Pikeville’s ‘saggy pants’ law goes after youths with their trousers down

'All I know is we don’t want them running around half-naked on our streets,' says Mayor Phil Cagle. 'That’s the bottom line.'

Standards of dress have been slipping in Pikeville, Tennessee, and the city’s elected leaders mean to do something about it. 

More specifically, they are tackling the increasingly familiar problem of pant slippage. This means trousers to some, although pants have a lot do with this picture too, in the underwear sense.

The city council, with full support of the Mayor, has begun the process of passing an ordinance aimed squarely at “saggers”. These are the people, usually men of a certain age, who like to sport their britches in a manner that would appear to defy the laws of gravity, where the waistband hovers somewhere beneath the under-curve of the buttock, yet not descending all the way to the pavement while revealing a generous expanse of knicker.

The ordinance that Mayor Phil Cagle expects to sign soon is modelled on others passed in recent years by several cities and municipalities across the country, notably in the Deep South. It states that exposure of nether-garments (or regions) in this manner – the top of the trouser must not be “more than three inches below the top of the hips” – amounts to “public indecency”. Offenders will be fined $25 (£14) for a first-timer rising to $50 if they persist.

The language of the ordinance in Pikeville – a city of not quite 2,000 souls – is a little tortuous referring to the hip as “the crest of the ilium” and purporting that the wearing of trousers too low can damage a person’s “gait”. But Mr Cagle says the purpose is to ensure his police officers know exactly when saggers are sagging and when they are not.

“All I know is we just don’t want them running around half-naked on our streets,”  Mr Cagle told the local newspaper, before adding with possibly inadvertent artful nuance:  “That’s the bottom line.”

For those who struggle to understand the appeal of downwardly mobile pants, it would appear to be a trend with its origins in the US prison system which has often banned inmates from wearing belts for fear they be used as weapons.  Thus was born a kind of prison chic that was then to be popularised in hip-hop and rap. 

Laws meant to erase the trend have been popping up for years. In his first campaign for president, Barack Obama called them a “waste of time”, but suggested that saggers should know better.

“Brothers should pull up their pants,” he opined. “You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on. Some people might not want to see your underwear. I’m one of them.”

But as Mr Obama implied, it is mostly young African-Americans who are letting their waistbands ride low and that has led some civil rights activists to warn that laws like the one proposed in Pikeville will encourage racial profiling by police forces. There are also broader freedom-of-expression issues.

Marjorie Esman, directly of the Louisiana branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, admonished the town of Crowley when it passed a “saggy pants ordinance”  last September.

“Clothing is a form of expression protected under the Constitution of the United States,” she said. “To ban a particular clothing style would violate a liberty interest guaranteed under the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.”

The law went into force anyway.

The reference in Mr Cagle’s law to “gait” may not be spurious. A study published last September by the National American Medical Association argued that men persistently caught with their pants down may indeed develop long-term conditions, including walking disorders and a tendency towards premature ejaculation and other sexual dysfunctions.

In the end, those findings might do more to levitate America’s trousers than summonses and fines.

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