Moms, Dads Address Boys' 'Saggy' Attire

In last week's parenting conversation, Tell Me More's panel of moms discussed the conflict around young girls dressing provocatively. This week, they're focusing on the boys' wardrobe. Host Michel Martin discusses dress rules for boys with talks regular Mom contributor, Dani Tucker, regular Dads contributor Glenn Ivey and Illinois Associate Judge, Brian Otwell. Also joining the conversation is urban wear designer Somos Thompson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We'll continue our celebration of National Poetry Month with another in our series of tweet poems. They are all written by listeners and friends of the program. They are all 140 characters or less, because they're tweets. So, listen closely or you'll miss it. That's coming up later in the program.

But, first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Now, last week we had a discussion about monitoring the way teenage girls dress. That was prompted by a life and culture piece in The Wall Street Journal titled "Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?" And you know what that means. But some parents struggle just as much with how their boys dress, whether it be baggy pants, graphic T-shirts with, shall we say, interesting messages.

So this week we decided to turn our attention to the boys. What do you do when your son's sense of style makes you cringe? We've called upon our regular moms contributor Dani Tucker - she's a mother of two, one of whom is a boy - along with one of our dads, Glenn Ivey, who's a father of six, including five boys. Also joining us is Brian Otwell. He's an associate judge for the 7th judicial circuit in Sangamon County, Illinois. He's a father of three, including two boys.

Parents, welcome. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

Mr. GLENN IVEY: Thanks for having us.

Mr. BRIAN OTWELL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we decided to invite someone who designs some of that urban wear that parents sometimes take issue with. And his name is Somos Thompson. He's the head designer for the brand Blac Label. Welcome to you.

Mr. SOMOS THOMPSON (Head Designer, Blac Label): Thank you.

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us. And what are you wearing?

Mr. THOMPSON: You know, it's 80 degrees, I have on a leather vest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh. OK. All right. Just to get us started. I just thought I'd ask, you know, just what you're wearing just to set the context.

Mr. THOMPSON: (unintelligible) for fashion.

MARTIN: So, let me ask the parents, what are your kids wearing these days and how do you feel about it. Dani, why don't you start?

Ms. TUCKER: Skinny jeans. I hate them things. Them skinny jeans. My son wears a belt because we fight about that. Now, I don't know what he's wearing when he's out the house, but when he leaves the house, I'm happy. They're wearing a - a lot of things with food in them that I hardly understand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Wait.

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, I mean, the names of them. Like, I just found out about the strawberries and I found out about the chicken and the broccoli shoes. And, you know, they got these different names now for clothes. And I'm trying to keep up with this stuff.

MARTIN: Glenn, what about you? With five boys, I'm sure that you've got the range. And you look very dapper, by the way, I must say.

Mr. IVEY: Oh, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Very dapper.

Mr. IVEY: None of them are dressing like me, though. No suits and ties.

MARTIN: And I want to say, well, Glenn is an attorney and he's also a former prosecutor, so he's got the full gear.

Mr. IVEY: I have to dress like that for downtown now. But like Dani was saying, I've got the skinny jeans and I don't like them either. Of course I was wearing bell bottoms at their age, which my parents hated. And then the younger two, the 11-year-old and the 13-year-old, they're kind of still doing a lot of hand-me-downs and whatever they can get their hands on, so jeans, sweatpants, that sort of thing.

MARTIN: Mr. Otwell, well, what about you?

Mr. OTWELL: Well, I mean, my boys basically jeans, T-shirts and usually an outer shirt. The older one tends to wear the low riders.

MARTIN: The low riders. The sagging. Now, talk to me - I'm glad that we have two people here who have both involved with Colonel Justice because one of the things that I think really irks people about the saggy look - the sense that a lot of us get is that look comes from prison, which is one of the reasons why a lot of people don't like it because it comes from - and Glenn, do I have this right, you were a prosecutor for many, many years

Mr. IVEY: That's what I've heard. Yeah.

MARTIN: Because you're not allowed to have a belt.

Mr. IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: And, so, what's your take on the sagging?

Mr. IVEY: Well, I mean, I don't like it.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. IVEY: I just don't think it looks good, frankly. And depending on how low they're sagging, I mean, you know, you've got guys out here showing all of their underwear, and I just - I really don't want to see all of that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The underwear is part of the look, right?

Mr. IVEY: It is. It is.

Ms. TUCKER: Unfortunately.

Mr. IVEY: Now, my - I'm not supposed to do particulars, the boys are very specific about this, but one of them, you know, he's got - I'll call it thug light, maybe. I mean, they sag a little bit, but they're not all the way down there. And so I'm, like, I can kind of live with that. So, it's close, but I'm (unintelligible).

MARTIN: What do you say about it?

Mr. IVEY: Well, it depends on how low it gets. You know, pull them up - they're too low. Do I have to get you a belt or, you know, I can get you a new one if you want. That kind of stuff. I tease them a little bit. But I think pretty much he kind of follows that line.

MARTIN: Mr. Otwell, what about you? Do you share my perspective on this that this is partly - I mean, is that partly why the sagging look does not thrill you as it's associated with prison because you're not able to have a belt?

