Enforcing Public Dress Codes: Discrimination, Health Issue or Just Plain Nonsense?

Fashion freedom and style censorship are expanding beyond the office. Is it fair?

(Image: File)

We’ve all heard sayings such as, “You can’t judge a book by its cover” and “Clothes don’t make the man,” but countless studies and commonly held perceptions have added a bit of falsehood to these traditional quips.

The most recent cases of bans on saggy pants lend a nod to an issue of fashion that goes beyond perceptions and into the legal realm, with a city in Tennessee seeking to fine men $25 for their first offense, a Florida city including women in reprimands (with a fine of $250 for all offenders), and several other cities, including Wildwood, N.J. with a law already on the books for what can now be deemed in some locales as more than a dress code violation. (Two men in South Carolina were allegedly arrested for not pulling up their pants, according to reports.)

Critics of the ban have likened it to discriminatory law enforcement practices such as New York’s Stop & Frisk. A Louisiana ACLU leader said bans in the state violate state law, “which prohibits regulation of ‘obscenity’ by local authorities,” and ACLU of Florida called plans for Opa-Locka’s legislation “a ridiculous waste of public resources” that would “disproportionately penalize African-American youth” and “impose overly harsh penalties for victimless behavior.”

Proponents have said the bans are a matter of public safety, civic order and citizens’ health. Some have said that the bans have little to do with racism, citing examples of people of all ethnicities who wear their pants baggy. One Florida school board member is even pushing for parents to be required to follow school dress codes and refrain from wearing saggy pants, among other attire deemed inappropriate. (It’s quite telling that the school board, according to reports said it will continue to discuss the issue, but cannot force parents to obey.)

In terms of today’s business world, countless research has reflected how one’s attire can lead to perceptions and judgments on success, trustworthiness, criminality, employability, discrimination—some based on stereotypes, some backed by research and others fair assessments.

Black Enterprise readers recently weighed in on the perception of a man in a baggy suit versus one in a tailored version, with a majority polled indicating they perceived the one in the tailored suit as more successful and trustworthy.

Many companies have written policies on dress code and employees agree to adhere to them when they sign on to take the job, whether it’s a suit, uniform or creative free-for-all. Dress codes often reflect the culture of a company, their branding and how they conduct business, but it’s often debatable as to what’s right, wrong, legal, or discriminatory, and some debates are settled via a judge. (Remember the Iowa woman who was fired for being “too sexy” in her manner and dress?)

It seems that these new measures not only add more to the duties and obligations of already bogged-down courts, jails and law enforcement, but send a message to its constituents that they can be harassed and arrested for almost anything, including something as subjective as offense in terms of style. (And, is alarming unemployment, climbing crime rates, global climate woes, women’s inequality, public health disparities and fiscal challenges not already piled up on the political and legislative plates of the nation? If the U.S. is already stuffed from 10-course meal of problems, why add yet another appetizer?)

The question remains: Employee recourse lies in whether they were aware and agreed to a specific dress code in the office, but are everyday citizens—during their free time—next? Should dress codes be part of municipal law and are they warranted? If it’s sagging pants today, could it be red hair, body art or crop tops next? Will fashion policing truly be a job?

#Soundoff: Do you think the sagging pants bans are ridiculous, warranted or discriminatory? Take our poll below and share your insights via Twitter by following me @JPHazelwood.
[polldaddy poll=8066063]

  • fififab

    While I absolutely abhor this so called “style” of saggy pants, these laws are nothing more than another way to get young people of color (particularly young men) into the prison system. Notice what is NOT being targeted: conspicuous generalized tattoos, multiple piercings, goth makeup and attire, spiked jewelry and hair– which is more commonly seen in the white counter cultures, yet is just as much a turnoff as the saggy pants. This is a waste of resources, but for those in power who seek to keep Blacks in a position of permanent underclass status it is not a waste at all. This is a problem best addressed by Black families in the home, in school, and in our churches. Parents, responsible adults and mentors have to show our youngsters by example that dressing like a sloppy, gangster inmate will lock you out of opportunities and shape people’s perceptions of you in a negative way. Although there should be a price to pay for dressing poorly, being criminalized for it is not appropriate.

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