Written by Walter Grio
When I was in high school, most of my clothes were incredibly baggy. The shirts and the pants were five sizes too big and that’s just how I liked them. I even wore overalls with one strap down and roomy rayon shirts with polka dots because — well, I don’t really know. That’s just how I rolled. In college, I shaved my head, wore thrift store clothes, and had multiple studs and hoops in both ears. In some ways, I was trying to be different and create my own style. But in some ways, too, I was trying to fit in and find my way. Fashion is one of the easiest ways to express yourself. You could simply be wearing “jeans and a teeshirt” but how you wear them makes a difference. It defines your style and provides a visual evidence of your taste. But does it define who you are as a person?
When CNN’s Don Lemon sparked a conversation about saggy pants, it reminded me of how I used to wear my clothes. Without even knowing what I represented or what others might have thought (or even what I think now), I still wore them extra big and loose. Did people really think of me a certain way? Did they think that I wouldn’t amount to anything? Is it fair that they thought that way?
I remember seeing signs at stores that said “No bare feet allowed.” or “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” I never really even thought about it or wondered why they would even have those signs. Was it a personal taste? Was it for health reasons? Did history play a part? Most slave laws required slaves to go barefoot and even in biblical times, servants were barefoot. It might be a slippery slope to talk about it now, but who typically would walk inside a store without wearing a shirt or a pair of shoes? And while I completely understand that a business can set their own dress code and that they want to invite a certain image or clientele, sometimes I think that we take the whole dress code thing a little too far. There are now laws that ban saggy pants in major cities across the US. As a society, do we place too much emphasis on what people are wearing?
As an editor of a fashion website, this might seem counterintuitive for me to think about. But this is not about fashion. This is about judging a person’s character because of what they are wearing. It’s one thing to criticize someone about their suit because it’s two sizes too large (Suit Rule #1 and #2: fit and cut), but it’s another thing to criticize or prejudge someone’s character based on what they’re wearing.
I think, generally speaking, most people look too much into what people are wearing versus how they are acting. For me, how you act is much more important than how you look — whether that’s the color of your skin or the color of your tie. So when Don Lemon mentioned that one of the improvements that young black men could do was to “stop wearing saggy pants”, it really struck a chord. It oversimplified the problem of racism. What he said would not have sparked as much debate if it was said at any other time, but this was in relation with the Trayvon Martin case and was offered after the verdict had been made.
Don Lemon mentions Justin Bieber, but what he failed to add was that Bieber could wear saggy pants and yet there would be different thoughts about who he is as a person because he’s white. People may generally not like it from a fashion perspective, but those same people would just disregard it as being silly or unfashionable. Similarly, Mark Zuckerberg can wear a hoodie as his uniform and again, that would have completely different perceptions if he was black.
The problem here is not about the clothes people are wearing or how people are wearing them. The problem here is racism.
In 1964, a bus full of noted African-American models and designers was attacked by predominantly white males who actually attempted to tip the bus over. In 1995, two young black men were detained on suspicion of shoplifting at an Eddie Bauer store. One of the teenagers, 16, was forced to remove his shirt and walk home without it because the police officer thought that the shirt was stolen. In 2012, French Elle wrote a blog post titled “Black Fashion Power” which depicted that the Obamas were the first to bring true style to African-Americans. Before the Obamas, according to the French Elle post, blacks were only given “streetwear codes” rather than something chic to be inspired by.
The fact that there are laws that ban saggy pants is akin to what happened with the Zoot Suits in the 1940’s. The Zoot Suit consisted of a big jacket and baggy pants with tight cuffs and were worn predominantly by young Hispanic men. The Zoot Suit Riots started in Los Angeles after racially motivated beatings of Hispanic youths by sailors. The youths were stripped of their garments, which were burned in the street. According to a PBS film:
Decked out in wide brim hats, baggy pants, high boots and long-tailed coats, these “zoot-suiters” called each other “mad cats.” They were “Terrific as the Pacific” and “Frantic as the Atlantic.” Crossing cultural lines and pushing the boundaries of race and class, they were trying to define for themselves what it meant to be an American in 1942 Los Angeles. Even though there was no evidence to connect “zoot-suiters” to crime, the kids’ posturing and self-assurance made Anglos nervous. Many Mexican American parents even agreed that something was wrong with their young people.
Does that sound familiar?
To simplify it and say that wearing pants a certain way would help alleviate the problem is too narrow minded and in many ways deflecting the real issue. By focusing on “saggy pants”, fashion is directly being used as an excuse to exercise racism and discounts that what is actually happening is discrimination based on the color of someone’s skin.
To me, there are occasions when you might need to give extra consideration in what you’re wearing, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”