Fashion Police State

We, as Americans, enjoy a great many rights in this country – the right to free speech, the right to bear arms, freedom of religion, trial by jury, and so forth. Not counted among these rights, for which so many sacrificed so much for our benefit, is the right to not be offended. While our society has become more and more sensitized to things that just a generation ago would not have even raised an eyebrow (Washington Redskins: Hello?), those sensitivities have come at a social, and not a legislative, level.

In an ideal legislative world, laws would only be passed that give people more rights and more freedoms, or that would bar individuals, groups, corporations, the government or other organizations from infringing upon rights and freedoms with which we are already endowed. Legislating morality is a fool’s errand, and legislating good taste seems a complete overreach of our government’s powers.

The Town of Winnsboro’s current efforts to join Jasper County and the City of Manning in defining the wearing of sagging pants as a civil offense, while perhaps well-meaning, is a prime example of a government overstepping its bounds. It is also the kind of law-making that implies that all other pressing matters have been addressed, all previous injustices remedied. Winnsboro has finally put a code enforcement officer on the beat and crumbling buildings and junked-out yards are a thing of the past; a new water line has been installed and is pumping a million gallons a day out of Lake Monticello and into the reservoir; the water plant has been upgraded; and the notorious ‘Rogue Rooster’ and his renegade brood have been rounded up and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, their early morning crowing days over for good. At last Town Council can throw their collective efforts into the one issue that has been so long neglected and overshadowed by these other trivial matters – sagging pants.

This is not, we should point out, a defense of sagging pants. The unusual fashion statement of wearing trousers that hang around mid-thigh level, exposing one’s undergarments, eludes entirely our comprehension. It is not a particularly attractive way to wear one’s apparel, nor is it exactly ‘dressing for success.’ After all, if two men interview for the same job and one of those men is wearing slacks belted about the waist and the other is advertising for Joe Boxer, Mr. Belt and Slacks is getting the job every time. Period. Even if Mr. Saggy Baggies has an advanced degree and Mr. Belt and Slacks has only a high school diploma. Nothing says ‘I don’t really want this job’ quite like a pair of drooping trousers.

While we are not devoting valuable newsprint to the defense of sagging pants, the issue runs much deeper than the absurdities of passing fads and fashions. The debate is not simply about what is and isn’t in good taste, it is about one’s right to freedom of expression – even if that means one’s right to look ridiculous. A municipality is not a school district or a country club, where dress codes can be implemented and enforced, nor is it a private business that may require shoes and shirts for service while prohibiting anything from baseball caps to gang colors. These are the open streets and sidewalks of America, where any individual has the right to freely roam without fear of being hassled by The Man for wardrobe violations.

Jasper County and Manning have had similar ordinances on their books for a few years. It is backed by an opinion from the S.C. Attorney General’s Office and it has thus far gone unchallenged in the courts. That does not mean that these ordinances are constitutionally sound, only that no one has been able to hold their pants up long enough to fight them. But before we raise our voices in a cheer for sensible pants everywhere, we should consider first what this kind of ordinance really means. If how one wears their pants can be governed, how about how one wears their hair? Piercings? Body art? What about open-toed sandals (really, who wants to see most of those toes out there?) or the wearing of curlers in public?

Once that path is taken, it goes only one way, moving inevitably further and further away from freedom and more and more toward the kind of enforced robotic conformity one expects in a fascist police state.

Fashion, especially that of the young, is not necessarily meant to be understood, especially by adults. That would seem to be the whole point; it may, in fact, be the only point. And every generation is the same. The oiled up hair and popped collars of the Rock-N-Roll-infused early Baby Boomers, tame by today’s standards, was an outright affront to the Greatest Generation. The long-haired Hippie Generation was offensive to the early Baby Boomers. And on and on it goes, with each generation seemingly going out of its way to distinguish itself from the one previous.

Fashion is a fickle thing, and it is temporary. Winnsboro doesn’t have to expend the effort in trying to legislate it away. Just wait five years and sagging pants will go the way of bellbottoms and poodle skirts.