Photographer: Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Photographer: Maddie Meyer/The Washington Post via Getty Images

If you are heading to the Jersey shore this summer, it might be time to invest in a belt.

Earlier this month, an ordinance went into effect banning saggy pants on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. The new dress code also includes prohibitions on bare feet and bare chests after 8 p.m., but it’s the saggy pants that garnered news media attention -- if only for the delightful talk of underwear and puns about falling “through the cracks.”

The punishment for letting your shorts, bathing suit, pants or skirt slip more than three inches below the waist, exposing skin or underwear -- and not complying when reminded of the rule? A penalty of between $25 and $100 for a first offense and $200 for a subsequent offense, as well as the possibility of up to 40 hours of community service.

To some extent, this is an honest attempt by local officials to make the boardwalk more attractive (literally) to visiting families. Tourism is especially vital after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the region -- though it largely spared Wildwood. The attention that the ban has generated probably hasn't hurt in this regard.

Yet the ordinance is ridiculous. Weird laws exist around the country -- the better to turn into slideshows. But this specific law is neither very local nor especially weird; it’s disturbingly common. According to the Associated Press, sagging pants are banned in the suburbs of New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Miami and Jacksonville, Fla. In Flint, Michigan, failing to pull up your pants can put you behind bars for a year. Albany, Georgia, apparently has been raking in some money from fines on dropped drawers.

Even U.S. President Barack Obama has weighed in on the issue. Asked about such ordinances in an MTV interview shortly before the 2008 election, Obama called them “a waste of time.” But he added: “Having said that, brothers should pull up their pants. You are walking by your mother, your grandmother, your underwear is showing. What’s wrong with that? Come on. You don’t have to pass a law, but that doesn’t mean folks can’t have some sense and respect for other people. And a lot of people may not want to see your underwear. I’m one of them.”

Obama’s use of “brothers” is telling. The sagging pants trend grew out of baggy, and beltless, prison uniforms, entered the hip-hop world and then permeated mainstream youth culture.

It would be easy, then, to conclude that these ordinances are racist. And some have -- including, in Wildwood’s case, a few rappers. It's not quite so simple. Pants are falling down on kids of all colors. A 2007 New York Times article about the trend reported that it was actually black officials who were more often suggesting the bans. The Black Mental Health Alliance of Massachusetts ran a public service announcement warning young men that failing to pull up their pants could land them in jail for up to three years. The local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president vocally supported the ban passed in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, this April.

“If anybody says this is racist, that’s a load of crap,” Ernest Troiano, Jr., Wildwood’s mayor, told Bloomberg News. “It’s about decency.” Troiano said no one's going to be patrolling the boardwalk with a measuring tape. He's emphasized that tickets will only be issued after sagging offenders are warned and asked to pull up their pants or leave the boardwalk.

But here’s the real question: Why are sagging pants indecent on the boardwalk but fine a few blocks away? The shirt and shoe restrictions seem more necessary to highlight on the boardwalk, simply because the closer you are to the water, the more tempted people will be to walk around barefoot and topless in the first place. No such correlation exists with sagging pants.

Wildwood is not the only locality to narrowly tailor its pants rule. In 2011, Florida and Arkansas enacted statewide bans on saggy pants -- but only in public schools. That same year, the transportation authority in Fort Worth, Texas, changed its dress code to forbid baggy pants -- but only on public buses.

By limiting the scope of the ban, it becomes not an overarching attack against a style of dress associated with a certain demographic, but rather a courtesy to other students in the classroom or families on the boardwalk or passengers on the bus.

Yet what happens when those families in Wildwood walk a few blocks off the boardwalk and are confronted by sagging all around? How much is this about keeping visitors from seeing people’s underwear and how much is it about keeping specific people off one of the town's main attractions? The town seems to be saying that if you want to indulge in hip-hop culture, be our guest -- just don't be our guest on the boardwalk.

The American Civil Liberties Union apparently hasn’t decided whether to challenge the ordinance. Some legal experts suggest that Wildwood’s rule is probably unconstitutional (a ban in Riviera Beach, Florida, was rendered so). Ruthann Robson, a law professor at the City University of New York, told the AP, "Courts have struck down attempts to ban saggy pants if what is exposed is underwear rather than 'private parts.'"

What has been exposed in Wildwood remains open to interpretation. The line between discrimination and decency is much less clear than the border between the boardwalk and the rest of town.

(Zara Kessler is an assistant editor and producer for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter.)