Judge OTWELL: Well, you know, my boy started wearing their pants that way before I ever knew the origins of it, really. I mean I knew it was kind of a hip-hop fashion, so that part of it didn't really bother me. You know, I just draw the line basically at the crack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Judge OTWELL: The refrigerator repairman look is not in my view stylish in any segment of society.

MARTIN: Well, what do you say?

Judge OTWELL: Well, you say pull your pants up, is what you say. And you know, there are times when they're going to be out in public with my parents or something of that nature where I will put my foot down and, you know, let them know they have to dress up, literally and figuratively.

Mr. THOMAS: I'd like to blame the Internet, actually.

MARTIN: Really? Somos, tell us.

Mr. THOMAS: I would like to blame that. But I would also like to blame a little bit of us as designers, where we have all these fits and we have these low rise fits, where just kids just fall into the sag because that's what the jeans do over time. They're not following a rule book of fashion - it's just trends, basically.

MARTIN: Somos, do you ever see parents and kids get into it over clothing?

Mr. THOMAS: I've seen a few. I actually have little cousins that I can't send them certain products. I know I've had little cousins that have gone to school with the product that I actually make myself and they're not allowed to wear it. That's why...

MARTIN: Does it have an interesting message? Does it say something that we can stay on the air?

Mr. THOMAS: Nothing I don't think you can't say on the air, but the novelty tease will be there forever. I mean that's never going to go out of style, so it's just basically like - I remember my mom saying with songs, of songs, if you don't know what they're saying, then you can't say it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: So I kind of know both sides, the parents the parental side and the fashion side.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking to our panel of parents about what the boys are wearing following on a conversation we had last week about what teenage girls are wearing and the discomfort many parents have with that, and parents and school administration.

We're speaking with one of our regular moms, Dani Tucker, and one of our regular dads, Glenn Ivey. Also Judge Brian Otwell. And also with us, urban wear designer Somos Thomas. He's the head designer of the brand Blac Label, as in B-L-A-C.

So Dani, we talked last week about one of the reasons people get concerned about what girls are wearing, is that they say, well, what message are you sending, you know, about what, sexual availability, before you're even really ready to handle that? What concerns do you have about some of the styles and what boys are reflecting?

Ms. TUCKER: My concern - and I discussed this with my son - is when they're wearing it. And it's not appropriate to wear all the time. I think I shared a story with you all a couple of years ago, when he first started summer job in D.C. and he had to go for his interview. And he came out said, all right, Mom, I'm ready to go, and I said, no, you're not, you've got on jeans, you're going on a job interview. You don't wear jeans to a job interview. Go change your clothes. So we got, it was a big thing with us over that. And I made him dress up and he didn't speak to me the rest of the day. And sure enough, when he got there, he was the only young man with slacks on, a shirt. And I didn't make him wear a tie or anything, but I said, but you will not wear jeans, you'll wear dress shoes. So...

MARTIN: Like a dress. Like a button-down...

Ms. TUCKER: Yeah, a dress shirt. Like he was going to church, at least. So he comes out of the interview, I'm waiting for him in the car, and he goes, you know, I got complimented, you know, from the interviewer the people doing the interview about my dress and my attire. And you know, so he kind of thanked me, even though - but he said, but still, they all got the job. And I was trying to get him (unintelligible) I said, son, nobody's trying to keep you all from being hip and wearing your clothes. I mean we want you to be respectful but we also want you to learn that there are certain occasions where you have to wear certain things, when you go to church, when you go to a job interview. And it's about respect and it's about your character. And you got to learn how to do that, how to tell the difference.

MARTIN: Glenn, can I ask you, as a former prosecutor too, and also as an African-American man, is there a little extra edge to that, I wonder? Because I'm mindful about Michele Norris and her wonderful memoir that was published last year. She talked about her parents as sartorial activists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And she said that they always had this attitude that when they left the house, that they had to reflect well on black people.

Mr. IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Because they felt that they were like standing up for the race by the way they dress, and it was a really big deal. She didn't even understand it until years later. And bellbottoms out. You know, flower appliques out. You know, not going to happen.

Mr. IVEY: Yeah, my parents had some of that too.

MARTIN: So what about you? Do you feel some of that? Particularly given that you're - until very recently, a public official.

Mr. IVEY: Well, I mean, yeah. What you see in court, for example are, you know, a lot of times young men really not understanding sort of the visual impact of what they're wearing to a court. You know, sometimes a guy will show up with a gun charge and he's got a picture of a gun talking about, you know, shooting somebody on his T-shirt, and you're just kind of like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVEY: You might want to think about that a little bit. And the other thing too for them to think about is just right now the tattoo craze is really kind of taking on a life of its own. And the problem with it for me is they're now getting them up onto their face and their neck so that you can't cover it up.

I saw a kid over the weekend who had, you know, expletive Christ tattooed on his face. And I...

MARTIN: On his face.

Mr. IVEY: On his face. And this is at Harvard Square, by the way. And I was just thinking: wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVEY: You know, what is not going to mean as you move forward?

