Senatus Populusque Urbanus

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Photo: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

I’m always struck by how people react with such vitriol to men dressed like the gentleman pictured above, as if the fact that his jeans hang below his buttocks somehow threatens to sunder the very fabric of American society. Concerned citizens and legislatures all over the country periodically introduce efforts to criminalize this fashion statement scourge, and while most of them ultimately fail or are struck down, the very efforts themselves represent the level of concern with which some view sagging. Where legislative efforts fail, however, cultural warfare often seeks to succeed, as in the case of the untrue rumor that this style originated in prison as a symbol of the wearer’s sexual availability, a falsehood which seeks to lampoon this fashion while apparently piggybacking on and abetting the persistent stigma surrounding homosexuality.

I feel the same way about sagging that I do about skinny jeans: They’re not for me, but I don’t find them offensive or indecent. At first I saw this as one of the many efforts to reject and ostracize sartorial trends pioneered by and associated with minorities, not unlike the sometimes violent attacks on zoot suits in the 1940s, but that fails to take into account a key difference.

Sagging is the American toga.

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Cato the Elder, famous for wearing his toga without a tunic and calling for the destruction of Carthage in a series of grudge raps.

The above mentioned origin story of this trend is partially correct, since it did originate in prison. As one might expect, prison clothes are not made bespoke and thus often fit poorly. Combined with the necessary lack of belts for safety and suicide concerns, this leads to pants which sag and require a specialized gait and the aid of hands to keep them up at all, though this still hang off one’s bottom, nonetheless. In the dawning era of gangster rap, many artists either emphasized their own experiences in criminality and incarceration or simply effected a similar style in the absence of such experience, so this fashion of sagging and grabbing came loping to the fore, representing a life spent in part behind bars for a life spent in part in conflict with the law. How does this elementary history relate to the style of Roman citizens?

Martial prowess. The toga was a large, heavy, elaborately wound bolt of cloth that draped over the body and rested on the arms and, by the time of the empire, was worn exclusively by male citizens. As such, it was a highly impractical garment used as a status symbol and ceremonial garment for peacetime. Few things in Rome were without the influence of Janus, however, and the toga was no exception. To properly wear it in most instances required supporting it on the forearms, and given that it was so large and usually made of heavy wool, this meant one would carry a significant weight in one’s arms all day in a position not unlike that of a Roman legionary bearing a scutum. All Roman men trained for military service, so this was merely a natural extension of that martially inclined life. It took that kind of training to bear the awkward toga effectively, and it signified that even in peace, Romans stood ready to do battle, preparing even in the way they dressed.

Sagging then bears much of the same symbolism. When donned outside of the walls of a prison, it is a status symbol, not of citizenship to an empire but of street cred. In its most originalist and sincere context, one might wear it to boast a history of conflict with the law and a dedication to the same in the present and future, while the impracticality of the style necessitates a particular gait and use of the hands to remain dressed, similar to the toga. This communicates no need for practical movement, that the wearer is comfortable being hobbled in this way because they feel no immediate threats, a powerful status symbol that conveys power and confidence. Even when the more aggressive undertones of sagging’s prison origins are divorced from it, this self-assured air remains.

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