For years, we’ve watched them waddle in front of us like tipsy penguins, hitching their flopping pants up as they shuffled along.
Some saggers dropped their pants down just below their waist, giving us just a glimpse of their butt cheeks. Others went full-on sag, tying their pants mid-thigh, a sartorial maneuver that made them “look like they were pooping themselves while they walked,” one critic observed.
There was, of course, a backlash. City councils passed “droopy drawers” laws, punishing men for wearing their pants too low. Saggers were booted off airline flights and buses. Community leaders launched “Stop the Sag!” billboard campaigns. Yet no one could stop this fashion blight.
But America recently reached a cultural turning point that few seem to have noticed: The days of staring at the droopy drawers of young men in public are coming to a close, fashion experts, historians and even holdout saggers say.
The era of sagging pants is ending.
“It’s been played out for a long time,” said Stephanie Smith-Strickland, a writer for Highsnobiety, an online fashion and lifestyle magazine. “The people who create fashion, the tastemakers — it’s been played out for them. I live in Brooklyn, and when I walk down the street, I rarely see it.”
Fashion trends have long provoked bewilderment. In 16th century England, wealthy women blackened their teeth to mimic the decaying teeth of Queen Elizabeth I, whose fondness for sugar destroyed her oral health. European men around the same time wore codpieces to advertise their phallic prowess. Ancient Egyptians were the original coneheads: Noblewomen wore scented cones made of wax, fat or oils that released a scented fragrance as they melted.
Still, the sagging pants phenomenon was such a curious development that its passing merits some examination. How did young men wearing their pants closer to their knees than their waists ever become fashionable? Why did it stop being popular? And if sagging is now so passé, why are some people still sagging in public?
What started the sag
One can’t discuss sagging without addressing one of its most common origin myths. The short answer: It didn’t start with homosexual sex in prison. According to lore, inmates allegedly sagged their pants to signal sexual availability. But Snopes, the fact-checking website, says this story is false.
Sagging did begin in prison, but for a more banal reason: Prisoners were often issued clothing that was too large for them and they couldn’t wear belts. Explains Snopes: “Belts are not permitted in most correctional facilities because all too often the lifeless bodies of their inmate owners have been found hanging from them.” Sagging was later adopted by rap artists such as Ice-T and Too Short, and by 1995 it had spilled into mainstream teen culture, Snopes said.
For the original saggers — the young African-American men who sparked the trend — sagging became an act of self-expression, a form of art.
“People in the margins are constantly innovating in fashion and style because they often have the least,” said Tanisha C. Ford, an associate professor of black American studies and history at the University of Delaware and author of “Liberated Threads.” “Their challenge is, how can you be creative with very little money and resources.”
Others see sagging as a symptom of contemporary America’s fondness for sloppiness.
“People don’t dress up for retirement parties anymore,” Galanty Miller, a sociologist, said. “People don’t wear ties to weddings. They wear flip-flops to church. We’ve become a more relaxed culture.”
Miller doesn’t even pretend to bring any academic detachment to the subject of sagging. He’s also a playwright and comic who wrote an essay titled, “It’s Time to End the Sagging Pants Trend.” Saggers, he wrote, looked like “idiots” who walked around like they had soiled their pants.
Some critics, including Miller, are so glad to see this fashion trend evaporate that they don’t care why it went. They’re just glad it’s on the way out.
“This has gone on longer than it should have,” he said of sagging. “There are standards everybody in society should aspire to: This is how language works, this is how science works, this is how you wear your pants. What if everyone started wearing a toga?”
What stopped the sag
Indeed, finding examples of the kind of urban art Ford described has become difficult, as we discovered on a recent afternoon.
It was a perfect day for sagging: a balmy, sunny afternoon in downtown Atlanta, lunchtime crowds filling the sidewalks, young men checking out and flirting with women on the city’s bustling streets.
We set off to interview some saggers, but after an hour, we had found none. All the young people were wearing skinny jeans.
Then, just as we had given up, we came across four young men in various states of sag walking with a young woman near a park.
We soon discovered that even within this group of holdouts, there was little swag to their sag; they admitted they don’t dare sag like they used to.
Jordan Farmer, 18, wore modestly sagging green jeans that showed just a hint of his undergarment. He’s a wiry young man with a small earring in his left ear, a goatee and a calm, almost professorial, manner.
