The Irony of Sagging Pants

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On my walk to work this morning I saw a man waiting at the pedestrian curb next to me. He was approximately 6’1, he was accompanied I assume by his girlfriend, (they seemed like a couple). What made me immediately notice him was that he had his jeans pulled down far below his waist, exposing his underwear completely. It wasn’t a slight peek at his underwear; it was prominently displayed, his entire butt was exposed. For decades this has been a popular style for many young black men in North America, I always wondered how and why did this look become fashionable.

I think it was in 1995 when I first started noticing the sagging pants style in Oakland. I was working for Americorps, which was a volunteer community service, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. I became friends with a coworker named M. He wore his pants down to his knees, but somehow it stayed up with a belt. It was amazing that he could walk normally but he managed. He was subtle about the look, he kept his long shirts untucked so you could barely see his boxer briefs underneath. I asked him what the sagging pants style signified, it seemed like more than a trend. Why would all the young black males buy XXL pants and re-teach themselves to walk and even run without their pants falling off every second? M said it was a nostalgic reason; that young black kids in the hood had to wear clothes that were too big for them because they were more economical, (they could grow into the extra big size instead of constantly outgrowing their clothes). When he explained it that way, I thought it was heartbreakingly beautiful, I could relate. My exceptionally frugal, immigrant mom did the same thing. The rare times that she bought new clothes for me, they were always monstrously huge, at least 2-3 sizes too big, so that I could grow into it, the pants were cuffed up in rolls. I felt ugly and embarrassed about this, my thin body was always hidden, encased under the bulk of fat outcast clothes.

This morning I googled Sagging Pants and found these articles:

Urban Dictionary: sagging
— Read on

After shooting of black man, Louisiana city votes to end sagging pants law
— Read on

For adults, “sagging” has long been a marker of slovenliness or something more sinister. But the style might just be the latest iteration of fashion freighted with some old anxieties.
— Read on

According to these articles, the sagging pants look reflected prison culture, but why the exposed underwear? Prisoners couldn’t wear belts so therefore the sagging look? Maybe that’s how the look started but prisons are also infamously notorious for rape. Gangs run the social structure within prisons; the prisoners who didn’t have connections, gang allegiance=protection, were targeted for repeated rape. Is that why the butt is displayed for everyone to see like an advertisement? Apparently yes, it was either a sign that the prisoner was someone’s bitch or it was an invitational signal for sex, a pronouncement of being available.

The irony is that gangster, super macho culture, clashes fiercely with the image of being someone’s prison bitch. Did the young black men in urban cities understand this connection? Did they realize that they were advertising themselves this way? I doubt it. My friend M was prophet-like he promoted peace, he was the voice of reason during conflicts. And he was wise but naive; I think he never knew what his sagging pants represented. He grew up in Palo Alto, CA an affluent, predominantly white neighborhood. The actor, James Franco (who graduated from elitist Yale), grew up in Palo Alto, it’s a wonder bread, mega caucasian land space. My friend M actually legally changed his name from generic sounding, Stan to M to reclaim his African ancestral heritage, (the name M is used here to protect his privacy, the name the chose is poetically beautiful). M was a highly intelligent, open-minded and spiritual person. I think he wanted to identify not as a suburbanite from Palo Alto but with his streetwise urban clan of survivors, his sagging pants were a brand of cultural belonging.

In Louisiana, Anthony Childs was killed by the police essentially because of his right to fashion, he was stopped, chased and shot three times for wearing his pants too low. This ridiculous law was a way for the police to profile young black boys and men, stopping and harassing them for nothing, as if the style of clothes could predict criminal behavior. It’s a tragedy that black men are harassed, imprisoned and gunned down for no justifiable reason other than racism. I can understand why anti-police/gangster life culture would be a proud statement of pride for many young black men in North America. It’s a complicated, sad irony that the hidden meaning of the fashion statement of sagging pants was linked to sexual submission and objectification. I don’t have the deep understanding to explain, but I know this is connected to pain.


  1. To be honest, Judy, I will never understand the fashion sense of the sagging pants. I see it where I live and where I work. It is amazing how the mind can be influenced to believe this way or that way is how you fit in, even within your own culture or race. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Another thought provoking post. Well done! Sagging pants is not only a batch of honor to pain but it could be a form of rebellion against oppression. When people rebel, they feel alive in an otherwise hopeless situation. I hope they’ll quit playing with fire. It’s unworthy losing precious lives over sinister fashion statement.

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  3. interesting

    always wondered what they were about

    had a really nice coworker who dressed like that and had dreadlocks

    one of the nicest dudes i ever worked with

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m not into fashion because it seems superficial, the sagging pants trend was the uniform of an urban subculture, like goths or punks dressed in unison. I don’t understand the mentality of dressing up to fit into a group but I was always an outsider/artist. I think many people are drawn in to cultural trends that they don’t quite understand but they want to belong. Your coworker friend sounds like a cool person. Thanks for your supportive comment.

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  4. Such an interesting and informative post. I never understood the sagging pants, but now I have a better understanding of it all. Personally, I feel that dressing in certain ways, can help release blocked emotions and can positively impact mental health too. Unfortunately, dramatic and provocative styles, often makes vulnerable people sitting ducks.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks Sue, I agree I think clothing choice can be a creative self-expression, I admire people that alter their clothes in unique ways. I do wonder when it’s like a subculture uniform though, it seems like a way to fit in in those cases.

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  5. I like this read. It is one of the worst styles for black men I have ever seen. It’s is a penitentiary style used to represent availability for homosexual encounters. For a price. It also draws a negative view of black men, it makes us targets. Not only by the police but those that would offer employment. It also creates a terrible influence on our Youth. Reinforce by a culture represented though rap music. The point I’m trying to make is this where are the black fathers and positive role models for our young black men. When are we as black men going to step up and bring our young black men back to a place where self respect means something. The whole thing upsets me.

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    1. I agree, the look takes away dignity and makes the young men targets for racist police. I remember when Hip Hop was creative, humorous and playful, then came Gangsta Rap that glorified prison culture and was full of disrespect of women and now Hip Hop is insane with occult negativity. I think the sagging pants look is finally going away. I hope the new generation of young black men go back to the roots of intellectual empowerment and self-respect instead of following trends or corporate media. Thank you for your wise comment.

      Liked by 3 people

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