Like other New Jersey shore towns, Wildwood is trying to attract visitors after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the region in October. It just doesn’t want to see their underwear.
The Cape May County municipality has banned sagging pants on its boardwalk in hopes of making the resort community more family-friendly. Those caught with trousers that sink 3 inches (8 centimeters) below the hips, exposing either underwear or bare skin, are subject to fines of as much as $200 and 40 hours of community service. The ordinance also prohibits bare feet and going shirtless after 8 p.m.
“I’m not the fashion police and I do realize there are societal changes,” Mayor Ernest Troiano said in an interview. “But in the same breath, it’s called underwear. It’s not outerwear.”
Sagging, as the trend is called, began in prisons and spread through hip-hop musicians to a wider audience of teenagers in the 1990s. Troiano said 95 percent of the people who have contacted him since the law took effect July 9 have expressed support. No summonses have been issued, he said.
Sandy struck Oct. 29, wreaking havoc along the shore from Belmar in the north to the mansions of Mantoloking and south to Atlantic City. Towns along New Jersey’s 127 miles (204 kilometers) of Atlantic Ocean coast are the prime economic engine for the state’s $38 billion-a-year tourism industry.
Wildwood, a community of 2,500 residents about 37 miles south of Atlantic City, escaped heavy damage. Yet, like other beach enclaves in the Garden State, it’s struggling to let people know it is open for business. The town relies on a 12- week beach season to drive its economy. About 9 million visitors a year come for its attractions, including food stands, 1950s- era motels built in Wildwood’s idiosyncratic “doo-wop” architectural style and carnival rides.
Troiano said he’s received calls and e-mail from people as far away as Louisiana who said they plan to travel to Wildwood this summer to support the town’s willingness to “do something” about unsightly, loose-fitting pants. One person from Colorado told the mayor he planned to shorten a trip to Washington in order to visit.
Efforts led by Governor Chris Christie to help the region recover from last year’s storm got a boost yesterday with the donation of $4.5 million to the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund from the United Arab Emirates. Last week, native New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi’s band gave $1 million to the fund.
Jack Morey, an owner of Morey’s Piers, which operates several landmark amusements and water parks on wharves along the boardwalk, said he’s no fan of the new ordinance. Wildwood isn’t Disney World, he said, and watching people is an integral part of any successful resort.
Dress codes worldwide are relaxing, Morey said. Even the Wimbledon tennis tournament in England allows players to wear colors other than white, he said. He called saggy pants merely a “reflection of popular culture,” saying it doesn’t make sense economically for a community driven by visitors to spurn people based on their dress.
“This is a good old tacky-and-proud-of-it place,” said Morey, whose father built the pier in 1969 and who grew up atop the Pan American Hotel, a local landmark. “Disney’s a wonderful place, but Disney is fake. In my opinion, Wildwood can’t be fake.”
Generational battles over fashion and social mores aren’t new, of course. Elvis Presley was filmed only from the waist up on 1950s television. Skirt lengths were mandated at high school dances. The Beatles’ shaggy hair created an uproar when the group appeared on U.S. television in 1964.
To Troiano, sagging is much less innocent. It glorifies the “thug” image popular in hip-hop culture, which can intimidate visitors, he said.
“If anybody says this is racist, that’s a load of crap,” said the mayor, who is white. “It’s about decency.”
Udi Ofer, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said previous attempts by municipal authorities to prohibit men from wearing earrings and backward baseball caps have failed.
Ofer said his group hasn’t determined yet whether it will mount a legal challenge to the ordinance. Other municipalities, including suburbs of Miami and Atlanta, have also banned droopy trousers, according to the Associated Press.
“Even if you think saggy pants are distasteful, they are not a crime,” he said. “This ordinance criminalizes innocent behavior the same way that in the 1960s local towns tried to ban men from having long hair. Today, they’re trying to ban young men from having saggy pants. We don’t need the police to tell us what is and what isn’t indecent. The police are not our parents.”
Frank Askin, a constitutional law professor from Rutgers University’s campus in Newark, said boardwalks are public areas akin to streets and that Wildwood’s ability to outlaw clothing styles on it are limited. The ban would likely be shot down if it were challenged in court, he said in an interview.
“They can use it to try and see if people abide by it, but if they ever had to go to court, the town would probably lose,” Askin said in an interview.
Troiano said he isn’t concerned with legal ramifications. What’s important is preserving Wildwood’s image as a place where parents can take children and building a customer base for the future.
“If someone is good enough or gracious enough to come spend their money in our community, I want them to have a great experience,” the mayor said. “It’s about being family- friendly. It’s a shred of decency. That’s all.”
Editors: Mark Schoifet, Stephen Merelman, and Ted Bunker. To contact the reporters on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton, New Jersey, at firstname.lastname@example.org and Stacie Sherman in Trenton at email@example.com. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.