Rude boy style

Low-slung trousers offend the eye, but let's not ban them

Interesting news reaches me from Atlanta, Georgia - news that, soon, all those boys who insist on wearing their trousers so low they show their underpants may be in trouble. Because if a certain councillor has his way, the city's decency laws will be expanded so that showing underwear poking from the tops of trousers will become a quasi-hanging offence. Mr Martin - said councilman - believes hip-hop pants are an epidemic. "Little children see it and want to adopt it, thinking it's the in thing. I don't want young people thinking that half-dressing is the way to go. I want them to think about their future."

Naturally, civil rights groups have objected, no doubt wary that a similar by-law was successfully passed in Delcambre, Louisiana, in June this year (after a statewide ban was rejected in 2004), under which you can be fined $500 or imprisoned for six months for showing your underwear in public. I'm dreading Texas getting in on the act.

Some say low-slung trousers ori ginated from prisonwear when jogging pants were worn below the "bum cleavage" line to show a certain, shall we say, readiness to entertain cellmates. Others say it happened after the trend for designer underwear came in; if you had a pair, you wanted to show them.

It's a very overtly mas culine gesture, and is often anything but homosexual in nature. While a bit of Calvin Klein grey jersey atop a pair of jeans doesn't really offend, some have taken this look to extremes. In certain quarters, boys wear their jeans so low, the fly is tucked below the genitals. Be grateful if you haven't seen this look. I've seen it where one man, quite defiantly, was wearing what looked like fishnet pants so yes, you could see his crown jewels. It was horribly antagonistic and he certainly didn't need to pee to mark his territory - he had a clear 20-metre radius around him that no one dared enter.

The photographer and social commentator Mark C O'Flaherty has been following this look for more than ten years and has noted that it has also gone beyond sartorial statement to men actually cradling the merchandise in front of you. "It's a look that's been taken one radical step further by boys who have taken to fondling themselves in the same casual way they may light a cigarette. It says, 'Look here . . . not only am I showing you my pelvic bone, but I'm in touch with what you can't see . . .' It's boys being incredibly knowing about their sexuality - being, quite literally, cocky."

It is the height of rudeness and over- familiarity for a man to show you his underpants, let alone the rest (be careful whom you shake hands with). I mean, it's only been about 60 years that it has been permissible for a gentleman to show you his shirt-front without being ostracised from polite society for being a cad.

Nevertheless I could never support any law that dictates what we can and can't wear. Because when those in power can't tell you how to think, they tell you how to dress, instead.

Annalisa Barbieri was in fashion PR for five years before going to the Observer to be fashion assistant. She has worked for the Evening Standard and the Times and was one of the fashion editors on the Independent on Sunday for five years, where she wrote the Dear Annie column. She was fishing correspondent of the Independent from 1997-2004.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown