The dramatic-looking crowd that filled the Rubloff Auditorium for the School of the Art Institute’s annual fashion show was mostly women who were mostly in the over-35 bracket. Lots of high cheekbones, bright conversation, and hats. Craning my neck, I counted five men. The hats definitely outnumbered the men.

The stage was dominated by a center stairway flanked on either side by a row of arched doorways. Donald Yoshida, who teaches fashion illustration at SAIC and served as director and set designer for the show, said the set was inspired by De Chirico.

Above the stage a slide show was already in progress, featuring fashion illustrations and photographs of accessories created by students in the fashion department. There were hats like pastries, fairy-tale slippers, jewelry that looked like sculpture, gloves for sorcerers. Leah Bowman, chairperson of the department of fashion design and production coordinator for the show, said that students are encouraged to create fresh and original designs. “We try to develop each student as an individual and not to follow any particular designer or trend. Our students, when they go to New York, have no problem getting hired; maybe because they’re removed from New York and are not as influenced by what’s happening.”

The show is the students’ opportunity to have a concrete professional experience at the end of the school year, and they are responsible for preparing the models. “They go through the whole process of fittings and getting garments ready for show just as any professional designer would,” Bowman said. “Just like a painter has to paint his whole canvas, the student has to understand how things are put together.”

The show opened with a bang when a dark stage was illuminated to reveal a bare-assed male model wearing little more than a jockstrap. Strips of fabric laced around his thighs, and a couple of panels hung down his chest.

This initial number set the tone for an anything-goes kind of production, and though we didn’t see such scanty garb again, the pieces were consistently surprising. Although even the most outrageous outfits would go on sale the next day, the salability of a “medieval biker dress” or “paper bag shorts” seemed a secondary consideration. The show was an artificial world where actions were set to music and every move was perfectly choreographed.

The models occasionally appeared alone but for the most part came on in small groups. They were insolent, mysterious, playful, seductive, or demure–depending partly on the clothes and partly, I suspect, on their own inherent qualities. The more alert ones made specific eye contact with the audience, creating the delicious impression that they were the ones in control, not us. There were only 6 men among the 22 models, and the female audience seemed especially receptive to their infrequent appearances. There was an undercurrent of aggressiveness to the men’s manner, a marked absence of any desire to please. Some looked downright angry, others stony faced–even the amiable ones smiled as if the audience wasn’t that important. While the male models moved about casually the female models’ undulating movements reminded me of what Fred Astaire said about Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon: “She came at me in sections, more curves than a scenic railway.”

Supporting the show’s glossy exterior was a backstage network of technical people–spot operators, lighting and music technicians, someone to line up the models–all wearing headphones to communicate with each other and the directors. Kim Stanley, who directed the music, lighting, and choreography, said she depends on Yoshida to tell her what’s happening on every part of the stage–“to tell me where the models are, because I can’t always see them, my sight lines aren’t out to the end. So I rely on them and they rely on me, and it’s a real team.”

“It may look very together out there, but when you’re on the headphones you hear all the screaming,” Yoshida said.

Models moved around the stage in complicated patterns, using the stairs, and arched doorways to make a variety of entrances and exits. In one number a model carried a lighted candle across the dark stage, accompanied by a model carrying a branch and another carrying a book. The finale featured five female models wearing hoods over their faces–four black hoods and one white–who nonetheless moved unerringly past each other.

The smooth surface of the show cracked only once, when a model stumbled and fell to her knees while descending the stairs. “That’s a rare case,” Stanley said. “When the stage is an odd shape, it’s hard to be beautiful and look where you’re going at the same time.”

The music was a vital element of the show, with various sounds underscoring or playing off elements of the models’ clothes and movements. Stanley said she listens to music to find songs that mesh with the feeling of the clothes, and she also gets input from the designers. “We’ve used Jean-Michel Jarre, the Cocteau Twins, Sting, Kitaro . . . who else?–Janis Siegel–she’s from Manhattan Transfer, she has an album out–‘Be Happy,’ by Bobby McFerrin.” She explained, “They tell me how they feel–a lot of them gave me some music.”

The flavor of the clothes varied as much as the music. There were some lovely more conservative ensembles, but the wackier designs tended to stand out: headbands made of playing cards, an evening dress with huge fans attached to it, a “Budweiser Dress,” short skirts flounced so full they stuck straight out from the waist.

Student designer Amy Chan emphasizes humor in her work. “I would like something classical but at the same time like humorous and fun. Like a Gaultier jacket, you buy it, I think it’s still classical, but he’s done something with it–like a twist. You recognize it’s a jacket but it’s something different, you know?”

Wanda Sanders, the author of the naughty full skirts, described her own perspective: “I’m really into the theatrical, like costume, like turnout, you know, complete garment–hat, gloves–I mean just making a complete look.” Sanders likes to develop incongruous blends, “like using really impractical fabrics that youd never imagine being used for a particular piece–like a poster for a coat or something. Like that guy who does the suits out of grass. I mean, it’s like who thought of this, who would wear it? I like that.”

Sanders also likes to draw on history in her creations. “I like bringing history forward and incorporating it in my work,” she said. “I’m really into like Louis XVI.”

“Marie Antoinette,” interjected Chan.

“Yeah, Marie Antoinette. Napoleon. I love Napoleon!”

Chan said that inspiration for her designs comes from everywhere. “You walk on the street, you can find inspiration, you walk into the museum you can have inspiration.”

“Sitting at a bus stop,” Sanders said. “I think it’s like looking at things around you and just like really noticing the things around you. You like look at things differently.”

I was curious to know their opinions of street fashion in Chicago. After they had a laugh, Chan said, “I mean, it depends on where you are in Chicago. Like on the north side people are like funky and wild. Like New York influence, British influence. Downtown in the Loop it’s like very conservative. Sometimes if you go to the clubs you can see some interesting things.”

Riding north on the el after the show, I eyed the rush-hour fashions around me with a jaundiced eye. Maybe that medieval biker dress wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/James Prinz.