Fashion police are no joke in some cities and schools

From sagging pants to bracelets for breast cancer, what you wear can get you in trouble

It's not a sign you expect to see at a McDonald's: "No sagging."

No, it's not a warning to out-of-shape customers. No-sagging signs like the one at a McDonald's franchise off Interstate 35 in Oak Cliff, Texas, serve as an admonition to customers that those outfitted in the hip-hop gear of low-slung, underwear-revealing pants are unwelcome.

That Texas fast-food restaurant isn't the only one that requires customers to pull up their pants. And sagging isn't the only fashion to come under attack. Headscarf bans have been reported everywhere from a New York amusement park to Oklahoma's Benjamin Franklin Science Academy. In Quebec, there has been talk of banning public servants from wearing turbans, hijabs and crucifixes.

Supposed gang attire, such as do-rags and bandannas, has long come under scrutiny. Across the United States, fashion-related legal battles are raging over cocktail-waitress uniforms to breast-cancer-awareness bracelets, bringing new meaning to the term "fashion police."

"What other people wear makes people nervous," said Ruthann Robson, author of the new book Dressing Constitutionally: Hierarchy, Sexuality, and Democracy from Our Hairstyles to Our Shoes. "They try to legislate it or make arrests based on it, and then -- blam! -- lots of work for constitutional lawyers."

Sag to your socks

Rapper The Game, shown here arriving at BET Awards in June 2011, is against a ban on sagging pants.
Chris Pizzello/AP

Take sagging pants, a fashion that references oversized prison garb. Anti-sag ordinances have been proposed in communities like Miami and Detroit. This summer, Wildwood, N.J., Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr. pushed through a full-on ban on sagging pants on the boardwalk.

"I'm not an old fogey or a prude either," he told Al Jazeera, "but personally I'm not a big fan of seeing someone with their rear end hanging out. Look at Justin Bieber and these guys onstage with their underwear hanging out. You look like a fool!"

"If you have no respect for yourself, that's your own business,'' he said. "But have some respect for those behind you who don't want to look at your rear end. Regardless if it's black or white or brown or green or yellow or orange, we're not looking at it."

Troiano said that "one or two" people were asked to pull up their pants on the boardwalk this summer because of the ban and that there were no confrontations or fines. He was surprised by complaints he received from constitutional-rights advocates. "We're talking about somebody's rear end hanging out," he said. "We're not talking about constitutional principles here."

Even President Obama has weighed in on anti-sag ordinances, saying, "Any public official who's worrying about sagging pants probably needs to spend some time focusing on real problems out there. Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants."

Rapper Jayceon Terrell Tyler, also known as the Game, disagrees. He told TMZ the Wildwood ban was racist and suggested people "should sag down to their socks out there … Can't tell people how to wear their f---ing clothes."

Constitutional-rights advocates tend to agree with the Game. "The saggy-pants laws constitute a policing of young people," said Robson. "Going for a town or municipal or state dress code -- if you start to extrapolate that, it gets scary."

Public versus private spaces

But moving from public spaces to private businesses, the rules are a little different. In Atlantic City, N.J., 20 female employees at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa claimed they were held to overly exacting standards so they would appear to customers as a "babe." For example, they were made to wear sexy clothes and were subjected to weigh-ins to ensure they didn't gain more than 7 percent of their weight at hire.

Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Nelson C. Johnson found in favor of the Borgata's owner, saying that the women knew what was required when they took the job. He said in his decision that they were "attractive females who accepted a position in which their good looks and physique were key to their hiring."

"We don’t like it," one of the women's lawyers, Kevin Costello, said of the decision, which they are appealing. "I've been served drinks at casinos. What's important to me is that I don’t have to go looking for the drink, that they don't spill it on me. (To be a beverage server) you have to be well presented, you have to be nice, and you have to have good manual dexterity. It's not about how much they weigh and how their chest and rear end look and whether they're wearing a dominatrix outfit."

Lewd or raising awareness?

Kayla Martinez, then 14, speaking to reporters outside the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last February about her school's ban on breast-cancer-awareness bracelets.
Matthew Rourke/AP

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania two young women, Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk, have been fighting for nearly three years for the right to wear "I (heart) boobies! / Keep a breast" breast-cancer-awareness bracelets to school. Their middle school banned the bracelets and punished the two girls for refusing to take them off. The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in on their behalf.

"'Boobies' is a word young girls use to talk about their bodies," said the girls' ACLU attorney Mary Catherine Roper. "The whole point of the Keep a Breast Foundation is to get young women talking about and comfortable with their breasts."

But the school district has stood firm against the bracelets. "Our argument was that they could reasonably be construed as a sexual double entendre that appealed to prurient interests," said John Freund, a lawyer for the school district. "The boys at that age in particular see that as an invitation to ask the girls about their breasts."

A letter from a former seventh-grade teacher to Lehigh Valley, Pa., newspaper The Morning Call expressed support for the ban, saying that in her class all it would take was a line like "The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow" to create "pandemonium" among 12-year-olds.

"I think that's kind of silly," says Brianna Hawk, who started eleventh grade this month and says her favorite subject is history. "Most of the kids I hang out with and I talk to are mature people. We all have health class."

In August a U.S. court of appeals decided in the girls' favor.

"It's definitely an exciting feeling that we won," says Hawk. "But it's also a really good feeling that we did stand up for something we believe in and that the court sees that we were trying to do something good. We weren't wearing it for no reason. We were wearing it because we wanted to show our support for breast-cancer survivors and fighters."

It's believed that within the next month or so, the school district will petition the Supreme Court for review. Some court watchers believe the case could have a significant effect on students' right to self-expression.

But Amy Martinez, Kayla's mother, hopes the Third Circuit decision will be the end of it. The family moved out of district, she says, to escape the pressure of people complaining that they were causing taxes to rise by keeping the case in the courts and that they should teach their children to just follow the rules and not make such a fuss about fashion trends.

"Yeah, it was a fashion trend," says Martinez. "Some of them are bad, and some of them are good, but this one was great." She notes that her aunt lost her breasts in a cancer fight and that her death deeply affected Kayla. "I don't let her walk around in miniskirts and fishnet stockings. She wore a bracelet. I mean, there are worse things she could have done."

She is proud of Kayla, who's about to turn 16, and says she's looking forward to the day when what her daughter wears -- lately, flower shirts and sandals, soccer cleats and shin guards -- can go back to being no one's business but theirs.


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