Caught With His Pants Down (or Falling Off, Anyway)

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There really are fashion police after all! Or, at any rate, there’s at least one person out there who wants to be a clothes cop.

This would-be garment gendarme does not work for Vogue, Elle or any other fashion magazine. Nor am I speaking of the protagonist of The Devil Wears Prada. The wannabe wardrobe warden in question is also not a mullah and does not live in a reactionary theocracy.

Rather, he is none other than an Atlanta City Councilman (This makes me very happy to be living in New York!) C.T. Martin.

This peach of a Georgia lawmaker has introduced legislation that would outlaw clothing that exposes undergarments, including thongs, bra straps (uh-oh!) — and boxer shorts. While this would seem, on its face, relatively egalitarian in its repression, Martin’s comments to Ann Curry reveal the real target of his proposed law. "I don’t think women should have to see that. I don’t think young girls should have to see that. I don’t think children should have to see that," he told the decorous and tastefully dressed Curry on Today.

So it’s about protecting women and girls, eh? Ayatollah Khomeini himself couldn’t have said it any better.

Do I — or any other member of my sex — have to be "protected" from the sight of a bra strap or a thong? Most men I know wouldn’t want to be "protected" from any such thing, so why should any man think that we need to be shielded? So what, exactly, does the Honorable Mr. Martin think we should not be exposed to?

Why, the back of a young man’s boxer shorts, that’s what! I know that my psyche has been irreparably damaged by all those hideous prints and patterns and all those ghastly colors disgracing the tushes of so many of our inner-city adolescent males Why do they have to sashay along sidewalks as their slacks and jeans slide away from their waists, down to their thighs? Don’t they have any respect for their elders? Themselves? I am s-shocked and offended beyond words by…

Their bad taste. Not to mention the judgment of the wise and venerable Mr. Martin. Now, if Martin is upset that otherwise beautiful boys bedeck themselves in such an unbecoming way, I’m with him. Not only does this look flatter almost no-one, it makes navigating cracks in sidewalks, potholes and other urban hazards more difficult (or so I would think). And the origin of this un-fabulous fad rightly gives Martin, me and many other people pause.

Nearly everybody agrees that the trend of wearing saggy pants began in prisons. One version of the story says precariously pantaloned young men are commemorating the moment a new inmate is divested of his belt. (The newly arrived prisoners are also relieved of their shoestrings. This practice is believed to have spawned the twin trend of wearing high-topped sneakers without laces.) Another version — which I find less credible — says the low-slung lederhosen were signals that their wearers were spoken for: a coutural "Keep Out" sign, if you will. Either way, young men (and, sometimes, women) believe they are proclaiming their solidarity with those who are incarcerated and, by extension, everyone in their community who is a victim of a racist, corrupt system of law enforcement.

This identification makes no sense to me, any more than "bug chasing" does. How does inflicting a handicap or illness on one’s self make one more like other members of his or her community? I’m sure that Councilman Martin and many other people ask themselves some version or another of this rhetorical question all the time. We don’t want the people we love to make their lives more difficult than they already are. Why add the burdens of illness, ungainliness or a deliberately unsightly appearance to the disadvantages one already has from being, through no choice of one’s own, a member of a stigmatized group?

If we want to "protect" people, especially the young, whose lives are on the boundary, the best we can do is to point out the harm they are doing to themselves and others by their behavior. They may or may not listen, but that still gives us — and them — more motivation to change than some law that will probably difficult and expensive, if not impossible, to enforce. If education doesn’t work, neither will legislation.

Even the Ayatollah, who had the full force of his military and the authority of Shira law behind him, couldn’t control the habiliment habits of every woman in his country. (This, among other things, is related in an excellent book I’m reading: Azar Nafsisi’s Reading Lolita In Tehran.) What makes the estimable Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin think he has the right impose his taste — or mine, for that matter — on a whole city located in a country that has at least some semblance of liberty?

If he doesn’t like what he sees, he should talk to the young men in question — or look the other way. It works for me, and a lot of other people. As my English aunt would say, he shouldn’t get his knickers in a twist over that.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.

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