Style of clothes marks the man, or the woman, from Baltimore

September 11, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

Some time ago the rest of the country caught up with dressing down on Fridays. Baltimoreans know better. We've dressed down for decades.

All it takes is a brief trip away 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. Mileage t makes no difference.

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 Towsontown Center, but the similarity ended there.

These mega-malls 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 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. Three men were crossing Wilkens Avenue. Each had on the uniform of summertime Baltimore -- a white, short-sleeved dress shirt and pants.

Baltimore men love their short-sleeved white shirts.

But try walking down Connecticut Avenue in Washington and the federal fashion police will come out and arrest you. No matter what the heat and humidity, in Washington the proper business attire is long sleeves, heavy on the starch.

As long as you are not naked, it is OK to be seen wearing anything in Baltimore. 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.

The blanket policy of no-fault fashion also extends to eye wear and earrings. No style of glasses is too baroque. No length, width or dangle of earring is ever in bad taste here.

A few years ago a Catholic pastor of a suburban parish complained to me about the bank president of an old-line 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 hot days, wear Bermuda shorts under your 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 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..

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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