"Pull up your pants or go to jail!"

An abolitionist retelling of the moral panic around sagging pants —and how the influences of Southern pop, rap, and regressive gender politics accelerated efforts to police it.

June 30, 2023
pop justice

This piece is part of a special National Black Music Month series for pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up for more stories from the past century of policing and Black music in the South throughout the month of June.

If you can, think back to 15 years ago, in January of 2008: where you might have been, what you might have been wearing, the songs seeping into the open air from your radio or CD changer. Maybe you had one of Southern pop rap's many hits from the era stuck in your head like I did. Perhaps DJ Khaled's "I'm So Hood," with its stacked list of features from T-Pain, Trick Daddy, Rick Ross, and Plies; maybe Birdman and Lil Wayne's "Pop Bottles," or Baby Boy Da Prince's "The Way I Live."

Like millions of people across the country, you may have been watching unlicensed psychologist Phil McGraw's syndicated daytime talk show—which just ended this year after 21 seasons and 31 Daytime Emmy nominations. In January of 2008, "Dr. Phil" dedicated a full episode of his show to "The Baggy Pants Debate." A slate of tense panel discussions featured parents, politicians, nonprofit staff, famed Black activist Al Sharpton, and Atlanta crunk stars the Ying Yang Twins. 

Everyone was arguing about whether it should be acceptable to wear your pants a few inches below the waistline, leaving a sliver of underwear exposed. The show was responding to a national conversation about sagging pants that had reached a fever pitch. Not only did many people associate sagging with impropriety and criminal behavior—especially among young Black men—but cities across the country were trying to make the style illegal.

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Although "Dr. Phil" often positioned himself as a neutral party, hearing out all the different variables of a controversy, his show also inflamed its guests' most extreme moral tendencies by pushing them to challenge each other for a ravenous audience. For example, several of this episode's guests came from Dallas, Texas—where a billboard campaign called "Pull 'Em Up" had been recently started by Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway and a local nonprofit called Hip-Hop Government. The "Pull 'Em Up" campaign focused heavily on rappers, blaming hip-hop's more "criminal" sensibilities for encouraging youth to sag. 

South Dallas rapper Dooney Da' Priest saw the campaign kick off and wanted to do his part. Within a day, he'd recorded a song called "Pull your Pants Up!" in the style of Southern snap, which was dominating charts and ringtone sales at the time: 

"You walk the streets with your pants way down low / I don't know, looks to me you on the down low / Some of y'all think it's gangsta to show your back / On behalf of real men, we ain't feeling that."

Da' Priest's song dips in homophobia, ableist language ("it looks r*tarded, degenerate, and real odd"), and respectability politics ("a disgrace to your race—where your pride at?"). He argues that sagging makes the general public question the wearer's masculinity. When some listeners criticized his most explicitly homophobic lines, Da' Priest apologized on his MySpace page—kind of: "I have real good Christian values on what I believe in, and I am against homosexuality. But this is not the reason why I wrote the song." 

Although he re-recorded the track and called sagging rude instead, sitting on Dr. Phil's couch, he ultimately doubled down on an oft-repeated claim that the fashion trend came from homosexual liaisons in prison: "it means that the lower that your pants are, the more available you are to another man." Da' Priest highlighted how governments across the country saw Black music and fashion as equally threatening to family values, gender norms, and public safety.

Later in the show, Da' Priest lobbed critiques at the Ying Yang Twins' two members, Kaine and D-Roc, arguing that the duo's implicit support of sagging helped attract police to young Black men: "as African-Americans, we already have a target painted on us, and it's only a brighter red when we give them a reason." The Ying Yang Twins actually disagreed about wearing baggy pants themselves. While D-Roc expressed a real distaste for the style ("I wear too-big pants, but having it off my behind? No. My mama raised me right."), Kaine saw no problem with it: "If I choose to show my boxers a little bit, so what? I'm grown. You can wear your clothes like you want to wear them." But both agreed that conservative pundits and parents were unfairly blaming rappers for the negative perception of sagging. "It doesn't start with hip hop," said Kaine. "And saggin' pants just got to the forefront because of how hip-hop artists dress, but it has been an ongoing thing since time."


