Saggin, Grills, Tats, and Generational Dress Code Gaps
“Hat to the back and my pants keep saggin.” - Kriss Kross from the CD “Totally Krossed Out,” 1992
Though Kriss Kross did not invent the fashion known as ‘saggin,’ it was probably the first time I really noticed it. Initially I thought it was kind of weird, but I didn’t pay it much attention. After all, while I was a hip-hop head in 1992 - fully engaged into the music of my favorite rappers, I was still considered an old head at 25. Surely I wasn’t expected to completely understand all of the latest fads of the day. The youngest of our generation sets the trends and decides what’s hip and what’s not. It was too late for me to be indoctrinated into the “Saggin Nation” as it were. When I was coming up, ‘saggin’ would have had you laughed out of school - if you didn’t get your ass kicked first. Besides, how could I run the hallways if I had to constantly pull my pants up? But I digress.
I looked at sagging overall as a fad that was no different than bellbottoms, tie-dye tee-shirts, and dashikis. (I know that dashikis had somewhat of a comeback, but you know what I mean.) All fads come and go even if they eventually come back around again. I was sure this would be no different. But to my surprise the opposite has occurred. Sagging is more popular than ever, especially with young people. What started as a symbol of prison wear, gang membership, or just trying to be hip has become a cultural phenomenon. Blacks may have invented sagging, but they no longer corner the market on it. It’s common to see young White or Mexican kids walking down the street showing his/her boxers. So what should we say of this drooping form of expression? I’ve wanted to write something regarding this subject for quite sometime - particularly after a female minister and I had discussed it, and I noticed the disdain she had for sagging.
As I’ve discussed this topic with my peers, I find myself in a peculiar situation. On one hand, I have my personal opinions of sagging. I hate it! I think it’s tacky and I am tired of seeing underwear in public. I won’t let my sons sag around me. And every now and then I ask a sagger what the point is. I’ve said more than once, “Pull your pants up playa! That ain’t cute!” On the other hand, I have been hesitant to judge too harshly. Every generation has its own set of dress trends. My teen years were in the 80s. We wore Jeri Curls, parachute pants, and the infamous Michael Jackson “Beat It” jackets. Half the guys in my school looked like members of Ready for the World or Culture Club. Did you see the clothes that Crockett and Tubbs wore in Miami Vice? I thought Don Johnson was ‘pimpin’ in those hot pink tees, white jacket, and soft shoes with no socks.
So what do I know? And yet this sagging trend has lasted longer than a decade, and it doesn’t seem to be losing any momentum. Keeping silent is no longer an option! We have to make sense and bring some clarity to this situation. It does no good to merely “hate” on sagging, though it’s a common thing to do. The backlash has been so radical in some circles that many towns and communities across the country have created laws against sagging, thereby giving the term “fashion police” real validity. However, creating laws against any fashion statement only feeds the rebel attitude that goes with it. Even if we don’t understand the true meaning or essence of sagging; even if most saggers don’t know why the heck they do it other than imitating their peers, we can still offer fruitful dialogue. I’ll explain.
Many older African Americans believe sagging portrays an array of negative images. We come from a generation of believing that ‘clothes make the man.’ Not that a person’s wardrobe has to be the finest or consist of the most popular name brands, but that the ensemble should be clean and pressed, making one look “sharp.” I have had conversations with a close friend who observed how Malcolm X, Martin King, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes etc. wore suits in most of their pictures.
Many black Americans dressed to the “T” back in the day. Excellence in appearance was a priority. We used clothes and dressing up as a way to feel good about ourselves. I’m sure that the urgency of the civil rights movement also kept us mindful of our image. I recently saw the movie, “The Great Debaters,” and noticed how the characters played by Forest Whitaker, and Denzel Whitaker who played his son, (no relation) wore a jacket and tie at all times. It was normal dress even for a little boy in the 30s. In the movie, the father had the highest expectations for his son both academically and otherwise. His dress simply reflected those standards. Nowadays, its a lot more popular to ‘dress down’ than to ‘dress up.’ Fashions have changed to a large degree, and many popular African American designers promote more urban instead of so called professional clothing. Also, we have more choices than we’ve ever had. I started wearing authentic sports jerseys in the late 80s before the “Throwback” trend was close to being started. I have Spike Lee to thank for that. Ever since I saw him sport a Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson jersey in the movie “Do The Right Thing,” a whole new way of dress opened up to me. My love of sports and sports figures made it an alternative form of personal expression. I started collecting them in mass, and I still like wearing them at times. Still, I have always enjoyed dressing up too. I like the confidence I feel when I wear a nice suit and step onto the scene. It’s as if when I put on a suit and tie my professional attitude automatically kicks in. When I dress up instead of wearing something more casual, I know my clothes don’t make me work any harder, or add more skill to my expertise. But I feel more crisp inside and out. I command more respect. Unfortunately, many of our youth regardless of their racial origins don’t understand that feeling. For some, even if they put on a suit, instead of feeling empowered, they feel 'square' or 'lame'.