Farmer said he tries not to be “disrespectful” with his sagging. When asked for an example, he said, “Too low is when you have your butt out and you’re showing your underwear.”
His friend, Durunta Floyd, 18, also said a sagger must be circumspect. His jeans were sagging a tad lower than his waist.
“When I’m out in public with some girls or on some business, I won’t sag my pants,” Floyd said.
Like a lot of saggers, Floyd deliberately sags his pants so his underwear is visible. That’s part of the purpose of the sag — to show off one’s colorful underwear.
He said he’s aware of how some perceive him as he walks down the street.
“I’m a thug. I’m a criminal. They think a lot of things. But I don’t let that phase me,” Floyd said. He shrugged before patting his hair to make sure it looked good for the camera.
From sag to high fashion
Both Farmer and Floyd said they started sagging to imitate the way their favorite rappers dressed in videos. But today’s hip-hop stars no longer sag, and that’s the primary reason sagging has gone out of style, fashion experts say.
Sloppy, baggy streetwear no longer fits the aesthetic of the contemporary hip-hop world, where rappers now team up with high-end fashion brands, said Smith-Strickland, the fashion writer.
She gave some examples:
Rapper Lil Yachty this year was named a creative designer for the Nautica clothing line. Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky was among those featured in the summer 2017 ad campaign for Dior Homme, the French fashion house.
And rapper Pharrell Williams designed a jewelry line for Louis Vuitton, another French fashion house.
Today’s hip-hop stars aren’t going to be caught on the red carpet in jeans sagging around their butt, Smith-Strickland said.
“The entertainers who are considered the fashion icons, the pacesetters, have moved on from that,” she said. “They’re experimenting with more tailored looks and fitted clothes.”
Another group of celebrities also gets credit for stopping the sag: NBA superstars.
Some trace that change to 2005. That’s when NBA Commissioner David Stern instituted a mandatory dress code for players. Critics at the time called the move “racist” and said it was aimed at then-NBA star Allen Iverson, a notorious sagger.
Today’s NBA stars, though, are fashionistas. Elite players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Russell Westbrook are known almost as much for their moves in the fashion world as they are on the NBA court.
A recent Rolling Stone article described how it’s common for NBA players to wear spectacles, cardigans and pink blazers. In the article, GQ “Style Guy” Mark Anthony Green said NBA superstars “are the most stylish group of athletes of all time.” He, too, traces that to the NBA’s mandatory dress code.
“When the dress code came, players had to wear suits, and there wasn’t any way around that,” Green said. “But guys in the NBA are competitive. So, one guy buys a Valentino suit, and the next one does. Now if you’re a top NBA player, you have to look the part off the court. And if you’re not a top player, you still want to look like one. A rookie at some random team wants to dress like LeBron James so that they look the part.”
So why — when the men who live at the pinnacle of modern fame have traded sag for glam — are some people, like the young men in downtown Atlanta, still sagging?
Those holdouts, Smith-Strickland said, are the fashion world’s equivalent of people who didn’t get the memo: They don’t follow fashion trends, and “it really takes a long time for the trickle-down effect to get to them.”
‘The body is your space’
For those hanging onto the waning trend, sagging remains an act of defiance, said Ford.
“When you’re already on the margins, (sagging) is your way of giving the middle finger to the sensitivities of the very system that oppresses you,” she said.
And that defiance can manifest itself in all kinds of ways. Black men on the margins know their bodies are often seen as objects of threat, but they turn them into works of art, adorning themselves with gold teeth, do-rags and colorful tattoos.
“Because you know as soon as you leave home you could be unduly harassed, assaulted, you could be pulled over and frisked for no reason and you might die before you make it home,” Ford said. “You have to be able to find some joy, some kind of pleasure, and styling your body gives you that.
“The body is your space where you have some modicum of agency, where you can keep your sense of self intact,” she said.
If what Ford said is true, then don’t be surprised if another form of fashion innovation springs from black urban America and irritates broad swaths of the American public.
Politicians will be outraged. Billboard campaigns will ensue. Adults will turn their heads in dismay. They won’t complain about “sagging” anymore, but it will be something else.
So get ready. The whole cycle of outrage could churn once again.