Growing up in the 2000s, I distinctly remember a moment when rappers' relationship to fashion was transforming in real-time. In the wake of Y2K, the country's biggest rappers were starting their own fashion lines—like Jay-Z's Rocawear, Diddy's Sean John, and Pharrell's Billionaire Boys Club. High-end fashion brands were entering rap's shared vocabulary more fully, too. Back when Georgia-born 2 Chainz was calling himself Tity Boi, his group Playaz Circle had their hit "Duffle Bag Boy" with Lil Wayne; this song sticks in my memory because of 2 Chainz's quips that straddled street hustling and luxury splurging: "Walk into the Gucci store—honey, I'm home!

At the same time, Southern hip-hop was establishing itself as a chart-topping force after a decade of being left out of industry-wide discourse. At the 1995 Source Awards, when Outkast took home a prize for Best New Rap Group, André 3000 insisted over boos that "the South got something to say." By 2003, Outkast had dropped four top 10 singles—three of which went #1—on masterful albums like Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below. Trap was getting its start on the blocks of Atlanta, memorializing the city's drug wars long before the subgenre evolved into hip-hop's dominant sound. Crunk and snap, which developed in Memphis and Atlanta nightclubs, were fusing the trunk-rattling grooves of Southern gangsta rap with minimalist dance and electronic music. The lines between hip-hop, R&B, and pop were blurring—and the South was renegotiating what rap stars were supposed to look like.

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Another kind of Memphis Blues

For as long as police have existed, Black folks have fought for safety. In Memphis, a city marked by racial violence and injustice, blues greats like Louis Armstrong and John Gary Williams harnessed the power of the city's Black music for resistance.

Sagging first reached national prominence in the 1990s, when parents, school administrators, and journalists tied it to gang imagery commonly associated with the West Coast. The late Tupac was a key frontman for this look: pictures of him shirtless and sagging, exposing his boxers and "Thug Life" tattoo, added to the mystique around his relationship to the "gangsta" lifestyle. But over time, the pop rap of the South and Midwest took sagging to new heights, saturating rap's mainstream image with it. Before New Orleans superstar Lil Wayne was rocking skater gear and Nickelodeon slime colored Uggs, he was rapping along to "Fireman" in drooping jeans, camo shorts, and khaki cargo pants. A 2011 GQ retrospective on Wayne's fashion choices includes photos of him sagging at red carpets and headlining tours—with "enough denim there to open up a Levi's factory." 

The running narrative around sagging singled it out as lazy, disrespectful, and immature. But in the 2000s, sagging became part of a broader set of trends within hip-hop—especially in the Midwest and South—that matched baggy, oversized "everyman" clothing with gaudy accessories. Sagging jeans and denim shorts, wide and flowing like parachutes, were frequently paired with long white tees, polos, and basketball or football jerseys, durags, and fitted caps. Rappers name-dropped casualwear like Hanes and Fruit of the Loom. St. Louis rapper Nelly had multiple hits just about accessorizing, like "Air Force Ones," "Grillz," and "Stepped On My J'z." Rather than being careless, sagging marked a generation of Black folks with working-class roots who were utterly obsessed with how they looked. It pointed out just how far its critics were from pop culture's center: where hip-hop aesthetics were taking over everything, swimming through rivers of denim and cotton.

My personal perceptions of sagging were heavily influenced by the music I grew up with. Before moving to Memphis, I was raised in St. Louis—and as a kid during the Bush era, St. Louis hip-hop had its biggest run. In between the East Coast, West Coast, and "Dirty South," before hyper-regional scenes became so readily accessible on the national stage, St. Louis was sometimes seen as a rap No Man's Land. But between 2000 and 2010, artists like Nelly, Murphy Lee, their group the St. Lunatics, Chingy, and J-Kwon dropped a swath of rap hits that put the city on the map. 

