Potter: More menacing than bell-bottoms? Impossible.

Counterculture has yet to bring down the system through sartorial rebellion

Midway through his classic 1970 hippie manifesto The Greening of America, Yale prof Charles Reich makes the case for the political importance of wide-legged jeans. Bell-bottoms free your legs for dancing, and dancing helps shake your mind loose from the straight-legged rigidity of everyday life. Free your ankles and your mind will follow, he argues, and behold the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

It didn’t quite work out that way, and despite 40 years of trying on different looks, the counterculture has never managed to bring down the system through sartorial rebellion. On the other hand, less-than-liberal-minded authorities have known for centuries that laws regulating what their subjects can and can’t wear makes for an effective tool for social control and cultural repression.

For example, a few years ago, a number of shopping malls in England and Australia decided to ban patrons from wearing hijabs or hoodies. In the United States last fall, a ban-baggy-pants craze swept across the South, with municipalities in Missouri, Texas, Georgia and Florida implementing bylaws outlawing the beltless, low-crotched jeans favoured by young black men trying to look like a prison inmate who has had his belt taken away, and by young white men trying to look like young black men.

The proposed bans sent a shiver of amusement through the media for a few weeks, thanks largely to a rash of stories about purse-snatchers running from the cops, only to be tripped up by the heavy folds of denim that straitjacketed their pistoning hips.

Officials cooked up all sorts of excuses for why these new regulations were needed. Sometimes the explanation was public safety: hoodies conceal the face, and make it harder for security guards to check ID cards. Other jurisdictions made no effort to hide the Eisenhower-era moralizing behind the proposals, as in Atlanta, where the ban was put forward as an amendment to the city’s indecency laws—the same ones that keep the citizens safe from subway flashers and public masturbators.

Lots of people took the time last year to argue that these laws were just a form of racial profiling masquerading as public safety initiatives, but everyone involved knows these bans have little to do with safety, and nothing to do with prudishness. They are transparently racist regulations, the modern replacement for the Jim Crow laws that exist for no reason other than to give cops legislative cover for their preferred hobby of harassing black kids. This interpretation was vindicated (if that’s the word) in August by the activities of the police department of Riviera Beach, Fla., a crime-ridden and predominantly black community just up the road from Palm Beach.

Some of Riviera Beach’s finest decided a crackdown was in order, and they started rigorously enforcing a new city ordinance that makes Wearing Pants Below the Waist a crime. In short order they had arrested 11 young men, two of whom were juveniles. The fact that (quelle surprise) all 11 are black is surely incidental to their arrest, as no doubt is the fact that the montage of their mug shots posted on the website The Smoking Gun looks like a casting call for a new season of The Wire. A troll through the probable-cause affidavits for the arrests reveals a preposterous pattern: cop sees black man minding his own business, cop spies an inch or two of black man’s underwear, cop gives chase. Most of the time, the “suspects” had no clue what they were even under arrest for.

The use of officially enforced dress codes as a way of controlling or oppressing the lower elements is an old story. Once upon a time, most of Europe had sumptuary laws that protected the status symbols of the aristocracy by limiting the fabrics, styles, and colours that the lower orders were allowed to wear. When Kemal Ataturk was building a secular Turkish state out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, do you know how he got devout Muslim women to stop wearing head scarves? He passed a law that all prostitutes had to wear them.

In fact, when law-and-order types aren’t fixated on black youth boxer shorts, they love to pick on prostitutes. In Uganda last week, the minister for ethics and integrity, one James Nsaba Buturo, outlined his plan to revive an Idi Amin-era ban on miniskirts, as a way of cracking down on hookers and reducing road accidents. It turns out that the sight of a little leg causes Ugandan men to plow into lampposts and rear-end the car in front of them.

But if Ugandan hookers are half as clever as Italian piazza-walkers, he’s going to have his hands full. Last week, the mayor of Rome declared his intention to issue a decree banning the city’s prostitutes from wearing “unseemly and indecent clothing,” on the grounds that (you guessed it) all that cleavage and thigh on display is causing car accidents. The reaction of the Committee for the Rights of Prostitutes (a sort of lobby group for Italian sex workers) was absolutely ingenious: they’ve decided to start dressing as nuns.

Back in Riviera Beach, the story took a happy turn last Tuesday when Palm Beach Circuit Judge Paul Moyle, acting on the advice of a public defender, ruled that the saggy-pants ban was unconstitutional. Moyle’s decision is not binding over the similar bans that are in place across the South, but give it time. After all, it only took 89 years for the original Jim Crow laws to be overturned.

In the meantime, oppressed young black men should steal a page from the Italian hookers union playbook, put aside their saggy trousers, and start dressing like cops.

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