If you haven’t heard by now, Balenciaga recently released its new season of Trompe l’oeil track trousers, a $1,190 pair of pants that feature check boxer detail peeking from the waistline, an elastic waistband and loose fit design. While this sounds like normal athleisure wear, the description fails to mention the ostensible imitation of “sagging.”
Personally, I’m no fan of the sagging trend. But this style is the epitome of the way Black culture influences society and is commodified for others’ gain, even while it’s denigrated.
Despite its original use for describing segregated Jewish communities, over the years, the term “ghetto” has become a common euphemism used to define anything Black-aligned, from hairstyles to apparel to colloquialisms and even body types. But once these same negatively attributed practices are proven worthy of financial gain for mainstream consumers, they are no longer “ghetto,” but labeled as “fashion” or “trendy” by luxury brands. This dichotomy is one more example of the chasm between rich and poor; black and white; privileged and unprivileged.
Ghetto is nothing but creativity that hasn’t been stolen yet.”
– Writer, Nezarial Scott, on the hypocritical commercialization and commodification of Black American fashion, vernacular, slang, culture, and livelihood.
— zellie (@zellieimani) December 28, 2018
A style that was at its height in the ‘90s and early 2000s, sagging took on connotations of unrespectability, criminality and even gang activity that inspired policies targeting Black men. In a south Florida city, the fine for sagging was once $500 before the law was repealed. In Shreveport, La., 96% of the arrests for sagging from 2007 to 2019 were of Black men. This ordinance was the impetus for Shreveport officers detaining Anthony Childs, leading to his fatal shooting in 2019. (The city repealed the law later that year.)
Sagging has also long been targeted in restaurant and bar dress codes that often call out styles popular in the Black community and perpetuate discrimination. Sagging didn’t evolve from condemned and literally illegal to mainstream trend and high fashion overnight. But Balenciaga’s take on the style — and the high price point — was too extreme for #BlackTwitter not to call out.
i vividly remember teachers saying that if we (black kids) wore our pants like this we were just gonna be statistics and not do anything with our lives… just for some years to pass and balenciaga to sell it for 500 bucks. shit is nuts. https://t.co/qmccfXVkhb
— gay ass dani (@airsignmenace) September 5, 2021
There have literally been laws that make it illegal to have sagging pants yet fashion designers are profiting off of the same thing Black people were criminalized for. Dispicable https://t.co/KurhZEW7E4
— Devan M. Vilfrard ✊🏾🇭🇹 (@ThoughtsFromDev) September 5, 2021
The white celebrity who wears those pants will be heralded as a fashion icon, while Childs’ life was stolen. The fact that Balenciaga is making sagging “cool” for white elites shows that its criminalization was never about sagging – it was about criminalizing Blackness itself.
— PushBlack (@wearepushblack) September 18, 2021
After the backlash, a Balenciaga spokeswoman told CNN the Trompe L’Oeil pants were an extension of the brand’s “vision,” in line with earlier styles that “combine different wardrobe pieces into a single garment, such as denim jeans layered over tracksuit pants, cargo shorts merged with jeans and button-up shirts layered over t-shirts.”
Black culture’s influence in fashion extends far beyond Balenciaga’s offerings. One scroll down your Instagram feed and you’ll run across numerous women, Black and non-Black, with the “Instagram baddie aesthetic.” What’s that, you ask? It’s the style and essence Black women created in rejection of European beauty standards. From long and bedazzled acrylic nails to monogram print, large hoop and door knocker earrings, box braids, baby hairs and more, the once-looked-down-upon image of the ghetto Black girl is now the standard for a “baddie.”
Adding to that is the globalized admiration of a curvy body type to fulfill this look, a body type mostly attributed to Black women. What was once exploited is now aggressively sought by non-Black women of all kinds, whether they give credit to Black women or not.
While it’s unrealistic for the Black community to claim and hold onto something as ours and ours only, we urgently need to dismantle the stark contrast in how styles are perceived depending on who’s sporting them. At one point, these now-celebrated looks were outlawed in the professional world, but are now considered “trendy,” “fashionable” and “mainstream.” But trendy for who?
As luxury brands like Marc Jacobs bring dreadlocs to the runway, some Black people are being forced to cut their own, making initiatives to stop hairstyle discrimination necessary. While influencers like the Kardashians and Jenners are celebrated for sporting braids and referencing them as “Boxer Braids” and “Bo Derek Braids,” some Black women are forced to uphold European beauty standards in the workplace and avoid a practice that’s been done in African culture since 3500 BC. The difference? The people who wear them.
“People are always quick to label the actions of Black people as ghetto,” Gabrielle Richardson, founder of Art Hoe Collective, said in a 2016 Vice interview. “I could simply breathe and people would call it ratchet.”
For each callout of the fashion world’s riffs on Black culture, there are at least as many defenders who see cultural appreciation, not appropriation. While there’s a fine line between the two, there is a line indeed.
“Appreciation ends and appropriation begins when power comes into play,” Richardson continued. “Appreciation means there is an equal exchange of both power and culture that is acknowledged by both parties and acted out with respect.”
Black culture has driven fashion trends of all stripes, but the streetwear aesthetic is where we reign, from gold chains to gold teeth, sneaker culture and oversized clothing — styles that have been widely popularized and commodified with little evidence of “equal exchange.” But like Nareasha Willis, founder of luxe streetwear brand AVNU put it, our lives are “Ghetto until proven fashionable.”
Sierra Allen is an Atlanta-based writer who considers herself a creative by nature and storyteller at heart. As a Black culture enthusiast, she writes with purpose and passion while highlighting local and national community-centered topics.