The Nation's Pulse

Sag Harbor

Radical self-expression in the produce section.

By 8.26.10

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The sign on the door of John English's store reads "No shoes, No shirt, No service. And pull up your pants!" Waiting in the checkout line, I ask the proprietor if he is still having trouble with shirtless and shoeless customers with sagging trousers.

"It's worse," John moans, shaking his head despondently. "I don't know what the world's coming to."

John has run this little corner grocery for 35 years. He's seen nonconformist fashion trends come and go: ultra-miniskirts, hoodies, backward baseball caps. Who can forget that brief period a few years ago when girls wore those incredibly low-cut jeans with the highly visible thongs?

"I didn't think it could get worse than the saggy pants," John says. "Boy was I naive."

I remember the sagging pants. They were all the rage in the 1990s. At first the trousers sagged only somewhat, barely enough to identify the color and make of the boxers. As the years advanced, however, trousers continued their downward progression.

In those days, there was much debate about the significance of "jailin'," as the trend was called. Berkeley grad school students even wrote dissertations on the phenomenon. One popular theory had the fad originating with prisoners' ill-fitting clothing. Ex-cons brought this fashion statement to the ghetto where it was popularized. Wearing droopy drawers became a symbol of solidarity with convicts past and present.

Today we can look back on the era of the sagging trousers as a relatively enlightened period. Some of the younger (male mostly) customers coming into John English's store now wear long tight-fitting gym shorts that they position well below their buttocks. What's more, they have switched from boxers to tighty whities. I have no idea why, but doubtless some Berkeley grad student is researching the subject as we speak. (What must it be like to have one's every asinine deed awarded cultural significance?)

As for John's signage, the stern warning seems to be having the desired effect, though the impact is temporary; once outside the store, down go the drawers.

"They can't even walk," John says. "They got their pants down around their knees and they can barely walk. I don't get it. Why wear pants at all? Why not just walk around in your skivvies?"

Beats me. I thought the fad would have been long gone by now. Dumb fashions usually have a lifespan of five years, tops. Not even leisure suits had this kind of longevity.

I WILL SAY ONE THING: the great science fiction writers had it all wrong. According to the sci-fi classics, by now we should all be wearing metallic form-fitting uniforms like the Robinson family from Lost in Space. I suppose if H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov had really been prescient, they would have portrayed their futuristic characters stumbling around with their pants around their ankles. 

The trouble with sci-fi authors is most assumed Homo sapiens would continue to evolve intellectually when all the evidence points in the opposite direction. As far as I can tell, the only writer who has gotten it right is Mike Judge. Judge's film Idiocracy depicts a future in which no one has an IQ above 70, although even these denizens of future Earth at least appear to wear belts.

I fear that John may be leaving himself open to charges of… whatever the ACLU calls discrimination based on the public display of one's soiled BVDs. It's happened before. Banning customers from one's business because of the way they're dressed -- or undressed -- can get you into hot water, especially if the banned person happens to hold membership in a protected class. I just don't want to see John's store picketed by dozens of jockey supporters who think that showing one's dirty underpants is a constitutional right, when it is clear from his writings that James Madison was a supporter of decency: "If men were angels, no pants would be necessary."

I suppose it's inevitable, too, that droopy-drawered youths everywhere will demand victim status since wearing one's pants around one's knees is a legitimate expression of urban street culture -- expressing contempt for societal norms and the belt and suspender industries, I suppose. Anyone who decries the continuing descent of man's pants, and the ongoing civilizational decline they symbolize, is obviously a bigot.

I know, it sounds absurd. But is it any more absurd than tripping around a grocery store with your pants around your ankles?

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.