We have it from Montesquieu—a philosopher much read and admired by our Founding Fathers—that “Fashions are an important subject.” I was reminded of this when I read about attempts throughout the country (especially in the South) to outlaw “saggin’”—the baggy-pants style favored by some young men today. Though Montesquieu is best known for his theory of the separation of powers, which inspired our tripartite governmental structure, he endorsed other separations as well, like that between laws and manners. Fashions are part of manners, and for that reason, according to Montesquieu, not an appropriate area for legislation.
Most of the proposed laws are municipal ordinances that would not actually punish the wearing of baggy pants, but a specific consequence of that sartorial choice: they expand on indecent exposure laws by adding an “underwear clause.” Of course, potential offenders can easily avoid the penalty by wearing a belt or suspenders, or even an oversized t-shirt. In fact, since urban wear usually pairs a dress-length t-shirt or sweatshirt with oversized, crotch-at-the-knees pants, I suspect that the laws may unintentionally trouble plumbers more than anyone else. Needless to say, there has never been a movement to criminalize plumbers’ legendary displays of bottom cleavage. We only make jokes about that, since we need plumbers and don’t feel threatened by them.
Many Americans do feel threatened, on the other hand, by young men, especially black young men under voluminous folds of denim, whether their underwear is showing or not. It seems to me that our fundamental objection is not the occasional exposure, but the impression of concealment. The uniform of the streets has a burka-like quality. In an era when women barely cover themselves, why are young men awash in fabric from head to toe? What are they hiding? Perhaps drugs or guns—or maybe just themselves. It is a costume of alienation, and seeing these slouching, shrouded figures alienates us in turn, while at the same time seeming to embody a kind of accusation. We respond with law and order: at least we can make you pull your pants up and look like you fit in.
Nothing is more common than an older generation’s complaints about the decadence and appalling fads of the young. Again, Montesquieu is insightful here. He turns the issue back upon the elders: “It is not young people who degenerate; they are ruined only when grown men have already been corrupted.” The young may indeed be degenerate, he suggests, but the fault lies with their parents and grandparents. We can concede the failures of baby-boomer permissiveness, but where do we go from there?
All the usual methods of enforcing social mores seem to have failed among certain young men. Adult guidance through parents, schools, and churches is either absent or ineffective. Most remarkably, even female disapproval seems not to be a factor. Montesquieu writes that fashion is established by “the desire to please more than oneself.” When you follow a fashion, you indicate your malleability; you signal that you care about the assessment of others; you seek approval. Whose approval, though, are these young men seeking? Apparently not that of women. We hear often that the street style of dress emerged as an imitation of prison garb, but very few women could find this either sexually appealing or economically promising. Why aren’t young women telling these young men that they look like clowns? Young women seem to have lost the sense of their nature-given power to shape men’s behavior. Instead, they mirror the young men’s hopelessness.
Resorting to legal remedies, though, is an admission of moral collapse. It’s also unlikely to succeed. (Predictably enough, the ACLU has already denounced the anti-saggin’ campaign as “racial profiling.”) Montesquieu writes that “when one wants to change the mores and manners, one must not change them by the laws, as this would appear to be too tyrannical; it would be better to change them by other mores and other manners.” In part, we can trust in the ever-shifting nature of fashion itself. There are already signs that a sleeker look is in the offing.
When the NBA instituted a dress code at the start of the 2005-2006 season, it single-handedly began the rehabilitation of taste. Adopted in response to incidents of thuggish behavior and unprofessional conduct on and off the court, the code requires players to wear business-casual attire whenever they engage in team business. Banned items include sleeveless shirts, headgear or sunglasses worn while indoors, and chains and medallions worn over clothes. By strictly governing the idolized few, we might influence the young and impressionable many. Good taste, of course, is no guarantee of virtue, but it can move us in that direction when it expresses both proper pride and becoming modesty.
Montesquieu would have liked the NBA example, I think, for it parallels the story he tells of how Peter the Great introduced European ways into Russia. After criticizing the king for his tyrannical attempt to ban all Orthodox religious dress, Montesquieu praised Peter for the gentler and more effective tack he took with Russian women: He summoned them to the royal court and issued them sumptuous fabrics. Montesquieu writes that “they immediately appreciated a way of life that so flattered their taste, their vanity, and their passions, and they made the men appreciate it.” The court as couturier achieved what the court as censor could not.
In the United States, our basketball courts might achieve what law courts cannot. We also have the court of public opinion, which has developed some innovative responses to the problem. Recently, the city of Dallas abandoned anti-saggin’ legislation and bought billboard space instead, touting a line from a new rap song: “It’s rude, not cool . . . walkin’ around showin’ your behind to other dudes.” When nothing else works, try tweaking the offenders’ masculinity.
Perhaps this would be the moment for women to take a more active role as well. Were women to insist on courtship from suitors, the transformation would be even more dramatic, for it would reach to morals, as well as manners.