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Dress rules come with a coating of irony


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

Aside from the accusations of racism and of basic unfairness, the case of the young man thrown out of Tyrone Square Mall for not wearing his hat straight raises some very deep and soul-disturbing questions.

At issue here is the right of private property owners (in this case, a shopping mall) to regulate conduct on their property, versus the rights of kids to look stupid.

Both are time-honored American traditions.

The first right, like it or not, is pretty much absolute. You can regulate things like dress on private property.

I was once denied entrance to the Playboy Club in St. Petersburg because the woman I was with was wearing a T-shirt.

(No, my feminist friends, I did not belong to the club, I had a temporary membership as a guest at the hotel in which it was situated. And it did have a good restaurant.)

It was interesting for a couple of reasons. The T-shirt was silk, and undoubtedly cost more than the entire dresses worn by some women at the now-defunct club. It was also tasteful. My companion was wearing undergarments, as if you should have to worry about that in a den of flesh-peddling iniquity.

She wasn't being discriminated against because of her race. Neither (although the law didn't protect her then) was it because of her gender. She simply didn't meet some snob's idea of propriety, a right not, alas, guaranteed by the Constitution.

They didn't let us in.

And some biker friends of mine have struggled for years with the no colors-no regalia rules that keep them out of some establishments, specifically bars.

Again, the irony is hilarious. If you don't believe me, go to a Harley-Davidson boutique sometime and buy yourself about $2,000 worth of leathers and "regalia" so they can throw you out of a bar with cheap draft beer and a broken pinball machine.

That is where the "gang" thing raises its ugly (and, apparently, better unadorned) head.

The theory is that gang signs or colors will lead to fighting words, which will lead to violence, which will upset the non-gang-bangers and discourage them from pulling out their credit cards and spending money they don't have.

Shucks, one mall I know of threw some young musician friends of mine out of a mall-sponsored event because the mall folks thought their message was too anti-capitalist . . . imagine what a stabbing would do to their sense of propriety.

And if commercial sensitivities are that high, it follows that voting with your feet, as in not entering, is an effective way of making your feelings known, no matter on which side of the controversy you find your sympathies. Of course, adults trying to keep up with gang signs and colors and clothing fads in general is sort of like watching a 3-year-old compute parabolic orbit parameters.

If you think I'm kidding, use words like "cool," "rad," "gear," or "neat-o," in front of your teenager or young adult, but don't stand too close to their lips because the sharp edge of the resulting sneer could gut you where you stand.

We fogies (read: anyone over 28) are, after all, products of the dark ages in which turning your collar up or wearing your shirttail out was cause for censure. Wearing your hat sideways, one pant leg rolled up or your lips pierced and your ears stapled to the side of your head are just extensions of that.

Because malls aren't governments, it's not scary watching them try to decide what's weird.

It's just amusing.

And as I watched the television coverage of the hat story, I couldn't help but think of the invasion of the Dominican Republic by U.S. troops, including me, in 1965. There was a full-scale revolution in progress, and elements of the Dominican armed forces changed sides regularly. Our military intelligence (and believe me, it IS an oxymoron) folks passed the word to us that we could tell who the good guys were because, to demonstrate that, they were wearing their hats sideways.

I'm not kidding.

Talk about easy camouflage.

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