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Whatever happened to dressing up?

Here's a Buffalo scene: You're at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Garden Restaurant. It's a sunny Sunday, still summery. You're giggling at the suggestive sculptures, supervising the assembly of your custom-made omelet, sipping a mimosa and . . .

Wait. What's at the next table?

A baseball cap.

And who's in the buffet line?

Three people in frayed cutoffs.

Ahem. True, the gallery's current exhibit is somewhat freewheeling. But this is still the home of Picasso, Renoir and, at the moment, an exquisite platter of smoked salmon. How about a little respect?

It's getting harder to go anywhere, however upscale, without suffering the attack of the jeans and baseball caps.

"It's terrible," admits Joseph Jacobi, vice president of the Riverside Men's Shop. He traces the trend to casual Fridays, which began in the late '80s. "I remember worrying, if that goes to every day, we're in trouble."

For once, the problem extends beyond Buffalo. Did anyone else cringe at the photo on The Buffalo News Picture Page showing the line of people in Washington, D.C., waiting to pay their last respects to Chief Justice William Rehnquist? They all wore flip-flops and T-shirts.

But Buffalonians can be particularly defensive about their sweat pants and sneakers. It's a sign of downward mobility.

Think of the few recent businesses that attempted dress codes. They toppled like bowling pins. Taylor's, the department store, was all but run out of town. Club Crystal, a tony little place on Delaware Avenue, also had a short run.

And the memory of Sphere, the nightclub in the building that once housed the glitzy Town Casino, is fading as fast as the ratty jeans that owner Joey Guagliardo tried to ban. In 2002, Sphere burst on the scene by nixing caps and sneakers and trumpeting the return of romance. Gradually, painfully, the club's defenses collapsed. This spring, Guagliardo sold it.

Whatever the reasons these businesses didn't last, the dress code certainly didn't help them.

"That idea went right out the window as fast as it went into my head," Guagliardo cracks. Then he sighs. "Buffalo is a jeans and T-shirt town. It's hard for anyone to change. If you have a dress code, people will not come. They will make you close your doors."

Let's admit it: Many Buffalonians not only resist nice clothes -- they're threatened by them. "When I dress up too much, I get, 'Who the hell does he think he is?' " Guagliardo says. "You become a jeans and T-shirt person, too, because who do you want to argue with?"

Jacobi can relate. Before starting work at 8 a.m. on Saturdays, he will visit Wegmans for coffee. "People are looking at me like, 'He's getting dressed too early to go to a wedding,' " he says.

"In the old days, you'd go to Mass, a restaurant, people would look good. Last week, I was at the Left Bank. There may have been five people with sport coats. I count them. My wife says, 'Oh, boy, you're going to bring that up again.' "

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not demanding everyone buy Armani suits. As Guagliardo says, "Dressing well doesn't have to be expensive. All you need is imagination."

But occasions arise, even in Buffalo, when cutoffs and baseball caps just don't belong. Curtain Up! this weekend. Court. Church. Dining out.

Clothes have a peculiar power. Look at Chippewa Street, where barring baggy pants and do-rags made crime fall. Or Highgate Heights Elementary School, with its new uniform policy. One kid there told The News happily, "It looks like a private school."

Dressing up a bit might not lower taxes or save libraries.

But it would probably make us look and feel a little bit better.

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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