Baltimoreans clothe selves in peculiar garb

August 11, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

All it takes is a brief trip away from Baltimore to make a returning traveler realize how curiously attired this town is.

The trip can be as short as an afternoon spent in Rockville or Philadelphia. The mileage doesn't make any difference.

We dress in a way that is perceptively different. And that's not a bad idea at all.

A few months ago a well intentioned relative of mine insisted that I visit Tyson's Corner, that clothing/mercantile crossroads of the Washington metro area. The confusing parking garages reminded me of Towson Town Center, but the similarity ended there.

These mega shopping centers have a certain similarity, but the people don't. I'm not saying the Northern Virginians were fashion plates or model material. It was just that their garb was so restrained.

In the middle of Bloomingdale's department store, I cried out, "Get me out of here and let me breathe some Baltimore air."

I felt relaxed and reassured as the car took me up I-95 and St.

Agnes Hospital came into view. When I spotted a freshly coiffed threesome of women wearing three-quarter-length synthetic-fiber coats, I realized I was secure in the fashion safety net of Baltimore.

As long as you are not naked, it is OK to be seen wearing anything in this town. There are no rules. There is no standard of praise or judgment. Relax, you will not be graded on your finery. It can be frumpy, too stretchy, too skimpy, too anything. There just are not any rules to snag you.

Take the notion of dressing down more casually on Fridays. Baltimoreans have dressed down for years.

A few years ago a Catholic pastor of an affluent suburban parish complained to me about the bank president of an affluent and much respected institution who walked down the center aisle of the church on Good Friday. The bank president's attire? Bermuda shorts.

It was one of the abnormally hot April days. This board room titan decided that if he was going to pay his respects on one of the most solemn days in the Christian church calendar, he'd do it in Bermuda shorts.

My advice to the offended pastor: Chill out, father, you're in Baltimore. If you want your congregation to be dressed in gray suits, pray for an assignment near Tyson's Corner. In the meantime, on a hot day, wear Bermuda shorts under your black robes.

Baltimoreans sensibly tend to keep their clothes in active rotation for many years. Weight shifts, design variables and fabric content have no bearing on this. If it's in the closet, it's OK to wear. If it came from a good old store, one that maybe had its final going-out-of-business sale 23 years ago, that may be a fashion recommendation here. The logic runs like this: If the garment was bought at a good store, it remains a good dress.

Who hasn't been to some function, be it a funeral or bar mitzvah, and greeted a friend or relative of long standing? You are discussing the troubles of your lives, when all of a sudden your nostril picks up the scent of moth balls.

Sure enough, this person dug deep into the fashion archives and produced an old but serviceable costume. Thank heavens for the chemical crystal and spheres that keep those insects off suits and dresses first seen during the middle years of the Lyndon Johnson administration.

There are also prevailing Baltimore fashion looks where the garments are actually quite new, but the look they employ is very old. For men it's the drape look, a Baltimore 1950s style associated with the cut of suits, shirts and pants. Once common, the drape will not die. You can spot a drape cut suit at many a local wedding reception.

Now if the drape look is associated with blue collar neighborhoods, Baltimore's had a male plumage version of the Ivy League. But you can be sure it was not dictated by Brooks Brothers or some New York fashion house. We liked spots like York Road's Frank Leonard, where the ties were always dull and safely the same.

Baltimore loves a fashion bargain. It's easy to tell when some retailer is having a sale. Three or four people will be wearing the same outfit.

Several years ago a brash new retailer arrived in Baltimore. He was so proud of the line of stylish women's shoes he'd discovered and introduced at his Towson store. The would-be customers admired his choices, but their first question was not, "Do you have it in my size?"

No indeed. It was, "Nice, but when are you marking them down?"

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