James Werrell

Hey, young man, better pull up your pants

When I was a teen-ager, tightness, not bagginess, was the issue.

Boys would be sent home from school if their pants were too tight; girls, if their skirts and blouses clung too tightly to their contours. Unacceptable levels of tightness were, of course, a completely subjective assessment. Tightness was in the eye of the beholder -- if the beholder happened to be a vice principal with a mean streak (which was a job requirement back then).

Now, however, it's baggy clothes that catch the eye of the dress code enforcer. The so-called "gangsta" look, featuring the low-hanging, saggy pants with mile-wide legs, the long T-shirts, the sideways cap, the necklaces and unlaced high-tops -- that's what drives the grownups crazy these days.

Urban mythology has it that this look was inspired by inmates and adopted by rap and hip-hop stars. Then it was picked up by young African-Americans, then Hispanics and, eventually, by many rebellious whites.

Go to any mall and you can see young males with pants hanging on their hips, underwear exposed, and girls in pants worn low enough to show the strap of a thong.

Schools have cracked down on this unisex fashion statement. Many schools, in fact, have resorted to what amounts to school uniforms, employing the (probably mistaken) theory that if school officials make everyone dress alike, kids will quit caring about fashion and devote their creative energy to studying.

Schools will continue to try to tamp down creative expression via adornment for all eternity. But it has been generally and correctly assumed by the younger set that, if you make it past your parents, you can wear just about anything you want to on the street.

Unfortunately, the decent folk who encounter these rebellious upstarts out in public tend to experience a sudden rise in blood pressure. Why, there oughta be a law ...!

Well, now there is. A number of cities recently have enacted laws banning low-hanging pants and other elements of the gangsta look even off school grounds. Atlanta, for example, is considering an ordinance that would impose penalties for "the indecent exposure of his or her undergarments" in public. At least two cities in Louisiana already have passed similar bans, one of which has fines of up to $500 or six months in jail.

Imagine that, going to jail for wearing baggy pants or exposing a glimpse of underwear. Plumbers, beware!

Many no doubt, will applaud the decision by high-minded public officials to put their collective foot down and call a halt to this repugnant drooping of drawers and exhibition of unmentionables. Upstanding citizens no doubt will regard that as a blow for propriety.

But one man's sense of propriety may be another's subjugation. How long before the fashion police are out flogging droopy-drawered teens in public like the Afghan Taliban and the Iranian mullahs who enforce the Islamic dress code?

Laws that attempt to govern how people dress are certain to meet with constitutional challenges. Surely, the First Amendment protects the right of all Americans to dress stupidly.

And if we are intent on banning offensive fashions, why stop at half-mast pants on teenagers? What about sleeveless T-shirts on fat, hairy men? What about spandex bike shorts on anyone who has not competed in the Tour de France? What about comb-overs?

Fashion, by definition, must evolve. Teens eventually figure out that it is hard to make your way in the world when at least one hand must always be devoted to holding your pants up.

Meanwhile, if baggy pants are banned, young people are certain to devise new ways to scoff at proper modes of dress and enrage their elders. The good burghers of Atlanta and the other towns considering baggy-pants bans should be careful what they wish for.

They might just usher in the return of hot pants.