Jamar Bennett, at age 20, had never worn a suit.
"Back in the day, it may have been appropriate to dress up for funerals," he said. "But I've been to so many that what you wear is not really a big issue. I just put on some nice jeans and a shirt."
Bennett was standing in front of a sizing mirror, trying on a Tom Tailor wool blended sport coat at the Syms clothing store in Rockville. He hadn't changed his mind about dressing up for funerals. Rather, he and 15 other young men who live in the East Capitol Dwellings public housing complex in Northeast Washington had been invited to a semiformal national ceremony next week to honor seven groups for their efforts to combat violence.
Bennett is a member of the East Capitol Center for Change, one of the organizations being honored. And the caveat was that the honorees could not show up in traditional urban "cool pose" clothes--the kind of clothes that speak the code of the streets instead of the language of the suites.
In some urban neighborhoods, for example, an expensive, three-button, side-vented Brioni is considered square compared with, say, a baggy pair of Iceberg brand bluejeans with the top half of a pair of red boxer shorts exposed.
After a taxi driver was shot to death in Washington a couple of weeks ago, D.C. Taxicab Commissioner Sandra Seegars warned that people who dress in such a disheveled way are "dangerous" and that drivers shouldn't pick them up late at night.
The controversial remarks were discussed at length by members of the Center for Change, an outreach program for at-risk young adults. Some of them used to deal drugs and carry weapons, and their survival depended on deciphering the code of the streets.
"The general conclusion was that if they were driving a cab and they saw someone dressed like that late at night, they'd pick them up--but they'd make them sit up front so they could keep an eye on them," said Curtis Watkins, president and director of the center. "It's still a form of racial profiling, but with a little more heart."
Inside the clothing store, the young men were getting a profile make-over. Heavy hooded parkas, knit caps and Timberland boots were laid to the side like shedded snake skin.
Their new look was dashing and sophisticated.
"I feel like Tiger Woods," said Bennett. "Ready to sign a big fat contract."
Donald Thompson, a Syms store manager, smoothed out the shoulders on the coat, then stepped back to inspect the fit.
"Clothes may not make the man," he told Bennett. "But they do speak. And you speak well."
The new suits represent more than just a new look; they are a reflection of a change going on inside. Several of the men, for example, have started a football team in their neighborhood. They spend each night of the week coaching younger boys and helping them with their homework. They also have started a Bible study group.
"The suits symbolize induction into lives of responsibility," said Robert Woodson, founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which sponsors the Achievement Against the Odds awards ceremony. "They have earned the new clothes by honoring their pledge to stay away from guns and drugs and to become volunteers in their communities."
Since starting the awards program three years ago, Woodson has persuaded friends and acquaintances to help him underwrite the cost of the new clothes for the Washington honorees.
In most cases, these young adults have never owned a pair of hard-sole shoes or a pair of black or brown socks. The men also need instruction on how to fashion a necktie.
"It's not enough to have high expectations for young people," Woodson said. "You must help them to meet those expectations."
The awards ceremony is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the National Geographic Society's auditorium at 17th and L streets NW. On that night, the center's 26 young men and seven young women will show up looking suave and debonair.
Since the awards presentations began, only one young man who took the pledge has been killed. And that was during a domestic dispute.
"He was buried in the suit we had bought for him," Woodson recalled. But many of his peers also wore suits, clothes they had been able to purchase for themselves after turning their lives around.
The men, once rival gang members, were now helping each other pick out shirts and ties.
"I feel like a new man," said Edjuan Butler, 29, as he admired the fit on an Armani suit. "But what I really like is seeing all of us together, going forward with this thing."
Thompson, the store manager, moved among the men, giving out such styling tips as how to button a suit coat.
"Keep the bottom button free," he told one man. "See, if you're posing, you want the jacket to flair out nicely."
Stephen Tyner, 24, seemed hypnotized by the man in a Hugo Boss staring back at him in the mirror. Finally, he spoke.
"I feel like I could walk into any place and get whatever I want," he said. "Maybe even walk out into the street and catch a cab."