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Joel Achenbach
So, What Are You Wearing?

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E-mail: Monday, March 6, 2000; 11:58 AM

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. The party invitation said that attire would be "Upscale Casual." I stared at the words with mounting alarm. Where I come from there is no category called "Upscale Casual." No one I know personally had ever used the phrase or, for all I knew, attended such a party. The dress code seemed perilously close to an oxymoron.

At the very least it was threatening a fashion instruction fraught with social pressure. Indeed, the invitation noted, in what was clearly a warning, "Photos will be taken throughout the evening." In other words there would be EVIDENCE of my transgression should I fail to comprehend the delicate interlacing requirements of "Upscale" and "Casual." I began having bad dreams.

The phrase was clearly loaded with ancillary requirements, including the imperative of engaging in Upscale Casual conversations. That ruled out many of my favorite jokes. Also it would be necessary to eat and drink in the right manner, including, for example, using metal tongs to fetch the ice cubes for a drink. My tonging historically has been poor. Often I have the Downscale Casual urge to grab the cubes with my bare hands.

I compared notes with other men invited to the same party. We were a nervous bunch and could think of nothing else for days. Did the dress code simply mean no blue jeans? Khakis would seem a good choice, but they'd have to be Upscale Casual khakis, a notch or two above Dockers. They'd have to look like they came straight from the dry cleaners, possibly with traces of the plastic bag still clinging to one leg. Absolutely they'd have to possess a spectacular crease down the center of each leg, the kind of crease that could cut through a block of port wine cheese.

But of course everything comes down to the shoes. The shoes are the foundation of the whole thing, they're the phytoplankton in the clothing food chain.

"I think it means white shoes," theorized a colleague who was also consumed with the fear of fashion failure.

The problem is, if you start with a foundation of white shoes, it's like putting a match to lighter fluid, it's catalytic the white shoes force you to wear plaid pants, which lead to a canary yellow blazer, and finally, at the raging peak of the assembly, to a preposterous ascot. The scenario was increasingly hideous.

There were also when-in-Rome issues to consider. The party would be in Fort Lauderdale. How did the locals dress? Looming over this question was the storied, and not entirely attractive, history of the city. It used to be a pretty scruffy place, full of honky tonk bars and great rivers of cheap beer. For culture it had wet T-shirt contests. Every spring, a hundred thousand kids would show up and go crazy, and the police had to put concrete barricades along Highway A1A to keep the drunks from stumbling into traffic. For a while there, back in the 1970s and 1980s, Upscale Casual in Fort Lauderdale meant "still conscious."

But anyone arriving in the city now will see a radically different place. Money has poured into the city. There are lots of people who are way beyond affluent, the absurdly rich. Some have homes the size of a small elementary school. Their yachts are on steroids. A big yacht might cost $10,000 a week to operate even when it's at dock. Every yacht has an auxiliary powerboat parked on the back. You get the effect of a boat-on-a-boat. Eventually, perhaps, there will come a day when the yachts are so large, their auxiliary boats have their own auxiliary boats. A boat on a boat on a boat.

The party invitation pointed out that we would be going to a private home via water taxi, taking a leisurely tour of the Intracoastal Waterway. This hinted that perhaps we should dress with an element of Yachtwear, whatever the heck that might be. I made a mental note that, if anyone asked me a question about a Washington politician, I would answer smartly, "I like the cut of his jib."

There was still a further complication and if all this seems belabored, welcome to the Rough Draft column. This Upscale Casual party was one of several associated events in Fort Lauderdale, the specifics of which aren't really important to the narrative, except to the extent that each event had its own dress code. In other words, when packing, I had to put essentially every bit of clothing I owned into two suitcases, just to survive a couple of days in Fort Lauderdale.

There were some events labeled Casual, for example. But I knew that a dress code of Casual didn't mean casual as I would define it. It meant neatly dressed. I would have to have two sets of outfits right there: My own literally casual clothes (shorts, blue jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, etc.) and the officially Casual stuff. The next level up was the Upscale Casual clothes, and finally, for yet another event, there was a dress code of Dressy Cocktail Attire. This is totally true. The invitation said "Dressy Cocktail Attire."

For a small word, "Dressy" is incredibly intimidating. It's a word that implies that not only must your clothes be right, your HAIR must be right. The word smells of hair spray.

So finally the big night of the Upscale Casual party arrived. Gripped with cowardice, I defaulted to a blue blazer, white shirt, no tie, dress khakis, brown lace-up shoes. The uniform of the very boring man.

Then I saw the other guests. There is, it turns out, a perfect description of what Upscale Casual means these days in Fort Lauderdale, as evidenced by this party: It means "Dressy Cocktail Attire." That's the exact look. You have to look like you spent so much time getting dressed you are now desperate to start drinking heavily.

And so there's a domino effect. Since "Upscale Casual" means "Dressy Cocktail Attire," "Dressy Cocktail Attire" has to mean something else. I think it means "Uptight Casual." It's the same sort of stuff, only more constricting, with a necktie, tightly knotted. Ideally you need to cut off some of the air to the brain, which helps you make appropriate conversation.

Rough Draft will be back again Wednesday at 1 p.m., unless there is a disabling fashion catastrophe.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company