Fashionable Folks? Not Here, Hon

Jacques Kelly's Baltimore

January 07, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

Long ago I learned a corset-tight rule regarding the discussion of clothes. Officially, in conversation, a garment worn by anyone else is attractive, slimming, comfortable, stylish and tasteful.

But after four decades' worth of fashion observation in this city I am ready to shout out the truth. Clothing here is often frumpy, hard on the eyes, not flattering and downright funny. When you scan a roomful of Baltimoreans out for a night on the town, a sense of humor helps.

My all-time-favorite place for fashion-spotting is the lobby of the Lyric Opera House. I select a spot and treat it as a crow's-nest. Before long, some patron enters in a costume that reflects the opera or musical bill that night. There will be bright-red Carmens (not always a woman; men have been known to wear fire-engine-red sport coats) and Brunhilde look-alikes. One can also sight a Merry Widow and many a Mimi and Tosca. There are also no shortage of bad wigs and bad mustaches. And there is a whole set of people who arrive looking dreadfully plain and unadorned.

Part of Baltimore's charm is that it is such an unpretentious place. Clothes really are not taken too seriously. And spending a lot of money on clothes is not considered good form. No wonder the Saks store in Owings Mills put up the closing sign. And this isn't the only store we've killed off. Baltimoreans do in fashion houses at all levels. Remember, budget-priced Epstein's died, too, as did the city's greatest fashion-frump palace, the late and lamented Hochschild-Kohn & Co.

It seems to me that Baltimoreans like their clothes to be durable and fashion-free. They like them to last. They admire practicality. Age is never considered a drawback. If it fits, it's OK to wear. Even if it doesn't, it's OK, too.

A cousin to Baltimore's lack of fashion sense is its disregard for the idealized body shape. We make 'em big here. We dress in tents.

There is also the issue here of poor posture. How can we look good in our clothes when we don't stand straight? Maybe it's our years of back-breaking labor at steel mills and airplane factories. Or leaning over the rail at the racetrack. The Baltimore slouch will keep chiropractors busy for many a day.

There is one aspect of dress that does excite Baltimoreans. I speak of the price tag. "I got a good deal on this" is a sentence repeated time and time again. Its counterpart is "What didja pay for that?"

A friend of mine was the women's shoe buyer for Hutzler's Palace store when it debuted in 1985. Lots of women remarked of the shoes he'd put on display, he told me. "They're nice but when do you mark them down?" is what they said.

Apparently, Baltimore has long been without a sense of high fashion. A friend of mine who is an interior designer found a 1912 postcard of Mount Vernon Place. The card was bound for Providence, R.I., and carried this message: "Have been looking throughout the shops this evening to kill time. There are some dandy men's furnishings shops, but the natives don't seem to take advantage of them." He had the card framed and hung it in his home as a two-sentence lesson about taste here.

Speaking of fashion furnishings, Baltimoreans love eyeglasses that I am sure folks in other cities would immediately donate to some charitable organization.

You can still see here a type of orangish-pinkish frame a friend of mine calls "Baltimore Pinks." I can recall that my second-grade teacher, Sister Francis Patrick, wore them. The day she put them on, the whole class broke out in a collective giggle. For the same reason, a smile crossed my face the other day in Pennsylvania Station. There was a businessman wearing Baltimore Pinks.

Baltimore eyewear is a subclassification of the fashion life of this city. Many people who haven't made the switch to contact lenses select their glasses on the basis of wanting something "a little bit different." That phrase can lead to trouble, however.

As with clothing, there are no eyeglass-fashion rules in Baltimore, no citations issued for bad judgment. There is no right or wrong. Many times these glasses that are "a little bit different" can look a lot like the chrome on my father's 1956 Dodge. Other times they look like the trunk of his 1964 Checker Marathon.

I must admit that not everyone in town is a fashion frump. A few snotty folks in their 20s try to dress in a way that consciously calls attention to themselves. Some of these types often sit at Donna's coffee bar, overlooking the Washington Monument. The setting is one of the nicest in Baltimore. These people sometimes are not. Rather than engage in a friendly conversation, they try to show off their black T-shirts and stretch pants -- a style of dress that New Yorkers refer to as Fashion Nun.

They want you to think they just walked out of the shops of New York's Madison Avenue, but hey, this is Madison Street in Baltimore, guys. We're dowdy and proud.

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