Fashion Statements: black in school | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Calendar

Fashion Statements: black in school


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


We met Mike Archambeault loitering outside Lincoln Park High just after the final bell. His slack slacks and tight tights raised a hand to recite the ABCs of classroom comfort. Still, our Fashion Principals called the look into the office. Did it conform to the dress code? Or was it shooting spitballs behind the teacher's back? They issued this report card:

Black dominates the discussion--from tip to toe. As fashion historians Richard Martin and Harold Koda note: the darkest dark is reserved for rebels. Whereas demure ladies buy into the establishment by slipping on a little black dress, their gentleman escorts eschew the hue, choosing instead socially acceptable grays and browns. When men wear black (look up rockers, poets, bike gangs) they're mad as hell.

The angst-ridden palette is lightened by Bermuda shorts, named after the sunny British territory, which offered uptight nationals a chance to let loose--within limits. Write Martin and Koda: " . . . the proprieties of island law required that the shorts begin no more than two inches above the knee, assuring them to be a scrupled, regulated attire--not frivolous or salacious."

Here the patrician play gear is assigned a seat next to working-class work boots defaced by a swirly graffito. Archambeault is "obsessed" with spirals, he says, because "you can look into them and they keep going." In a long-expired sign language once employed by hobos (and not unlike the surreptitious note passed in class), pictograms scratched along the road alerted travelers to dangers and delights ahead. A judge's home was marked with a loose springlike spiral, perhaps derived from the barrister's curly wig. But the close, introspective spiral, a favorite doodle as far back as cave artists, usually connotes the universal mystery of creation. Carved into the toe crater is another universal mystery: the happy face.

The outfit picks up extra credit from a black snap-back backpack, which shouts, "I am not a freeeeek. I'm not. Am I?" The question is posed in the show-and-tell tradition of all writing on the wall, yet directed, Jenny Holzer-style, at a specific audience: the wearer's father, who takes issue with long hair.

The outfit's mix of propriety and rebellion--expressed through a yin-yang palette, a class-conscious clash of pieces, and accessorized with splashes of existential crises--captures the very essence of graffiti art, in which the disenfranchised appropriate public space to proclaim the personal. The Krylon-bright Fashion Statement? "Tag, I'm it."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Cynthia Howe.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →