Barely there

August 30, 2007

It was Mark Twain who said, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society." But there's another Twainism more suited to the news that an Atlanta City Council member wants to outlaw a style of baggy pants favored by today's youths: "I think it is not wise for an emperor, or a king, or a president, to come down into the boxing ring, so to speak, and lower the dignity of his office by meddling in the small affairs of private citizens."

Councilman C. T. Martin's proposed ordinance is a form of meddling, though he's not alone in his belief that banning oversized pants - and the corresponding display of undergarments - is a vote for public decency. Similar legislation has been debated in Florida, Texas and Virginia, and the city councils in Shreveport and Alexandria, La., have approved measures that would impose a fine or community service for wearing such pants that way.

These bills are misdirected attempts to control behavior by outlawing fashion. They are more than likely unconstitutional, but not unprecedented. King George II of England banned men and boys from wearing tartan kilts in Scotland - in 1747. The appropriately named Dress Act was an attempt to thwart rebellion, not indecent exposure. A second offense could result in the Scotsman being banished "beyond the seas, there to remain for the space of seven years." The law remained on the books for 35 years.

Fast forward to 1951, when the Miss World pageant banned contestants from wearing bikinis after several countries protested the crowning of a similarly clad Miss Sweden. By the early 1960s, the itsy-bitsy bikini was prominently displayed on the figures of Brigitte Bardot and Ursula Andress - and becoming a permanent part of the culture.

Dress codes are appropriate in certain settings, such as schools. But on the street, oversized pants or skimpy tops that reveal someone's boxers, briefs or bra straps are no more indecent than a revealing bathing suit.

Current concerns that a pants ban would unfairly target minorities are understandable; rap and hip-hop artists popularized the low-slung, baggy look. But the style is favored by many groups, including whites.

Fashion trends come and go - and often return again. That's why it's futile to outlaw what is best suited to the marketplace.

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