April 5, 2010
‘Pants on the Ground’ and the Niqab
Accompanied by some jaw-dropping break-dancing during an American Idol audition, one Larry Platt presented the judging panel with a catchy little ditty titled “Pants on the Ground”. Platt, a 62-year-old African American, was disqualified because the cut off age for contestants on the popular show is 28. Nonetheless, he left panel members including Randy Jackson and Mary K. Blige singing his memorable lyrics, and head panelist, Simon Cowell, predicted the song would be a hit. In fact, Platt’s audition, which took place in January 2010, has since been viewed by many millions on YouTube.
Here then is a sample of the lyrics: “Pants on the ground, Pants on the ground, Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground…Get your pants off the ground…”
The old saying is that ‘clothes make the man.’ That kind of idea may sound shallow when held up against Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream that people be judged by the content of their character. With pants belted below the buttocks and underwear exposed, unfortunately, the message many observers get is that the wearer – waddling along in an awkward gait dictated by the struggle with gravity to keep the pants at least above the knees – is headed nowhere in life. Whether we like it or not, most of us are – to a greater or lesser extent – influenced by appearances.
The message of ‘street cred’ that the prison-wear look was meant to signify has been lost over the decade since it was first popularized on the streets by the hip-hop generation. It has now been appropriated by culture tourists; kids who have no sense of prison culture but are looking for what’s ‘cool’ or ‘wicked’ or ‘ill’.
The last time this column ventured into commentary critical of men’s indifference to fashion, there was a bump up in response from the male sector in defense of their sartorial choices. But this is not just about fashion; it is about the societal and political affects that people choose, in particular, young people as they jostle with the mainstream and seek their own path, before they are inexorably absorbed into middle age norms.
Clothing always sends a message. In the run up to the Beijing Summer Olympic Games, the fashion police were out in their numbers to curb certain types of dress among the populace in anticipation of the hundreds of thousands who were to descend upon the city from the outside world. China felt it had to make a good impression.
On the other hand, the Liberal government in Quebec decided to pass legislation that would disallow government funded services or employment to any woman who chose to cover herself in the niqab – a traditional head covering for women in Arab countries that allows only one’s eyes to be seen, largely considered in the West to be a symbol of female oppression. Moreover, it has been argued that banning the burka, which covers a woman’s body entirely, is one of the reasons Canadians soldiered in Afghanistan. Given the simmering social discomfort related to militant Islamists, the debate is ongoing.
What we wear is absolutely a non-spoken expression of how we identify ourselves, whether socially, religiously, or politically. It’s not so much that clothes make the man, but that clothes state whom the man wants you to know him to be. We need therefore to think carefully about choosing to draw the line on freedom of self-expression. If someone’s choice of dress is making us uncomfortable the response many not be, as New York Sen. Eric Adams did in his “Stop the Sag” billboard campaign, to seek to change the choices of others, but rather to examine why we find ourselves uncomfortable with another person’s personal choices. And, maybe it will require looking past outer coverings to a person’s character.