St. Louis hip-hop at this time was gritty like the city, which had a reputation for long-standing neighborhood segregation, rising poverty rates, and violent crime. It was also naturally playful, poppy, and flamboyant: defined by dance and fashion crazes, genre crossovers, and inside jokes for locals. The scene shared some of these sensibilities with Atlanta hip-hop's more dance-heavy subgenres, like crunk and snap, and the two cities frequently dominated parties, clubs, and ringtone stores at the same time. Atlanta superproducer Jermaine Dupri—who's maybe most well-known for his work with Bow Wow, Usher, Mariah Carey, and Janet Jackson—produced and featured on numerous tracks with Nelly, Murphy Lee, Chingy, and J-Kwon, and Atlanta rapper Ludacris signed Chingy to his record label Disturbing Tha Peace for two albums (2003's Jackpot and 2007's Hate It or Love It).

Sagging's roots in the prison system have become its defining mythos, and this narrative has opened the door for critics to bag down the style with an anti-queer subtext. 

Nelly has been particularly influential on today's hip-hop landscape: his first three albums Country Grammar (2000), Nellyville (2002), and Suit (2004) debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200,  and he has a string of chart-topping singles and guest verses under his belt. His half-singing, half-rapping flows on songs like "Pimp Juice," "E.I.," and "Hot In Herre," and his moody collaboration with country singer Tim McGraw, "Over and Over," foreshadowed pop rap's melodic turn in the past decade. He even started his own men's and women's fashion lines in 2002 and 2003, Vokal and Apple Bottoms. I see bits of Nelly in artists like Drake and Lil Nas X, artists who have built their careers on pushing hip-hop's genre borders and challenging its traditional ideas of masculine performance.

For a few years, Nelly was arguably the most popular rapper in the world. Even Jay-Z saw Nelly as a peer, rapping on 2003's "Excuse Me Miss" that no one else was selling like himself, Nelly, and Eminem. And throughout that time, Nelly's single and album covers, music videos, and public appearances repeatedly showed his sagging pants. On the cover of his 2001 single "Ride with Me," for example, Nelly pulls up a black sleeveless shirt to expose his tattooed stomach, a few inches of boxers, and a sloppily-fitted belt keeping his pants steady. 

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"Ride wit Me" was a nationwide hit—it peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a VMA for Best Rap Video—and in St. Louis, it was as impossible to avoid as Nelly himself. My mom and grandparents passed his image on billboards and TV screens all over the city, questioning why young men were so comfortable dressing in a way that felt not only improper, but confusingly inconvenient. But no matter how much I heard these criticisms, I didn't care. Alone in my room, I'd stand at the mirror and loosen my belt just enough to let the folds in my jeans bunch up like lasagna noodles, the waistband of my boxers just barely visible. I wanted to look like the rappers I saw on 106 & Park and VH1, like the older kids I saw around town: an oversized white tee with an oversized NBA jersey draped on top (Kobe or Allen Iverson, maybe), a durag under a fitted Cardinals baseball cap, and sagging pants, my whole outfit melting into the floor.


It seemed like criticisms of sagging were everywhere: at school, on the news, at church, and in the conversations of adult relatives and family friends. In fact, one of my core memories growing up in the church was a moment like this. It was the summer of 2005 or 2006, when I spent a week at Vacation Bible School, huddling around a white plastic table with a group of 10-year-olds in the church's basement. I don't remember why sagging even came up, but I've never forgotten how the VBS teacher asked our group to spell the word "saggin'" backwards. N-I-G-G-A-S. "Exactly," she told us knowingly, as if this bit of respectable, preacher-esque wordplay had come straight from the New York Times—or at least The Crisis. The teacher warned us that sagging had started in prison, where men used it to signal their sexual availability to other men.

Although anti-sagging proposals popped up in every region, most of them were concentrated in the South, especially in smaller towns. 

