Ogee Muniz, dressed as a Firebird, complete with a red mask, was chatting with her Gingerbread Man-out-of-"Shrek" boyfriend Anthony Cruz in the United Center concourse before Arcade Fire's Tuesday night set when a petite woman in a formal dress approached her and said, "I'm so glad you dressed up too."
Muniz smiled and returned the compliment. "It definitely brings people closer together," she said.
Like many in attendance, this Portage Park couple had heeded the Montreal band's request printed on the tickets that went on sale in November: "Please wear formal attire or costume." Back when this request was made public, it stirred up a bit of controversy.
"Arcade Fire, Please Don't Ask Me to Wear 'Formal Attire' to Your Arena Show," read the headline of a Slate piece in which writer Megan Wiegand complained: "For most of us, formal attire is reserved for weddings or special nights out. Trying to force otherwise ordinary rock shows into the special category strikes me as presumptuous — an attempt to reinforce the band's status as capital-A Artists."
Music site Stereogum jumped in, with Michael Nelson writing: "(D)emanding that 23,000 Kentuckians dress up like an extra in Baz Luhrmann's 'Great Gatsby' to see a rock band at the KFC Yum! Center? I dunno." A poll on the site asked: Is it OK for Arcade Fire to have a dress code at their concerts? Yes, 53.5 percent. Nope, 46.5 percent.
The band responded on its Facebook page: "To everyone really upset about us asking people to dress up at our shows … please relax. It's super not mandatory. It just makes for a more fun carnival when we are all in it together."
Mind you, this can of worms involves more than a single tour. Dressing for concerts can be a serious, and seriously confusing, business.
In general we're living in a casual age. People don't dress up for plane flights anymore, as some older-generation types have been known to grumble, and jackets and ties have become more the exception than rule for theater productions; you'll see a broad range of dress even on major opening nights. As high-culture institutions such as the Lyric Opera and Chicago Symphony Orchestra try to make themselves more broadly accessible, the expectation that attendees will wear suits or dresses has diminished noticeably.
Yet as a culture, we're as fashion-obsessed as ever, paying more attention to what's worn on the red carpet than who wins at the subsequent awards show. Anyone who has attended Lollapalooza over the past several years can attest that this fashion consciousness increasingly extends to festivalgoers as they balance making a hip statement with enjoying summer comfort. It's no wonder that online photo galleries of Lollapalooza fashions (from music industry trade publication Billboard, The New York Times, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue and the Tribune, as well as others) have become at least as plentiful as performance analyses.
"Festivals have now begun to have more of a fashion sense than when they first started," said Joe Shanahan, owner of the Wrigleyville live-music club Metro. "Certainly the younger fans are dressing up big-time. You're looking at almost a street fashion show. But in the clubs, I don't see that as much."
Clubs aren't made for showing off. They're generally dark, often cramped, and those inside tend to aim for an unfussed coolness. That is, in order not to look like you made too much of an effort, you might spend 15 minutes trying to decide on the right T-shirt.
And there are informal rules at play, such as: You don't wear the T-shirt of the band you're seeing, but you might wear the shirt of another band that appeals to fans of the band you're seeing. For instance, when I saw the Baseball Project at the Abbey this month, I pulled out my Big Star T-shirt because I know that the band members — including Mike Mills from R.E.M., Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows — are into that cult Memphis, Tenn., power-pop band.
Sure enough, I received several compliments on the shirt, including from band members, and though none of this is of earth-shattering importance, such moments can't be dismissed in the context of the whole experience.
"It certainly is something that connects people," Shanahan said. "It's that nodding sort of look in a club, like, 'Oh, cool, Joy Division shirt. I gotcha. We're one.'"
He added: "Fashion or clothing at a rock concert or club show is a way to strike up a conversation. When we did the Wax Trax retrospective event, there were people dressed like they were still in the '80s. It was a tribe, and they were back together."
Popular artists like the idea that their followers represent a sort of tribe, and fans often enjoy that feeling, too, dressing in cotton-candy colors for Katy Perry or not necessarily age-appropriate attire for Miley Cyrus. Lady Gaga embraces her fans as Little Monsters and encourages concertgoers to share her love of wild costumes.
Sean Marcus, a 21-year-old University of Wisconsin at Whitewater student, said when he attended a recent Lady Gaga concert, "I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and I was feeling weird."
Marcus did not underdress for Arcade Fire: He was rocking a tuxedo with a red shirt and red-and-black striped tie.
"I went out and got it today," he said of the outfit. "I can't look schleppy for Arcade Fire."
Arcade Fire, with as many as 12 musicians sharing the stage to pound out the big-tent grooves of last year's "Reflektor" double album, is all about engendering a sense of community, yet the band has grown so popular that it is playing multiple nights at ambience-challenged sports arenas such as the United Center. Sitting in the stands or standing on the floor there does not fill you with the sense of awe or history you might feel at, say, the majestic Chicago Theatre, unless you enjoy gaping at the Bulls' and Blackhawks' championship banners.