Scarlet Fever

All over Baltimore, people are experiencing the power and fun of the red suit

April 09, 2008|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Reporter

Yes, the suit is frequently washed. Important to knock that question out before the story of Baltimore's Red Suit Enthusiasts gets under way in all its Spandex, silliness and super power.

Transforming a thrift store find, Hunter Smith and Kathryn Long of Mount Vernon have launched a Red Suit movement, a Web site (redsuit.org) and a state of mind and body. Their touring, partying, one-size-fits-all red suit is one piece art project, one piece faux wrestling club, one piece raw human nature and literally one red piece of no-holds-barred fabric.

In the name of serious fun, Smith and Long are on a mission to get Baltimore itself into the red suit. They just need bodies.

Do you dare squeeze into the red suit and join the communal club?

"It's the unleashing of the essential person," says Smith, who's been known to wear the red suit on poker nights and random nights around the house when he's feeling lucky and frisky. "I get in the suit weekly, and I still feel a jolt of newness. I feel ready for action."

"You can't not have fun in the suit," Long says. And that man of hers looks really strong in the red suit - no way he is going to lose a fight in the suit, she says. "It all makes me love him more."

Since March, more than 120 enthusiasts have joined their novel club. The online gang is mostly folks in their 20s (like the co-founders) - although someone's 83-year-old great-aunt and someone else's 8-month-old have enlisted after being given the secret handshake by team captain Long. They vie for the most online votes in hopes of becoming the top-rated Red Suit Enthusiast. Membership climbs on the weekends, when the couple might take the blue-striped unitard to Club Charles or Rocket to Venus in Hampden. There, the captain unveils the suit from her purse, and Long's pitch goes something like this:

The wearer of the suit invariably experiences a heightening of their innate talents and sensibilities, as if donning it, the best and strongest elements of their characters, heretofore behind the guise of their workaday personas and socially mandated roles burst forth with an overpowering vigor, says the Web site.

"You just feel kind of sexy in it," says Charisse Nichols, promotions director at Center Stage, where her friend Long works in the props department. During one of the theater's "Espresso Hours" last year, Long pulled out the red suit and asked colleagues to dive in.

"I thought it was disgusting," Nichols says. But in January, during a festive moment at Club Charles, Nichols told her friend, just give me the suit. Life wasn't the same. The red suit became this cultural experience, this art form better than any "stupid gold fence" in Mount Vernon, Nichols says.

"And the suit tucks in the right things."

Per club protocol, Nichols' picture went up on the Web site and Smith went to work writing Nichols' fictional biography and assigning her a wrestling club and name. No real names are given. The red suit brotherhood boasts such clubs as Brewmaster, Hoodlum, Tormenter and Heartbreaker and member names such as Anvil, Spitfire, Bricklayer, Tinderbox and Viper. They are all there to be seen (and rated) flexing and vamping in the red suit.

"I felt free as a bird and tough as a tiger," says Jamie Lacey, who, along with Smith, is getting his masters in social work. In December, Lacey met his friends Smith and Long at Rocket to Venus. They leaned on him to join the team.

"They pulled out the suit, which is in their bag of tricks 24/7," Lacey says. He changed in the restroom like it was Superman's telephone booth. Lacey assumed a few superhero poses in the flattering garment and was admitted to the team. He was no longer social worker Jamie Lacey - he was Riffraff of Club Hoodlum.

"It was a magical experience, truly life altering," he says. "The suit makes you find ways to be true to yourself."

Ryan Patterson, a community artist in Baltimore, first saw the red suit at a holiday party for a nursery school staff. Before people knew it, Long and Smith had parents and friends slipping into the tight suit. Patterson was nervous, but it's hard to resist the power of the suit - and captain Long.

"The suit makes you want to act out in it. I wanted to strike poses right away," Patterson says. "I was one of three guys at the party who wore it backward. I didn't know how to put it on."

Where does the suit live when it's not headlining bars and nursery school staff parties? The garment (actually a crew suit, not a wrestling unitard) reposes on a dress mannequin in the basement apartment of Long and Smith - the superintendents of a Mount Vernon apartment building. Bound to wed this fall, the couple have fruitful and multiplying birds and two cats - and one red suit. "It's almost a pet," she says.

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