In reality, the origin of sagging is hard to pin down. Baggy, oversized fits have gone in and out of fashion in Black music scenes throughout the 20th century: like the "zoot suits" of World War II era jazz and swing, or the "hammer pants" of the late 80s and early 90s. When sagging initially emerged, the story went that it was mainly a marker of gang membership. As it kept spreading in the 2000s, pundits and cultural commentators began honing in on the claim that sagging was directly borrowed from incarcerated men. This claim didn't come from nowhere: scholars and journalists have noted that many U.S. prisons have "issued baggy uniforms without belts in order to deter suicide attempts and the use of belts as weapons." But within the popular imagination, this origin story has only become more murky and sensationalized over time. Sagging's roots in the prison system have become its defining mythos, and this narrative has opened the door for critics to bag down the style with an anti-queer subtext. 

When Black TV journalist Don Lemon was recently let go from CNN—after sexist comments on air, and allegations that he harassed women colleagues—some news outlets and social media communities began reposting a decade-old opinion piece he delivered on-air about "five ways to fix our community." The piece is laden with respectability politics, suggesting that Black people stop using the "n-word," littering excessively, devaluing school and "proper English," and having children out of wedlock. But his leading piece of advice is about sagging, and he cites its supposed origins as a central reason to avoid it:

"Walking around with your ass and your underwear showing is not okay. In fact, it comes from prison when they take away belts from the prisoner so that they can't make a weapon. And then it evolved into which role a prisoner would have during male-on-male prison sex. The one with the really low pants is a submissive one. You get my point?"

Lemon, who came out as gay in 2011, also urged his Black viewers to "pay close attention to the hip-hop and rap culture that many of you embrace, a culture that glorifies everything I just mentioned." 

Ironically, sagging, gender-fluid clothing, and other hip-hop fashion trends have been perfect targets for traditionalist and socially-conservative artists over the past 20 years. Just like Don Lemon, rappers have often appealed to traditional masculinity when criticizing these trends. On a 2008 track produced by Dr. Dre, California rapper Bishop Lamont finds femininity in baggy pants and oversized T-shirts: "Goddamn, niggas, pull up your pants / Got your drawers all out, what, you wanna strip dance? / And homeboy, what you doing in a 5X? / You ain't that big, shit's looking like a dress." Method Man offers his take in a 2014 Wu-Tang cut: "Youngun, I can see your draws, pull your pants up / can't even call yourself a man until you man up."

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In many cases, fashion critiques within rap have drawn directly from the rhetoric of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism—which have historically been invested in a strong, refined, respectable Black masculinity that's always under threat from mainstream pop culture. In her 1991 book The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors, Afrocentric psychiatrist Frances Cress Welsing argued that queer Black masculinity was a product of the white supremacist imaginary, and that the ongoing "emasculation" of Black men would hold back their communities from effectively challenging racial genocide. 

The modern Nation of Islam, and its longtime leader Louis Farrakhan, have made similar arguments about Black men being "feminized" by things like the prescription drug industry, fashion, and the promotion of homosexuality and "gender inversion" in Black-led TV shows, movies, and music. In a 2016 interview on popular hip-hop radio show The Breakfast Club, Farrakhan drops an aside about this that specifically references sagging: "your behind is out, as a man—well, who's spotting that for you?" What's telling is when co-host Charlamagne tha God quips back, "It's almost like if they can't kill us, they wanna feminize us."

Even my favorite rapper, the late underground legend MF DOOM, has dipped in this rhetoric several times. On the intro to his 2004 album MM..FOOD, he lays out his disgust for the more flamboyant presentation of mainstream rap:

"What up? To all rappers: shut up with your shutting up / And keep a shirt on, at least a button-up / Yuck, is they rhymers or strippin' males? / Out-of-work jerks since they shut down Chippendales."

In his 2009 track "Cellz," weaving between rhymes and syllables like a dense forest, DOOM revisits the thought, directly referencing the queer connotations of sagging: "Word is bond, fix your clothes, put a shirt on / Pants sagging back when used to meant you had a skirt on." 

DOOM has left a permanent mark on underground and mainstream hip-hop since these tracks came out. In high school, DOOM's music rewired my brain, helped me fall in love with the limitless horizon of Black language—and he's one of the main reasons I'm a writer now. Lines like these are uncomfortable reminders that rappers' politics are so often contradictory, forward-thinking on some fronts and frustratingly regressive on others. Still, I can't help but remember how I first found DOOM, through his most commercially successful proteges: Odd Future, the California music and skating collective that cultivated several openly-gay and bisexual stars like Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean, and Syd. Odd Future ran with the parts of DOOM's style that were unabashedly weird and out-of-place, and built something that had room for the queerness that rappers like DOOM disavowed.


When sagging first entered the mainstream, its main battlegrounds were school board meetings and private dress codes. In the mid-90s, the U.S. Supreme Court took on several cases addressing whether school districts violated First Amendment rights by banning "gang-related apparel." Generally, these cases upheld the right to ban specific clothing styles for public safety reasons; in his 2009 article "I See London, I See France: The Constitutional Challenge to 'Saggy' Pants Laws," legal scholar William Vandivort argues that school districts' bans have often withstood court challenges because of "governmental interest in safeguarding the educational process and courts' reluctance to second-guess educational policy decisions."

But starting in the mid-2000s, city councils and state legislatures across the country began proposing anti-sagging laws in an effort to stomp out the trend for good. Some of the first attempts came to Virginia and Louisiana's state legislatures in 2004, where  "[both] proposals failed after being met with freedom-of-expression claims." Rather than slowing down, these efforts exploded, finding more success on the local level. Although anti-sagging proposals popped up in every region, most of them were concentrated in the South, especially in smaller towns. 

In Georgia, there was Atlanta, Hawkinsville, Columbus, and Brunswick. In Florida, there was Riviera Beach, Cocoa, Ocala, and Opa-locka. There was Dallas, Texas, and Charlotte, North Carolina; Covington, Tennessee, and Horn Lake, Mississippi. In Louisiana alone, the towns of Shreveport, Alexandria, Mansfield, Delcambre, Port Allen, and Lafourche parish all had sagging bans on their books by 2008. In 2011, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority in Texas "became the first transit agency in the state—and possibly the nation—to ban sagging" on public buses. Although no statewide bans have been successful so far, Tennessee's state legislature considered one in 2009, and South Carolina's state legislature proposed an anti-sagging law as recently as 2018.

Some anti-sagging bans punished violators with jail time: for example, Abbeville, Louisiana's ordinance "[allowed] for up to six months' imprisonment." But most bans relied on deterring violators with municipal fines and other civil punishments." Under Shreveport, Louisiana's ban, which passed in 2007, violators received "a fine of up to $250 and up to 32 hours of community service." That same year, Alexandria passed a similar law which not only imposed fines up to $200, but added that violators could be "ordered to do community service and counseling." Even without the threat of jail time, these laws exposed the racial bias that's a foundational part of police departments across the country. Shreveport is a perfect example. Between 2007 and 2019, Shreveport police made 726 arrests under its anti-sagging law; some of these folks received a court summons while others were taken into custody, and 98 percent of those arrested were Black.

Municipal citations always carry a latent danger: they allow police to use sagging as an excuse for initiating a stop, which can easily turn into other charges if the stop escalates. In 2008, police stopped 17-year-old Julius Hart for sagging while riding his bike in Riviera Beach, Florida. Although a first-time violation usually brought "a $150 fine or a requirement of community service," Hart was on probation for a marijuana possession charge—so he was held in jail overnight without bond. Riviera Beach's sagging ban was approved by referendum, but less than a year after it passed, a judge ruled that it was unconstitutional based on Hart's case

In some standout cases, these sagging stops have ended more tragically. Shreveport began to revisit its ban in February of 2019, when police officer Traveion Brooks stopped a Black 31-year-old named Anthony Childs on the sidewalk for sagging. Childs ran from Brooks, who pursued him in his squad car before noticing that Childs was carrying a gun. Brooks fired eight shots at Childs, hitting him three times, and Childs ended up dead at the scene. However, prosecutors declined to press charges against Brooks because Childs' death was ruled a suicide. As Mother Jones' Laura Thompson notes in her coverage of the incident, the coroner's report argued that "the only shot Childs fired was into his own chest." Months later, Shreveport city council voted 6-1 to repeal the ban; the weight of public pressure had finally reached its breaking point.

