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The big sporting events around town this weekend are a golf tournament and a fight. Guess which will draw the fancier dressers?
Not the golf. No, golf galleries are no longer the realms of aristocratic attire that they were when Bobby Jones walked from hole to hole. Particularly since John Daly and Tiger Woods forced the pro game on the masses, the Regular Guy Look has taken hold behind the ropes at PGA events.
That puts golf in line with
pretty much every other sport: Fashion in the grandstands ain’t what it once was. Take baseball. Old newsreels and that nine-inning Ken Burns documentary make it seem as if everybody in the Ebbets Field bleachers in the ’50s was trying to outcool Clark Gable; the only folks not in coats, ties, and fedoras are on the field.
Go to RFK for a Nationals game and the uniform of choice is shorts and T-shirts. The only hats are licensed caps, probably turned sideways. Any guy in a coat and tie is likely Secret Service.
But fans of the fight game still play dress-up. For whatever reason, boxing is the last bastion of high fashion in the sports-spectator realm. If form holds, a big percentage of the folks who go to the MCI Center for the latest installment of the Mike Tyson farewell tour on Saturday will do so in the sort of look-at-me! get-ups most often seen on red carpets and runways.
“When I go to fights, I crack up myself just watching the show in the stands,” says John Moore, fashion director of Vibe magazine. “You’ve got the Hollywood factor and the hip-hop factor all coming together. The girls will be wearing diamonds, and the men—matching is huge with them, so you see all these guys in matching outfits…. And with some of these colors, I mean, it’s like 3-D. People go there not just to see, but to be seen. It’s a competition in the fashion world, as well as the sporting world. For me as a fashion director, going to the fights is very inspiring. It’s brilliant and it’s scary.”
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“Well, when you think about it,” he says, “we’re dressing up to watch somebody get bludgeoned, aren’t we? Using two people fighting as a reason to make a fashion statement? That’s barbaric. And it’s also fascinating.”
Nice clothes have always been a part of boxing. Heavyweight champions from Jack Johnson on down have fancied themselves fancy dressers. And Tyson got into his first big brush with the law in 1988 by getting into a wee-hours brawl with fellow heavyweight Mitch “Blood” Green not at a nightclub but while shopping at Dapper Dan’s, an upscale (and all-night!) Harlem haberdashery.
And the fans have long followed suit. Bert Sugar, boxing historian and D.C. native, says his personal nominee for the “height of sports fashion” would be the ringside scene at Ali– Frazier I, the epic 1971 15-rounder at Madison Square Garden.
“People came to that fight in floor-length white sable coats and matching hats,” says Sugar. “And those were the men.”
Other than the fact that both pugs will be wearing gloves, the Tyson– Kevin McBride main event will have little in common with any of the Ali– Frazier tussles. (Though the undercard features a bout with Leila Ali, daughter of the Greatest). But even at lesser boxing events, Sugar noticed long ago, the peacocks always make an appearance.
“With the rest of America dressing down, the one place where this fashion sense has held is the boxing ringside,” he says. “The whole mood is: Get your furs out of storage! Get your low-cut dresses out! See and be seen!”
Local retailers predict a sales
boomlet related to Tyson’s appearance.
At the Georgetown outlet of Up Against the Wall, the street-credible clothing boutique and one of the few places in town you can pay $700 for a pair of jeans, management has beefed up the staff this weekend to handle a rush of shoppers who want to show off the priciest denim money can buy on fight night.
And over at Everett Hall, the upscale suit designer in Chevy Chase that has fashioned outfits for ring icon Sugar Ray Leonard and sometime fight caller James Brown, they’re readying for some well-heeled management types who will need something nice stitched up quick.
“We expect some last-minute requests from the fight,” says Eric Hall, who with his brothers owns the fashion house. “But we’re not going to dress the court jester or harlequin that you see [at boxing matches]. We get the perspicacious fashion person who’s going to the fight, the luxury customer who is going for the night-in-Vegas look.”
Lovail Long is trying to exploit the synergy. Long owns Bodaego Sports, a street-smart clothier in Suitland, and co-owns Laices, a women’s shoe boutique in Bowie. Both outfits will benefit from Tyson’s local appearance.
“We started seeing ladies come in here last week, saying they want to look good for the fight,” says Zakiya Dunmore, a spokesperson for Laices. “They think the ringside is like the red carpet, and they want to be seen wearing something that nobody else will be wearing.” (Dunmore, after some personal polling of Laices customers, expects the MCI Center will have a lot of women in Italian shoes, sporting leaf handbags and crystal accessories.)
Last year, Long also became a boxing promoter. His fighter, rising middleweight Henry “Sugar Poo” Buchanan, wears Long’s business name on his trunks.
“It’s a perfect match-up,” says Long. “Everybody who goes to the fights wants to look good. They’re thinking about looking good. They see my name on the fighter that means something.”
But while everybody in boxing agrees that fashion and boxing fit like fist and glove, nobody knows exactly why clothes have stayed important in this sport and not others.
“I’ve always thought it’s that the less important clothes are to the athletes in a sport, the more they are to the fans,” says Long. “Go to a Redskins game, the players are wearing all that stuff, clothes don’t matter. Go to a Wizards game, they’re wearing less, and clothes matter a little more. In boxing, the guys are basically naked, and clothes matter a whole lot.”
Henry “Discombobulating” Jones, of Upper Marlboro, one of the nation’s only black boxing MCs, says that as he’s noticed the styles in the grandstands while traveling from ring to ring, he’s developed his own theory on why the fight crowd has kept the dressing-up tradition alive.
“I think maybe it’s because boxing is still a sport of the poor,” he says. “If you dress up and be seen, even if you’re not rich, you want to look rich, at least. This is ‘Fake it ’til you make it.’”—Dave McKenna
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.