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Is Anchorage really a fashion crime scene?

Andrew Halcro
Travis Zuber, "adult beverage enthusiast," Tap Root. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Karen King, President and CEO, Nerland Agency. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Adrian Dangeli, Swiss cabinet maker. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Alonna Pfeiger, account supervisor, left, and Roland Adams, senior art director, Nerland Agency. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Sara Jorgensen, engineer. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Ellen Arvold, owner, and Taylor Lee, store manager, Second Run. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
10-year-old Rowan Wiese, tree climber, Tap Root. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Lyndsey Kleppin, geologist and retired birthday party clown. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Ashley Munson, "Supreme Princess of Purchasing" at Her Tern Boutique. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Charles Perry, Nome gold dredger. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Emily Lanzel, dentist. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kris Swanson, app developer & renaissance man. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Caz Tomaszewski, server at Tap Root. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
James Eskridge, bouncer at Tap Root. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Sarah Yates, server at Tap Root. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Brian Adams, photographer. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Phillip Blanchett, musician at Pamyua. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Brett Renfro, "Style Virtuoso" at Her Tern Boutique. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Valori Gianni, assistant manager, Blush Boutique. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Rebecca Mohlman, proprietor, Tap Root. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Colleen Cronin, account supervisor at Nerland Agency. May 31, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

This week Travel & Leisure magazine released their list of the worst dressed people in America, and low and behold Anchorage took home first prize. For men, this shouldn’t be a surprise as the only thing that remotely resembles an apricot scarf in our hometown is the apricot dried fruit mix at REI.

And so it goes.

In Anchorage, men have entertained a long history of fashion aversion. Alaskan men don't cotton to those Outside fancy pants fashionistas. Alaskan men fancy themselves as Don Quixote more than Don Draper. They’d rather crew on a crab boat then shop at J.Crew. They’d rather work in the coal mines than shop at Kenneth Cole. And Macy’s? The only mace in this town is used on animals.

Sure there are exceptions, but for the most part Alaskan men are rugged individualists who opt for baggy sweats, big parkas and Columbia boots. We take pride in parading around public places in our over sized sports jerseys (who knew so many Eli Mannings lived in Anchorage) and the closest thing to fine footwear in our closets are represented by the pair of least scuffed tennis shoes.

But there is more to the story than just rugged individualism. Dressing down, down, down has become a cultural phenomenon in Anchorage that can be seen clearly through the eyes of travelers.

A few years ago, Elise Patkotak wrote a hilarious blog about traveling to and from Alaska. She recognized that the further East she went on the airline route map, the more she felt out of place with her fashion sense. But on the flip side, she knew when she was getting closer to home from the warm feeling she received by like dressed individuals.

"As I travel back to Alaska, I immediately know when I’m getting close to home because suddenly everyone is dressed like me. I am back among my people, the ones who understand that boots are more than a fashion statement and should always be preceded by the word “bunny.” ElisePatkotak.com 12/18/08

While practicality and function do play a role in the fashion choices we make, we're not all commercial fisherman plying our craft in 15-foot swells, electrical linemen trying to reconnect our neighbors to the grid in freezing temperatures or roughnecks who just got off shift from the North Slope. 

I know, details ... details.

The one glaring example of those perpetuating the silly notion that in order to be a real Alaskan you have to commit to being lost in the Bermuda triangle of fashion on a raft filled with Carhartts, are some of the very people who ask us to trust them: politicians.

On Nov. 28, 2009 Anchorage Daily News columnist Julia O’Malley wrote about the narcotic-like addiction with politicos and their Carhartts come election season. "The Carhartt jacket is never an accident in Alaska politics. It's a device. An everyman costume. Once in a while a city politician pulls one out to seem authentic to people off the road system," O’Malley brilliantly observed.

Bravo sister ... a bloody well deserved bravo!

Why is it in a state that screams rugged individualism, many including our politicos are like fashion lemmings? The campaign literature is always the same. A plethora of candidate photos catching fish, standing by their bear kill or donning a bulky snowsuit sitting on their snowmobile. All of them trying to scream to voters, “I’m a real Alaskan.”

