By Heather Kenny

“If you’re holding this–you are in,” crowed the program for Marshall Field’s Fash Bash, the store’s second annual multimedia extravaganza of fashion, fame, and fabulousness in the name of raising money for the Art Institute (at $40-$150 a pop). The spotlights outside the Chicago Theatre, the models with important-looking headsets masquerading as doormen, and the program’s breathless declarations all seemed designed to assure the charity-event set that they were–at least for one night–at the very epicenter of cool. “Isn’t this exciting?” burbled the blond woman next to me as a speaker five feet from my right ear erupted into a thumping bass, announcing the start of the fun. I scrabbled in my bag for earplugs.

As set changes transformed the stage into various famous clubs–none of them in Chicago–and androgynous young men in skinny pants gyrated to the beat, models sashayed down the runway (consider yourself warned: flowered pants for men and women appear to be big for fall). In between songs, Queen Latifah and Chic entreated the audience to get up and boogie. “Some of you look pretty young and fit,” Queen Latifah declared, scanning the seats. “But some of you…” She herself looked like a hip jockey in shiny brown leather pants folded up below the knee, capri style, and a brown argyle-print top. Challenged, the well-behaved crowd waved complimentary glow sticks to the beat. Bobby Short, a suave figure in white, belted out “Hooray for Love” during a set that was jarringly low-key given the hip-grinding, pseudodecadent atmosphere of the rest of the show.

For the finale, a model came out in a flouncy cake of a wedding dress, then ripped off the skirt and jumped up and down in mock punk rebellion as a metal contraption descended from the ceiling bearing her paramour, a guy in a Ziggy Stardust wig. I think an announcer introduced him as “Lycra Man.” But the signal to go wild came when Kiss Army, a cover band complete with makeup and four-inch platforms, stomped onstage and ripped into “Rock and Roll All Nite” amid exploding sparklers and falling confetti.

The postshow party was at the State Street store two blocks away, and in keeping with the evening’s theme of privilege, a red carpet had been rolled out for us. The wood-paneled Walnut Room on the seventh floor had been transformed into New York’s Cafe Carlyle; sedate jazz played as people nibbled on tiny lamb chops. A polite but determined crowd swarmed around the mashed-potato bar. “Are you sure these aren’t olives?” a man asked as he poked the mushroom topping. The rest of the floor, separated from the Walnut Room by velvet ropes and guarded by “bouncers” who demanded to see people’s invitations before they were allowed in, was designated “Studio 54.” Dancers doused in gold paint and clad in scant Alley Oop outfits danced on tables. Assorted drag queens, kids in sleek candy-colored rave wear, and a bare-chested guy in an Indian headdress paraded through the crowd, presumably to give the proceedings a little credibility. A corpulent ponytailed man stalked about with women in matching red sequined dresses on each arm; I couldn’t tell if they were guests or some of the help.

A permanent sign on the bathroom door warned against partaking in illegal activities within. But no one here was sniffing coke or fucking in the stalls a la the real Studio 54. Two women primped in front of the mirror and discussed a mutual friend they couldn’t locate in the crowd. “Did you blow Sheila off?” one accused.

The actor Dean Cain–star of the canceled Lois & Clark TV show, in town to publicize an upcoming movie–complained about the long line at the bar. “Can’t you use your superpowers to get to the front of the line?” I started to ask, but before I could finish, a portly man tapped Cain on the shoulder and asked if he could introduce his wife. Queen Latifah and Bobby Short were nowhere to be seen, but the ladies from Chic were mingling and the Ace Frehley guy from Kiss Army was making small talk with a silver-haired gentleman in a tux. People on the dance floor seemed more concerned about spilling their drinks than busting a move; they held their arms above their heads and delicately waved their hips while standing still. The only ones who seemed to be having a really good time were the professional dancers, who laughed and joked with one another as they flailed about in their cage. Some folks networked or talked on their cell phones, and a few women sat alone at cocktail tables in dimly lit corners, looking grim. The whole thing felt unnervingly like an office party.

I pushed through the crowd to the dessert corner, where people were lounging on black couches. A well-preserved blond socialite helped herself to a couple chunks of angel food cake at the fondue bar; you were supposed to put the chocolate sauce in a cone and dip the cake or fruit into it. “Mmm, looks good,” purred a skinny guy with poufy hair and a shirt open to the middle of his chest. I retreated to a space by the atrium to eat, but it was difficult to do without making a mess. For a moment I wished they’d put out boxes of humble Frangos instead.