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“Fashion is a form of ugliness so
intolerable that we have to alter it
every six months.” —Oscar Wilde
With her nose wrinkled and her upper lip curled into a slight sneer, she asked, “Is THAT what you are wearing out tonight?”
It was an all too familiar scene. I have been married to my dear woman 45 years and know what I select to wear at important social events is subject to change—or else.
Besides, it did not “go” with what she was wearing.
I have worn a military or law enforcement uniform for most of my adult life. I am accustomed to being told what to wear and how to wear it.
A garment is a statement about the life we lead and what we expect from others.
At life’s significant junctures, our clothing becomes a costume worn by an actor. Here are two extreme clothing fashions and their culture junctures I have witnessed in my lifetime. They have significant consequences for all of us.
The zoot suiters of the 1940s
According to Wikipedia, “A zoot suit has a high-waisted, wide-legged, tight-cuffed pegged trousers and a long coat with wide lapels and wide padded shoulders. Often zoot suiters wear a felt hat with a long feather and pointy, French-style shoes…Zoot suits usually featured a watch chain dangling from the belt to the knee or below, then back to a side pocket…their hair in a signature ‘duck tail.’
I was born in 1938 in Los Angeles County, Calif. I remember my mom and dad talking about zoot suiters we saw on the corners of main streets in our community.
They told my brother and me they were bad people and responsible for lots of trouble. That was enough for us.
My father, a God-fearing, hard-working man, used strong racist terms to describe the zoot suiters featured on the evening radio news. His anger caused Mom to usher us kids out of the room and to bed early.
The racist atmosphere in 1943
The racial hatred seemed to center on Mexican-American youths as rebels against traditional community values.
U.S. Army soldiers enforced Executive Order 9066 evacuating all Japanese nationals and U.S. citizens of Japanese background from the West Coast.
At age 7, I was alone and flying my kite on a vacant lot near my home. Three older boys threw a rock through my kite and pushed me around. Dad told me they were “Mexicans.”
It was the first time I experienced that kind of fear and intimidation.
The Los Angeles Police Department, reduced by the World War II draft, was beginning to be viewed as incapable of maintaining order in a city rocked by weekly confrontations between Mexican-American youths and military personnel on leave. Many older conservative Mexican-American Angelenos objected to the zoot suiters as well.
A Los Angeles newspaper printed a guide on how to “de-zoot” a zoot suiter. “Grab a zooter. Take off his pants and frock coat and tear them up or burn them.”
That night, June 7, 1943, 5,000 civilians gathered downtown with members of the military from as far away as Las Vegas for an evening of rioting with young Mexican-Americans. It lasted for more than a week in what became known as “The Zoot Suit Riots.”
The Zoot Suit was the catalyst for racial hatred to be played out.
Some fashions 1940s to present
We’ve seen some dillies. Narrow ties, fat ties, bow ties, polyester leisure suits, suspenders, all kinds of shirts, hats sideways and backwards, cowboy clothes, leather vests and jackets, skinny suits, fat double-breasted suits, just to name a few.
Hair worn long, short, shaved bald, flattops, dreadlocks, sideburns and mustaches. Fancy dental work, tattoos, body piercing and fake suntans are recent methods of dramatically altering our appearance to gain attention.
I was in the Shallotte Wal-Mart at 3 a.m. several weeks ago researching one of my recent articles for The Brunswick Beacon.
I encountered a couple of African-American youth at the checkout stand. One of them was wearing his pants just below the bottom of his buttocks revealing his boxer style shorts above the waist of his pants.
He had difficulty walking without constantly hoisting up his pants to avoid tripping. It was one of the silliest things I have ever seen.
A lot of respectable people might consider it to be in poor taste, offensive if not obscene. Some local stores require a shirt and shoes to be worn inside. Surely that standard is reasonable and ought to include low pants that expose underwear.
Wikipedia defines sagging as “a manner of wearing pants or shorts below the waist, revealing some or all of their underwear. It is closely associated with hip-hop music and fashion. Sagging is also common among skateboarders and the skate punk music scene.
In recent episodes of “Cops” on TV, I noticed some of those arrested were wearing their pants mighty low. In so doing, they disabled themselves in their ability to outrun the police. Not to mention the fact their shoes were untied, making them practically useless for effective running.
I paid a visit to Shallotte Middle School and spoke with the principal, Paul Price. He confirmed what I suspected. The Brunswick County Board of Education’s dress policy for students forbids sagging and body piercing among other disgusting practices on school grounds.
Price is running a tight ship.
Further, teachers and support staff are expected to dress professionally and set a worthy example for students.
In many school districts across the United States, sagging is prohibited.
A review of the Internet reveals a wide range of information on the topic of “sagging.” Some cities have passed ordinances against the practice with the police issuing tickets for indecent exposure.
A statewide organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia stated, “In Atlanta, we see this as racial profiling…It’s going to target African-American male youths. There’s a fear with people associating the way you dress with crimes being committed.”
People are sensitive to extreme clothing fashion and the “in your face” attitude of those who practice it.
Like the zoot suiters, they can ignite smoldering racism into tragic civil unrest just as it happened in Los Angeles County during 1943.
John Heidtke has been employed by municipal, county, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies since 1963.