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April 8, 2010 7:10 PM

Men's

Race, Politics and Saggy Jeans

From the studs, piercings and Mohawks of the punk movement to the tie-dye and long hair of the hippies, young people have long used fashion as a mode of rebellion against the status quo and polite society. Teenagers create...

From the studs, piercings and Mohawks of the punk movement to the tie-dye and long hair of the hippies, young people have long used fashion as a mode of rebellion against the status quo and polite society. Teenagers create both self-identities and group identities through style, whether it's a varsity jacket, a Goth black ensemble or a polo shirt with a popped collar. And for as long as kids have been picking out their own clothes, adults have been disapproving of some of their choices.

That's the essence of the saggy pants debate that's come to New York, following State Senator Eric Adams' initiative to put up six billboards in Brooklyn that encourage young males to "Stop the Sag" and wear their pants in a conventional manner -- i.e., without most of their underwear flapping in the breeze. The saggy-jeans-with-exposed-underwear look is rife with youthful rebellion: It¹s brazen, contemptful of societal norms and a bit confounding to adults. (How do they keep their pants from falling completely down, anyway?) Which is why, of course, some young men think it's cool.

The Adams campaign clearly has race at its core, which is what makes the issue sensitive. Saggy jeans originated in the hip-hop culture and some believe that it was inspired by the look of prisoners who are not allowed to wear belts -- although others discount this theory. The ads exhort, "We are better than this," and the "we" Adams is talking about is African-Americans.

It¹s hard to criticize the underlying rationale and motivation of Adams, who, in a YouTube video that's received almost 100,000 hits, talks about stereotypes and negative imagery that have been heaped on minorities throughout U.S. history. Adams, in a well-tailored suit and tie, speaks eloquently and with conviction that the saggy jeans look is demeaning to the image of young African-Americans and that it probably hurts their educational and career opportunities. It's a testament to the power of fashion that looking the part is undeniably an important factor in getting ahead in many workplaces. It would be hard to think of a job where saggy jeans and exposed underwear would be an acceptable uniform.

However, the Adams campaign is narrowly conceived in that the exposed underwear look has evolved to other demographics, as streetwear executives like Russell Simmons and Sean John's Jeffrey Tweedy were quick to point out. Many skate and surf aficionados wear their skinny jeans low to show off their skivvies. Like hip-hop music itself, the saggy jeans look knows no racial boundaries. In fact, Adams was recently interviewed by reporters from Japan as the trend has migrated to Tokyo -- much to the likely chagrin of more traditional Japanese.

And if the look originates in youthful rebellion, advertisements are not likely to have an impact on the target audience. More likely, the billboards will be applauded by adults in Adams' electoral district who already disapprove of the surfeit of exposed boxers and briefs in the streets. Not a bad political gambit.

Adams is lobbying New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein to issue citywide regulations that prohibit saggy jeans and exposed underwear in the classroom. If successful, teens will surely invent a new fashion trend to flout convention and irritate adults. It's an ongoing contest of generational wills.
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