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People are wearing what people want to wear, and that’s okay

Brian Hofmeister wears an “infinity scarf” while visiting Millennium Park Friday. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Brian Hofmeister wears an “infinity scarf” while visiting Millennium Park Friday. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2011 5:27AM

For many years, I avoided brown shoes. Partly because of certain inescapable associations with the color brown, partly due to memories of the stiff Buster Brown dress shoes I sometimes had to wear as a child and part — I’m embarrassed to admit — was being intimidated by the Frank Zappa song “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It.”

Frank was so cool, so if he said nix on the brown shoes, well OK then.

But much clothing is brown — tweed jackets and khaki pants and such — and eventually I gave in and got a pair. They’re very brown.

This, as far as I can tell, was a completely individual decision — I didn’t see lots of guys at the office wearing brown shoes and decide to join the herd. No fashion magazines prodded me. I bought a pair of brown shoes as a personal choice, let the world think what it may.

And in this, I was ahead of the fashion curve.

“There is more of a trend of dressing how you want, embracing designers and established brands and mixing in what you find interesting,” said Kiran Advani, fashion programming director for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. “People are dressing more eclectically than ever before — it’s less of a uniform. People are expressing themselves and not letting anybody dictate to them.” Amen.

That sure is born out by what I see in my daily march back and forth across the Loop.

How did Chicago men dress Friday for the first day of fall? In business suits, in shorts and T-shirts, in trenchcoats, in hoodies. A Patagonia fleece vest with a club tie? No problem.

And the women? Lots of short jackets flaring at the waist, lots of cable knit sweaters. One gal accessorized an aqua blouse with matching aqua iPod earbuds.

I noticed more common elements among the women — they must be reading more fashion magazines than the men, or perhaps they notice each other more. A number had those big knit scarves wrapped around their necks, an obvious ploy to ward off chill without breaking out the fall coat.

Mind you, I’m not passing judgment on any of this, not bemoaning society’s decline. If it became acceptable to wear a one-piece yellow terry cloth jumpsuit with built-in feet and rabbit ears, I’d happily wear it, if other people did.

That’s my platinum fashion standard: don’t be alone. I went to the Green Tie Ball last Saturday in a tuxedo, bow tie and cummerbund, naturally, and for one awful moment, getting out of the car, I spied all these men in business suits and feared I’d be the only guy in a tux for the minute before I fled. There were some.

Despite the obvious individuality in fashion, there are still experts attempting to dictate what people wear. Plug “Chicago Fashion Expert” into Google and the first hit is Eric Himel, who offers up lists of Do’s and Don’t’s for men and women. Some make perfect sense (“DON’T dryclean, iron or put a crease in your jeans.”) Others seemed directed at men living on another planet (“DON’T wear flipflops or sandals without getting a pedicure first.”)

The only possible circumstance that would prompt me to get a pedicure is if I were going to perform a Carmen Miranda act at the Baton and needed to wear open-toed stilettoes.

But reading Himel’s rules, which tended to be very specific (“DO invest in a pair of Persol sunglasses”), made me think I could come up with a few brief universal rules, applicable for both genders, that might actually help people:

1) Dress for the weather. It’s never cold in Chicago, you’re just underdressed. Layers, long underwear, wool socks, hats, earmuffs — too many of us listen to our inner cool 13-year-old boy who walks with his coat flapping open to prove what an alpha male he is. Be bold enough to make this fashion statement: “I’m checking the anemometer at McMurdo Station in my Eddie Bauer Ridgeline Parka.”

2) Dress your age. People over 50 who dress as if they’re under 20 might as well be wearing a sign saying: “I’m fooling myself and I have no friends.” Yes, getting old is tough, particularly if you want to date. But remember your grandmother? You loved her, in part, because she dressed like a grandmother and not like she was trying to stop cars on Cicero Avenue.

3) Dress your personality. Despite 1 and 2, the beauty of being alive today is: nobody cares what you wear; they’d have to look up from their cell phone and see you first. If you can bring yourself to go out of the house in it, go for it. I have a ratty 22-year-old Mani winter topcoat I cling to, year after year, because it cost a mint and I love it. Now I can justify it.

“Everybody wants to be unique; the rules have gone out the door,” said Advani. “Some people are considering the 1990s vintage.”

That’s it! Sign me up. I’m not a cheapskate wearing rags, I’m a unique trendsetter sporting vintage — onward, into the haute monde!

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