Fashion Statements: a double life | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Fashion Statements: a double life 

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We met Vanessa Shafer striding through the Merchandise Mart, en route from making to spending money. Her outfit, too, smiled "What'll it be?" and "What've ya got?" simultaneously. Our Fashion Security Guards kept a close eye on its moves. Was it running up--or running out on--a tab?

Shafer is buttoned into a blue oxford button-down, the type that used to only report to desk jobs, but nowadays (especially when accessorized by wrinkles) comes out to play. Here it's doing both. Shafer says she dutifully buttons it over her red-and-white striped rugby shirt--regulation wear at T.G.I. Friday's--whenever she sneaks a break from the bar. Back at the Friday's in Portland, she understood, the rule was to "protect the sanctity of the stripes." Here, she's learned, it's to discourage gang members from misreading the colors.

The need for camo is understandable. Nathan Joseph explains the phenomenon in his book Uniforms and Nonuniforms: Communication Through Clothing: At work, uniforms grease the wheels of commerce, reminding customers whom to harass for another round and reminding employees who's cutting their checks. But after hours, official garb keeps on working--as nurses strolling by a car wreck or boyz outside the hood well know. If uniforms coerce individuals into service-oriented anonymity on the job, they also expose workers to an open-season lack of anonymity on the street.

The danger lurks even in the capitalist confines of the Mart, where everyone is earnestly engaged in one of the two halves of the marketplace equation, sort of an eruv of commerce. Shafer buttons on a secret identity before she tallies her tips and trots them over to Coconuts to exchange them for CDs.

Below, Shafer indulges in a second round of happy hour versus daily grind. The black mini and apron are all business. But bright green bike shorts peek out the bottom, one part pragmatism (bare-legged minis don't go the distance in January), one part subversion. Unauthorized accessories, says Joseph, flaunt a flash of "take this job" individuality. Appropriate, perhaps, for someone on the payroll of a corporate giant named after the working stiff's yearning to knock off.

Shafer's multilayered look: play clothes covered by work clothes covered by work clothes standing in as play clothes (a work shirk?). It shimmers with the conflict every paper-hat-resenting employee struggles to resolve. The false cheer of her work-weary Fashion Statement: I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Routtenberg.

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