Costume party mood difficult to put on


It was the kind of invitation that should be promptly tossed away. A party with a theme. Even worse, a theme that required wearing what amounts to a costume.

I haven't worn a costume since a painful evening visiting friends in Florida. One friend, who worked in real estate development, urged me to join him at a costume party being given by a big developer.

"You can wear something I brought back from the Middle East," he said, producing a caftan, the flowing robe worn by many Arab men. And the head wear, known in some quarters as a kaffiyeh.

So I slipped into the outfit. With dark glasses, a deep vacation tan and aquiline features (a kindly way of describing an eagle beak), I made a passable Arab sheik.

My friend took the easy route, slipping on a dark business suit and a fez.

When we walked into the cocktail party, it was obvious by the way the other guests stared and whispered that they weren't impressed.

"You said this was a costume party," I hissed at my friend.

"I thought it was a costume party," he said, whipping off his fez. "But I guess I was wrong."

I spent the rest of the evening mumbling to investor-seeking real estate hustlers: "No, I am not in oil, since my poor country has none. Sand, I export our excellent desert sand to your beaches. Want to buy a ton or two?"

That was when I vowed to never again put on a costume.

But the blond accepted the recent invitation before I could express my revulsion.

"It's a 1950s theme," she said, "so that shouldn't be difficult."

She was right. I could wear my everyday clothes, which are timeless.

"No," she said, "your clothes are just old and baggy. You have to do better than that."

That's why I found myself in a men's clothing store, shopping for the first pair of jeans I have owned or worn since the late 1950s.

I'm aware that some men wear jeans into their middle years. But I assume that they are making a personal statement. The only statement I make with clothing is that I am not naked.

The youthful salesperson said: "You'll want the loose cut, I suppose. It gives you more room in the . . . uh. . . ."

"Nonsense. I happen to be blessed with the white European male's in conspicuous bottom and will wear the traditional lean cut."

The night of the party, I pulled on the jeans (the more costly kind that are faded, frayed and old when they are new), and an entire era in America began coming back.

I got a sudden urge to go swaggering through the parking lot of the Super Dawg at Milwaukee and Devon.

Then I slipped into white socks and old loafers. And a simple cotton T-shirt. Plain white with no pictures or lettering. In the '50s, nobody wore T-shirts that gave a shirt maker free advertising or expressed undying love for a particular rock band. Only bowling shirts and softball jerseys had lettering. And if your shirt expressed a philosophy, such as "Life Sucks," the cops might have grabbed you.

Nor were jeans worn with button-down shirts, ties and blue blazers. This would have been a sign of schizophrenia.

Jeans and a white T-shirt. It shows what a practical generation we were. You could wear it on a movie date, while hanging out at the Good Guys Social Athletic Club, or when heading way out west on North Avenue for Saturday night drag racing.

Really getting into it, I slipped on a Timex with a metal stretch band and scowled at myself through faintly ominous dark glasses.

Then came the final touch. A pack of smokes folded into the left sleeve of the T-shirt and a Zippo folded into the right sleeve.

Almost perfect. But something was lacking. What was it?

Of course. The hair should have been slicked back and held in place with several squirts of Brilliantine or Wildroot Cream Oil.

Oh, well, without the help of Hairline Creations, some things are no longer possible.

In my full '50s splendor, I said to the blond: "What do you think? Kind of remind you of James Dean?"

She thought for a moment and said: "Maybe Jimmy Dean. What's wrong with your upper arms? Those lumps?"

"Those aren't lumps. That's the way we used to carry our smokes and Zippo."

"There's no smoking at this party."

"You said it was a '50s party."

"It is, but this is the '90s."

"Then I'll change shirts."

"Into what?"

"Something that says: 'Life Sucks.' "

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