,” Rich said. “I think it would make [people who wear sagging pants] respect themselves, and I would wager 9 out of 10 of them don’t have jobs.”
The rationale behind the ban enacted last year in Wildwood, N.J., was similar. “I’m not trying to be the fashion police, but personally I find it offensive when a guy’s butt is hanging out,” said Ernest Troiana, the town’s mayor, after he announced that his city would very much be policing fashion.
Pikeville, Tenn., switched it up a little: Officials there said they were doing so in part because of health concerns related to the “improper gait” of the saggers. The mayor even pointed to a study from a Dr. Mark Oliver Mansbach of the National American Medical Association that supposedly found that around 8 in 10 saggers suffered from sexual problems like premature ejaculation. One problem: Neither Mark Oliver Mansbach nor NAMA actually exist; the much-referenced study was an April Fools’ joke.
When ‘Hoodlums’ Wore Suit Jackets
But all this drama around young brown kids, baggy clothes and crime goes back much further than hip-hop and street gangs. In the 1930s, black and Mexican-American men in California began rocking big, oversize suit jackets, and pants that tapered down at their ankles: zoot suits.
Young men were stripped of their clothes and badly beaten as policemen scoured the streets in Los Angeles for zoot-suited young men they blamed for petty crime.
Harold P. Matosian/AP
Ford, the fashion historian, said the look was born out of improvisation, since many of those kids couldn’t afford tailors. “A lot of kids would just go to the thrift store to buy those suits, and then get their mom or their aunts to taper the pants,” she said.
But Luis Alvarez, a historian at University of California, San Diego who wrote a book on that period called The Power of the Zoot, said that just like the origins of sagging, the genesis of the zoot suit is pretty murky. “Some might argue that [people started wearing it because] it looked better when they were spinning girls around the dance floor,” he said. “I argued with a guy who said they got it from [Clark Gable] in Gone with the Windbecause he was sort of wearing a baggy suit in that movie.”
What isn’t in doubt, he said, is that the look was spread by black jazz musicians as they traveled around the country.
Today, those zoot suits are synonymous with Jazz Age and World War II-era cool. But back then, they were seen as the wardrobe of black and Mexican-American delinquents and gang members. Zoot suiters’ opponents — and there were lots — saw them as harbingers of a moral decline. In his book, Alvarez cites a 1943 Washington Post article that was typical of the way the trend was covered in big-city newspapers. The language in it sounds an awful lot like the speech Officer Vinson would give those Los Angeles parents decades later on the dangers posed by saggers.
“Chief features are the broad felt hat, the long key chain, the pocket knife of a certain size and shape, worn in the vest pocket by boys, in the stocking by girls, the whisky flask of peculiar shape to fit into the girl’s bosoms, the men’s haircut of increasing density and length at the neck — all of which paraphernalia has symbolic and secret meanings for the initiates. In some places, the wearing of the uniform by the whole gang is a danger signal, indicating a predetermine plan for concerted action and attack.”