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2007 was a particularly busy year for anti-sagging campaigns. As I was starting middle school, a small St. Louis suburb called Pine Lawn passed its own sagging ban, which included girls in low-rise jeans, not far from where I lived. Under that ordinance, people caught sagging within city limits would be fined $100, while parents who knowingly let their kids sag in public could receive up to a $500 fine or 90 days in jail. In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article titled "No butts about it," the town's Black mayor, Sylvester Caldwell, told reporters about a discussion earlier that year with developers from the St. Louis County Economic Council—who specifically referenced sagging as they "talked about improving the city's image." (A council spokeswoman acknowledged that developers discussed "perceptions of Pine Lawn," but denied that they explicitly encouraged the ban.)

In response to concerns about racial profiling, Caldwell claimed that Pine Lawn police wouldn't actively seek out youth who were sagging. Instead, he directed officers "to use the law during regular patrols as an opportunity to explain to youths how their style can be offensive and to inform parents who might not know how their children are dressing away from home." 

Police power doesn't just protect the cultural values of white supremacist patriarchy: policing makes race and gender what they are.

But small suburbs in North St. Louis County (Pine Lawn included) also had a reputation for using fines, fees, and tickets to sustain their budgets—balancing their books on the backs of their mostly-Black citizens. Pine Lawn was 96 percent Black in 2007, with a total population of around 4,000; its median income in 2000 was $21,500, and the city took up less than a square mile of space. I'm not arguing that Pine Lawn solely passed their sagging ban to make money, but it's telling that Caldwell saw sagging as a barrier to the city's economic development—and was willing to use the ban to make the city more inviting for major investors.

This practice of policing-as-funding-stream gained national attention after police killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, less than five miles north of Pine Lawn. When the U.S. Department of Justice investigated the Ferguson Police Department, they noted that FPD's routine practices were "shaped by the City's focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs… contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing." Between 2010 and 2014, the City of Ferguson issued "approximately 90,000 citations and summonses for municipal violations," when Ferguson's population hovered around 21,000. Like Pine Lawn, Ferguson was majority-Black, and a quarter of its population lived below the poverty line. 

When I drive to St. Louis now to visit family, there are still specific suburbs where my foot nudges at the brake out of muscle memory. I've learned to avoid becoming part of these cities' capitalist engine, to avoid anything that would make myself a target. Sagging laws are part of that same history.

If parents, police, and politicians had been worried about sagging since the 90s, why did anti-sagging campaigns pop off so fervently in the mid-2000s? That moment represented the intersection of several corners of reactionary culture: moral and artistic critiques of hip-hop, the supposed decline of the Black family, and homophobic anxiety about prisons (both consensual encounters, and the sensationalized image of "prison rape"). At an NAACP event in 2004, for example, comedian and TV star Bill Cosby famously delivered a speech where he shamed Black communities for poor social values. As Cosby was drugging and sexually assaulting scores of women behind closed doors, he cited sagging pants as an example of moral decline among Black men: "Are you not paying attention, people with their hat on backwards, pants down around the crack. Isn't that a sign of something, or are you waiting for Jesus to pull his pants up?"

The culture war against sagging also created a natural alliance between the police state, corporate capital, and socially-conservative politicians across race and party lines. Many outspoken critics of sagging were liberal and progressive by reputation, especially Black activists and elected officials; even if they spoke out against criminalizing the practice, their words reinforced the moral panic that led to those efforts in the first place. In a 2008 interview with famous hip-hop radio personality Sway Calloway, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama called bans "a waste of time," but still called on young people to stop the trend. "You don't have to pass a law," Obama said, "but that doesn't mean folks can't have some sense and some respect for other people and, you know, some people might not want to see your underwear—I'm one of them."