MARTIN: You had to bring that up, didn't you? It's my alma mater. Thanks a lot, Glenn. Thank you very much. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And you do think to yourself, okay, now - maybe that's fine now, because he's 17. But then maybe he decides he wants to go to dental school, and what are the implications...

Mr. IVEY: Or he wants to be a TV reporter.

MARTIN: Right.

Mr. IVEY: Or, you know, a lawyer or a would you go under, you know, under the knife with a doctor walking up and he's got that tattooed on his face? I probably wouldn't.

MARTIN: Judge Otwell, what do you think?

Judge OTWELL: Well, I want to go back to something he said about the message that these kids are sending, because, you know, I'm also the father of a daughter, and of course, she was an angel. But with sons, you don't worry about the sexual message that's being conveyed. And again, I don't think that the saggy pants are meant in that way. But if my daughter was going out with her underwear showing, I would, you know, there'd be a much harder line to draw for me.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Judge OTWELL: Because whether the message is being sent or not, with a young woman, I think that message is going to be received by some, and those who are receiving it aren't the ones that I want getting any idea about my daughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Message received.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUCKER: Understood.

MARTIN: Understood. Do you think, Judge Otwell, that - you're not African-American, you're white, if you don't mind my pointing that out.

Judge OTWELL: Right.

MARTIN: Do you think that white kids have more latitude in the way that they dress because people aren't as quick to draw inferences from the way they dress? Or do you think just teenagers in general, people will draw inferences from the way they dress?

Judge OTWELL: Well, I guess it depends on the audience that you're talking about. You know, I don't view these fashions or trends, if you will, as racial or even class issues. They're, you know, they may involve more cultural issues than race or class. So I don't see it as a racial issue, but maybe, you know, here in the heartland I'm naive. I don't know.

MARTIN: I do think it is worth noting that in yesterday's program we talked about the burqa ban in France, which went into effect yesterday.

Mr. IVEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: We had arguments on both sides. One of the - someone who supports the burqa ban who is a Muslim woman, who feels that it is oppressive, and then someone who vehemently opposes it, saying the very idea of regulating a woman's dress is inherently offensive. One of the things I think is interesting in this country - there have been jurisdictions that have tried to regulate saggy pants. They have not succeeded for very long but there are a number of jurisdictions that have made it an administrative like fine under the indecent exposure statute to say that if your pants are below a certain way or expose your underwear, then you can be fined for that. I think that's funny. That's interesting to me, Glenn. What do you make of that?

Mr. IVEY: Yeah. Those are overreaches, I think, that are sort of destined to fail. But I, you know, the point I've tried to make with my kids on some of these is make sure you give yourself the latitude to change your mind later. That's the tattoo issue. What tattoo would you have gotten 10 years ago? And would you want SpongeBob or, you know, Power Ranger on your shoulder? And the other point I try to make to them too is that they always say it's just(ph), you know, expressing their individuality, but usually it's not. It's actually conforming to a particular peer group that they're connected to. And I don't mind them necessarily doing that as long as their mindset is that they understand that and they're not sort of mindlessly following it.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. Judge Otwell, what's your advice about handling this?

Judge OTWELL: You know, you have to pick your battles. There's so many larger issues to deal with with teenagers. If you nag incessantly about clothes and hair and styles, then I think the more important issues might get drowned out.

MARTIN: All right. Dani, what about you?

Ms. TUCKER: I agree with the dads. They sound it out(ph) perfectly, on the tattoo's, on the clothes. You know, when I deal with Davon, one thing I want him to understand, just like Glenn said - later on you're going to have to do certain things that aren't cool right, you know, but will need to be cool for you because you're grown. So know how to dress at a job interview. Know how to dress at court. Know how to dress at a funeral. And you can do that without losing, you know, your hip-hop look when you're in a hip-hop place.

MARTIN: All right. Somos, what about you? And before we let you go, we must get some advice from you about what is going to be fresh next so that we too can be ahead of the curve. You know, we feel that we need to offer that as a service. So tell us what's coming down the pipe so we can be ready.

Mr. THOMAS: Coming down to pipe. I'm glad that the mother brought up being able to dress in all these different settings because I'm actually seeing a lot of cleanup, suit jackets and shorts and button-ups. But I'm also seeing baggy jeans coming back. So I'm just watching the wave right now.

MARTIN: What's your advice for the parents?

Mr. THOMAS: That's tough. I mean I'm only 28, so I'm still learning and taking notes for my own parents and family members. But I can't even, I'm not even ready for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. THOMAS: Because it seems to be it seems to be extremely tough. I'm not ready for it.

MARTIN: All right. Well, that's fine too.

Somos Thompson is head designer of the urban clothing brand Blac Label, and he was with us on phone from Virginia Beach. Also with us, Dani Tucker, one of our mom's regulars. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Glenn Ivey. He's a former state's attorney for Prince George's County, Maryland. Now he is a partner in the law firm of Venable LLC here in Washington, D.C. Also with us, Brian Otwell, associate judge for the Seventh Judicial Circuit in Sangamon County, Illinois. He was with us from member station WUIS in Springfield, Illinois.

I thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. IVEY: Thanks for having us.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

Judge OTWELL: My pleasure.

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