How do you dress for a rock show?

Arcade Fire's dress code underscores the trickiness of choosing concert attire.
Do fans heed Arcade Fire's "formalwear or costumes" request?

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.

LCD Soundsystem, whose frontman James Murphy co-produced "Reflektor," upped the ante of its farewell 2011 Madison Square Garden show by asking attendees to wear black, white or black-and-white. Arcade Fire, which performs in a broad array of eye-catching attire, used its suggested dress code to extend the party into the stands.

"The fact that they want people to dress up shows that they want us to bring a part of ourselves to the show," said Cruz from inside his Gingerbread Man costume. "They show us their art, and we get to show them the side of us that their music brings out."

Marcus contrasted Arcade Fire with some performers he's seen, such as Kanye West, who keep the audience at arm's length.

"This is a kind of way to bring us in, have us all on the same level and have fun at the same time," he said. "I think it's a direct reaction to how detached audiences have become from the performance."

"It's working for us," band member Will Butler said, following his solo, electric guitar-based set Monday night at the Hideout, where he performed in a regular, old patterned shirt. "People have played along; so far, so good."

Not everyone at the United Center adhered to the band's request. Plenty of T-shirts (including ones touting Sonic Youth and the Clash), polo shirts, baseball caps and shorts were on display in the near-full arena (the band played a second show Wednesday).

"There are still a lot of flip-flops," observed Jack Dubnicek, a 37-year-old Downers Grove Web developer who was dressed as DJ Lance Rock from the Nick Jr. show "Yo Gabba Gabba!"

Eric Kastor, a 30-year-old Bloomington, Ill., carpenter in a black polo shirt and shorts, said he'd already seen the band in St. Louis and enjoyed the costumes, but, "I bought the (United Center) tickets at 2 this afternoon and left straight from work."

One guy in a My Morning Jacket shirt explained without breaking stride, "It was the only clean shirt I had."

Maybe 20 percent of the audience was dressed up, with a fairly even split between costumes and formalwear, as some folks, like the guy in the tux with red feathers in his hair, straddled both categories. One fellow wore a furry Elmo head. Women wore devil or Minnie Mouse ears. There were Devo dress-alikes in honor of the show's opening act. Ronnie Woo Woo was there in his Ronnie Woo Woo Cubs uniform.

Reid Anderegg, 58, who traveled from Charleston, S.C., to see the show with his wife, Lynn Clark, on her 55thth birthday, wore a dark suit onto which they'd stuck dozens of jewels. Doug and Lindsay Pekney, of Glen Ellyn, appeared in their University of Southern California band and cheerleader uniforms, respectively, on what they said was their 17thth anniversary of meeting in college.

Casey Grimm, a 30-year-old Madison, Wis., house painter, donned a cream linen suit, blue pocket square, seersucker shirt and sneakers for dancing, while his wife, Jess, a 35-year-old coffee shop manager, sported a yellow-polka-dot dress, white gloves and a tiara.

"You just don't get to break out the crown very often," Jess Grimm said.

"We felt like we weren't being very ambitious," Casey Grimm said. "We were going to make 'Here Comes the Night Time' costumes in black with LED lights. This was us copping out."

He added that the dress-up request made sense coming from Arcade Fire.

"So much of their music is about being yourself and accepting yourself and not being judgmental of others," he said.

Heidi Schreiber, a 20-year-old Moody Bible Institute student wearing a maroon silk gown and round sunglasses, said she thought Arcade Fire was "reversing the trend" of people dressing down for concerts.

"People a lot of times are concerned with what they're going to be comfortable in at a concert," she said, as a man dressed as a penguin walked by with a woman dressed as a butterfly. "This blows everything up."

As the band marched through the United Center floor crowd toward the stage, with lanky lead singer Butler taking a sip of someone's beer along the way, the whole formalwear-or-costumes conceit came together. The musicians in their striped jackets, funky prints and bright capes were at one with their fellow carnivalgoers, a dynamic that would be reinforced through confetti cannons, balloon drops and performances throughout the arena.

The band members were aiming to make big connections from the stage, even as they had triggered many smaller ones. As Anderegg, stood outside in his bejeweled suit before the show, a couple that looked ready to compete on "Dancing With the Stars" walked by, and Anderegg called out, "Nice!"

"Fabulous!" the woman shot back.

mcaro@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

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