It's important to note that many attempts to criminalize sagging never actually passed: either because of public pressure, concerns that a ban wouldn't hold up in court, or politicians echoing Obama's view that enacting a policy seemed frivolous. But moments like these kept those efforts going, as literal and figurative fashion policing subtly came together. Although Obama didn't call for criminalizing the style, he still framed sagging as an issue of public decency and respect in a moment where he was vying to wield state power—and marketing himself as a social reformer. 

Obama's figurative policing emboldened the national conversation about how to literally police it. A frequently successful strategy used public decency laws to classify sagging as a kind of indecent exposure. Interestingly, this political use of decency laws has a long history in American policing: between the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, at least 45 cities used a similar precedent to ban cross-dressing in public. The way Clare Sears describes cross-dressing laws in her 2015 book, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, feels like it could easily apply to the contemporary war against sagging. "Far more than a local government order that created a misdemeanor offense," says Sears, "cross-dressing law represented a specific strategy of government that constructed normative gender, reinforced inequalities, and generated new modes of exclusion from public life."


Sagging bans and cross-dressing laws shared a mindset and approach: they enforced rigid gender politics by deploying the police state against non-conformist fashion trends. Both show us how policing fashion, whether through laws or cultural pressure, has been a useful tactic for suppressing gender and race expression through the implicit threat of police violence. Within Black communities, sagging bans became a way of using state power to defend traditional Black masculinity—and aspire to the power and privilege of white American men. But there's a basic tactical problem with this idea. Police power doesn't just protect the cultural values of white supremacist patriarchy: policing makes race and gender what they are. As the history of abolitionist thinking and organizing has shown us, oppressed people's efforts to hijack policing for their own ends are destined to backfire. 

In the past decade, sagging bans have largely gone out of fashion, and many successful bans have been overturned. But efforts to criminalize sagging and other hip-hop fashion have left ripples in the current tide of police struggles. In New York, Eric Adams went from buying "Stop the Sag" billboards as a state senator to shaping NYPD strategy. New York City's self-proclaimed "hip-hop mayor" has campaigned against the rising popularity of the city's drill music, suggesting that drill's aesthetic is drawing New York youth into gun violence and gang conflicts. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's public transit system recently made national headlines for banning balaclavas and ski masks; in a press conference, transit police chief Charles Lawson called the mask style a "Shiesty," in reference to Memphis rapper Pooh Shiesty—who's frequently sported them in music videos.

Sagging and drag have a subtle kinship in this way, stepping outside traditional ideas of how to present the body under white supremacist patriarchy.

Hip-hop styles have never stopped being targets for police profiling. But within the past year, state-sanctioned fashion policing has also moved onto a new battlefield. In the midst of a Republican-led effort to remove trans and non-binary people from public life, state governments have turned to banning drag performances. The first state to successfully pass an anti-drag law was Tennessee, back in February. Tennessee's law framed drag as a matter of obscenity, recalling those cross-dressing laws from the 19th century: it banned "adult cabaret" performances in public or with minors present, putting "male or female impersonators" in the same legal category as strippers and go-go dancers. Tennessee governor Bill Lee also signed another bill at the same time that banned gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth, including "puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgery." By passing these bills together, Tennessee's state regime highlighted their view that fashion and performance are part of the police state's basic work to maintain social hierarchy.

In early June, a federal judge overturned Tennessee's ban before it could be fully enforced, ruling that it was "both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad." Another federal judge recently blocked Florida's anti-drag law for similar reasons. Still, setbacks like these won't stop right-wing governments from fighting to repress queer communities through new policies. This year, more than a dozen state legislatures have proposed bills to criminalize public drag shows—and just like with sagging, the South and Midwest are most active in the fight.

 Anti-drag advocates are using many of the same arguments that anti-sagging campaigns did: getting around First Amendment concerns by claiming these styles are "obscene" or "indecent." Protecting children, enshrining traditional family values, and preserving public decency become coded ways of targeting communities who are heavily criminalized already. It's clear that policing fashion is much more about the people wearing it than about the clothing itself.

Beneath the antiblackness of hip-hop fashion's moral panics, I see glimpses of where its anti-queerness might come from. Some of hip-hop's most persistent styles—sagging pants, hoodies, ski masks—have reflected an aesthetic of being out of order: a commitment to eccentricity and excess in equal measure. Always showing too much or too little of themselves, becoming hyper-visible or totally faceless, reflecting the contradictions of Black identity back at the public. Sagging and drag have a subtle kinship in this way, stepping outside traditional ideas of how to present the body under white supremacist patriarchy.

In turn, moral panics around these styles raise questions of how we make ourselves legible. A key part of what "sells" gender is our ability to be read as one gender or sexuality at any given time in public. We can see this anxiety play out in states like Florida, Kansas, and Mississippi, which have recently passed legislation forcing youth athletes to compete as the gender they were assigned at birth. In certain situations, these laws compel athletes to verify their assigned gender before competing, usually by providing birth certificates; in Florida and Ohio, provisions allowing for genital inspections were removed after public pressure.

We partly affirm our gender by making ourselves available to be read by the state—and fashion complicates this process. If you're refusing to present yourself as a cishet man is "supposed to"—if I can't cleanly read you as a cishet man who's occupying his expected role—then I'm left with a new question: What are you? And that's where the anxiety lies: in that inability to know, the danger in not knowing how to read you, not being able to determine what power you carry with you in the world. Illegibility opens up the abyss of the unknown—and how do you imagine an abyss without a deep, inscrutable blackness?

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Regardless of this radical potential, the relationship between Black music, fashion, and gender has been much more complex. In recent years, Black hip-hop artists have frequently used fashion to stretch the acceptable imagery of gender expression to its limits. Atlanta rapper Young Thug, who's famously flitted between sagging streetwear, luxury chic, and traditionally-feminine clothing, waxed in a 2016 Calvin Klein ad that "you could be a gangsta with a dress, or you could be a gangsta with baggy pants. I feel like it's no such thing as gender." 

But the social conservatism of certain Black traditions—religion, respectability, and "pro-Black" homophobia and transphobia—still holds a significant sway. Fashion experimentalists like Thug, Playboi Carti, Kid Cudi, Lil Uzi Vert, and A$AP Rocky have frequently pushed through homophobic backlash over their personal style. At the same time, openly queer artists with Southern ties, like ILoveMakonnen and Saucy Santana, have fought against critics inside and outside of the industry who see their success and influence as a fluke.

As Shanté Paradigm Smalls argues in their 2022 book Hip-Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City, "Black, queer, and hip-hop… still sit or play or stand in discomfort together." Although fashion is an important terrain of struggle, we have to temper our expectations of what fashion can do for the radical imagination by itself. Now that pop, hip-hop, and the fashion industry are more intertwined than ever, hip-hop aesthetics have only become more vulnerable to corporate capitalism and state capture. Just look at the fashion house Balenciaga—one of the most-referenced luxury brands in the genre—which has previously dropped a line of $1100 sweatpants with built-in boxer material to look like they sag. 

The cultural and legal battles over sagging and drag suggest that abolitionists should turn our attention more closely to the process of fashion policing: that we should answer these moral panics with a commitment to queerness as a politic, not just an identity. Effectively challenging police power means broadening our view of what that power looks like. Northwestern University professor Marquis Bey argues that "the State is, too, a relation, a way of dictating how people are to be interacted with. We encounter one another on the logics of intelligibility that the State demands, and that structures how one can appear to others, circumscribing subjective parts and desires that fall outside of this framework. And this is a violence." 

When I think of a radical queerness, I think of orienting ourselves against those people and institutions that seek to violently regulate our relationships to our bodies. So when we talk about the demands of abolition, perhaps we should include the fashion police, too.

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Justin Davis is a writer and labor organizer. His poems are published or forthcoming in places like Washington Square Review, Anomaly, wildness, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Apogee Journal. He’s published non-fiction with Science for the People and Labor Notes. He's been nominated for Best of the Net, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Memphis, Tennessee.