Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Fashion Sense and Nonsense

Since last week, I’ve received a couple of questions regarding my people and fashion. Margaret wanted to know about the baggy pants epidemic. So here we go…

Just as African Americans come in a range of colors, our sense of style spans the fashion spectrum. Our cultural heritage is one that is steeped in adornment and ornamentation. One look at some Central and South African traditional fashions and you’ll know where the 70’s fashion fad of leaving your Afro pick in your ‘fro came from. Since the 1960s several oppressed cultures in the U.S. have made fashion statements in an effort to claim a new identity that shunned the status quo. Women burned their bras, young people adopted jeans as a uniform and black people embraced influences from our African ancestors.

As much as I’m not a fan of the Afro pick as hair adornment craze, I at least understand where it comes from. The baggy pants issue is a whole different thing – at least to me. The current style goes beyond baggie pants. Folks who adopt this style are literally showing their asses.

The Detroit Institute of Arts in describing its African collection states:

In many traditional African societies, personal appearance can indicate much about a person’s identity — including social status, economic status, occupation, and heritage.

Visual symbols or styles in clothing, hairstyles, skin markings, and jewelry are a language that can communicate messages, much like words.

How true.

Now the story goes that the baggy pants stem from prison culture and that for many African American youths, it is a badge of dubious honor to adopt this look. It labels you as tough, as a thug, as hard. Ironically, the rumor now going around is that the sagging pants did start in prison but it was a sign for male prisoners to show their availability for sex with other male prisoners. Somehow I don’t think this is the message these hard brothers want to convey. But whatever message they are attempting to convey, the one I’m getting is that they are participating in a form of self-retardation. Case (or cases) in point…

My mother told me of a young man she witnessed attempting to board a city bus. As he reached for the railing to navigate the stairs, his pants fell down. He was not wearing underwear. And last summer I was walking to an area movie theater when a young man in his late teens or early 20s walked by me dressed in baggy pants. His pants appeared to be fastened below his bum with the crotch reaching somewhere between knees and calves. As he ambled his way down the street, hitching up his pants every few steps, he began to run (I have no idea why. He may have been running for a bus or realized he was late for an appointment) and as he ran, he needed to hold up his pants with one hand. His progress was slow – in more ways than one.

When your fashion sense impedes your ability to function you are participating in nonsense. It didn’t take me long to realize that wearing high heels and walking to the train and metro stations weren’t going to work. I bought a pair of flats for my commute and wore my heels only in a professional setting. In the crime ridden streets of Baltimore, it’s not far fetched to believe that these young men, or ones similarly dressed, may one day have to run for their lives. I’m afraid their pants will be the death of them.

Needless to say, that the legions of black teens (and other races as well) who embrace this style don't have the last say in the annals of fashion. There are some refreshing voices coming out of the sartorial closet.

For killer fashions to emulate take a look at NeYo , Sean John or Kenyatte Nelson . In case you haven’t heard of Kenyatte Nelson, he was named Esquire Magazine’s Best Dressed Real Man. Check out his spread in the March 2009 edition of Esquire. Kenyatte has his dad to thank for his fashion sense. “He said that if you're a book and your clothes are the cover, you should dress like a New York Times best seller."Esquire.com

I take my hat off to all my African American brothers who are presenting themselves as best sellers instead of comic books. Well done.


  1. Next up to explore...the monstrously over-sized white t-shirt that looks more like a dress. Nice entry, Gay. :)

  2. It's all part of the same uniform.

  3. Real men wear vests... and fedoras. Fact.

  4. I concur, my friend. Real men strive to present themselves as confident, not criminal

  5. Your delightfully irreverent writing is not only de-pantsing the saggin' look, but peeling layers off stereotypes, and exposing your own Super-hero leotard!

    I don't pretend to know African-American culture... much less my own Hispanic/Latino culture, but my minority status sometimes gives me an excuse to ask ignorant questions of other minorities. So here's another take I've heard on the saggin' syndrome...

    An African-American man once told me that saggin' started as simple necessity: baggy pants passed from brother to brother in poor families. He said that rappers exaggerated the look as a badge of solidarity, and to show their street-cred. As America began to idolize black pop culture, via hip-hop, sports stars and Hollywood celebs, soon young men everywhere started saggin'... even upper-class white boys who never wore a hand-me-down in their lives.

    But times are moving on. I think the yummy bloke in your final photo has the right idea. He's found a look unique to him, yet not so far outside the mainstream that it feeds right back into the mainstream... Know what I'm sayin'?

    For another take on culture, check out my new blog post:
    Girls Trek Too blog

  6. A man in classic fashions no matter what race/culture/creed always gets my attention.