I remember when NBA Commissioner David Stern instituted a dress code for the league. Many players voiced their displeasure. Tim Duncan said it was “retarded.” Allen Iverson, one of the most avid critics said he had never worn a suit. I knew that was untrue because he wore one for Coach John Thompson while he attended Georgetown University. But I got Iverson’s point. He hadn’t worn a suit of his own volition. Iverson has been called, “Tupac with a jump shot.” The image he has projected as “thug like” has been beneficial to both his style and bank account.
Reebok has sold many shoes and apparel with the brazen image of the corn-rolled tatted one. I’m sure he felt his fan base wouldn’t take too kindly to their hero “selling out” to “the man.” To contrast, Michael Jordan is never seen in public without wearing a suit unless he is on the basketball court or golf course; and even then he is promoting his own brand of clothing. I read where Michael once said, when asked about his impeccable appearance, no matter where he went, he knew someone would see Michael Jordan for the first and only time in their lives. He was aware of the power of his image. He wanted his image off the court to say professional/impeccable businessman. Another name for image in this context is “brand.” When a person personifies a brand, its giving the public an expectation on site. Similar to when one sees the “golden arches,” he expects to be able to buy a Big Mac or a Happy Meal. Comedian Steve Harvey comes to mind when I think of his precisely carved haircut or the trademark hats that match his suits. Brand is very important to a public figure’s consistency in finding a permanent place in the public’s eye that they can buy into and trust. Iverson’s brand is essentially his hip-hop thug image. And that image has turned into financial success for himself, and more so for Reebok and the NBA. The hip-hop image does sell to the mainstream, and if you don’t believe that just refer back to those commercials with Lee Iacocca selling Chryslers with Snoop Dogg, or fellow rapper T.I. promoting Chevrolet.
So where does that leave hip-hop’s young sagging followers? Its one thing for Allen Iverson to make money from his own brand, but it’s another when a young black male interviews for a job trying to imitate Iverson’s brand. That employer may not understand the complex and genius mind behind the sagging pants. Practically speaking, he doesn’t have time to filter through all of that. This is not to say the ultimate goal of a person should be to fit into Corporate America’s vision of what looks right. I have worked with black men in corporate environments who dress the part, but have also sold their souls to assimilate. I would not call that a virtue. My point is that one of the greatest attributes of people of African descent historically is to be a versatile renaissance people. We have simultaneously lived and thrived in two worlds from the beginning of this American journey. We have for decades set the trends in fashion, music, style, and culture. We possess critical thought and creative souls. Therefore, my message to young people is that they should learn from the elders who knew and understood how and when to display our differing styles. We’ve utilized great skill interpreting when to represent Broadway and when to represent Wall Street. Tattoos are not new. We have them too! But we didn’t have them on our necks, faces, forearms, and fingers. We had to be practically naked to reveal them. Some of us even had a gold tooth or two in our mouths. But not a complete golden grille that makes us look more like we are auditioning for a minstrel show rather than a career. We must understand the market we are working with. If you have a multi million-dollar sports contract or record deal, there is more freedom to be casual and laid back. If not, there has to be a wardrobe adjustment. If that sounds lame, you don’t have to take my advice. But take caution: you’d better be exceptional at something where your skills and talents are in such high demand that it won’t matter how you dress. You’d better have a vision for your own business where your image may not be as important compared to what you are producing. If you have to rely on a high school or college education for a 9-5, you must master the art of dress, just as many wise have mastered the art of language where we have the ability to speak with a relaxed dialect among family and friends as well as the King’s English to the Queen’s taste in the business world. I am the last one to try to restrict someone’s freedom of expression. I simply want us to exhibit intelligence in discerning the game properly. Unless I have Allen Iverson’s game and contract, I cannot dress, talk, or ‘tat’ like he does, and expect to be successful in the marketplace.
Finally, to us conservative people whose faces sour every time we are forced to endure viewing someone’s boxers, we probably should lighten up a bit. The trend isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but we can counsel with love, the skill of “intelligent dressing.” However, if that isn’t enough to dissuade your arrogance, just break out those old Polaroid photos of those fat ties, wide collars, velvet suits, stripes, polka dots and other ‘whack’ items you wore back in the day. That should put things back in perspective. I disagree with any law mandating how someone should dress. Surely there are real cases of crimes that should be investigated and solved. When I turn on Law and Order and see them trying to solve the case of the serial sagger, then I’ll know something went terribly wrong. Don’t laugh… you never know.
Christopher McCaleb is a freelance writer living in St. Louis MO. He is the author of the upcoming book “Wake Up Call!” The Loving, Leading, Serving and Saving of God’s People from Within and Beyond. To see more visit him at myspace.com/bbgcmac