It would be nice if just one "everyman" would say he prefers a navy blazer to a Chevrolet Blazer. Instead it all comes down to who has the most worn outer gear.

This cynical viewpoint I've adopted hasn't come about recently. 

I’ve grown up in Anchorage for the last 47 years. Before oil, before live football games aired on Sundays and heaven forbid before Permanent Fund Dividend checks littered our mailboxes.

I grew up in Anchorage when a bike trek to the Qwik Stop at Lake Otis Parkway and Tudor Road was the equivalent of traversing the Klondike trail. In fact I've lived in Alaska longer than most politicians currently seeking political office in this state ... and I've never, never owned a pair of bunny boots or Carhartts.

A few years ago during a gubernatorial debate, one of my opponents said she'd like to dress me in Carhartts and Xtratuffs. Thanks but no thanks I immediately thought. I spent my entire teenage life washing and de-icing rental cars in the most unfriendly weather conditions known to man and survived just fine without them.

Some might call that a wardrobe malfunction, I call it a badge of honor.

Back in my misspent days of youth, I was at the fashion mercy of my parental units that included more than my fair share of various colored Sears Toughskins and Asic Tiger knockoffs. Growing up with three older sisters, they always had great fashion taste, but they also possessed economic independence that allowed them to escape the fashion nightmare I used to call school clothes shopping. As DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince once sang, “My mom said what’s wrong this shirt cost twenty dollars? I said Mom the shirt is plaid with a butterfly collar.”

So the minute I cashed my first paycheck as a car washer at First Federal Savings & Loan, I entered into a realm where I could control my own sartorial splendor and no longer be subjected to the fashion dictates of others. In doing so I forever walked away from the chains that seem to bind fashion sense in Anchorage.

The childhood fashion scars I suffered and my subsequent fashion jailbreak, resulted in me growing to love Cole Haan instead of Cabella. I'd rather own a Hugo Boss than an Arctic Cat and the Brooks Range doesn't hold the same appeal as Brooks Brothers.    

And while Elise Patkotak's observation about fashion comfort being determined by the ratio of distance from home, my predicament is that it applies in the inverse. The further East I travel in the country, the more comfortable I feel in my own clothes. Alarming as it may seem, sometimes I have to fly all the way to Chicago before I can find myself seated in the same aisle as someone wearing a sport coat that doesn't have the words Green Bay Packers emblazoned on it.   

It's far from snobbish let me assure you.

Judging from my life as a "real Alaskan," how long I've lived in this state, and how many miles I've logged from one end of the state to the other for both business and politics, I've more than earned the right to wear my loafers in the winter. I’ve also earned the right to wear a wool scarf tied in a Parisian knot.

The bottom-line: for a state that screams, preaches and promotes individualism, why do we insist on all looking the same? Maybe this is why Travel and Leisure readers named Anchorage as the worst dressed city in the United States.

But it doesn’t have to be this way my fellow Alaskan brothers.

Here are ten tips to improve your fashion sense without breaking the bank.

1. Don’t wear your Eli Manning jersey outside of your man cave unless you’re trotting onto the field with the rest of the New York Giants.

2. Do own a navy blazer. This is a classic, will always be in style and can be worn with just about every color of slacks and even looks good over Khakis or jeans.

3. Don’t buy yellow or orange dress shirts unless you're the West Anchorage High School mascot or you work at Hot Dog on a Stick. Colors like white, light blue or ecru will be more suitable for most neckwear choices.

4. Do own one good suit, preferably navy or black. There is always going to be some event that the Mrs. will drag you to, so at least enter the room looking like you own the place.

5. Do own a good pair of dress shoes. Spend the extra twenty spot buying a pair of cedar shoe trees which will help keep their shape and absorb the moisture after a day of wearing.

6. Do invest the three bucks to buy a shoeshine sponge to keep your kicks looking new. It takes all of about ten seconds to give a quick shine to your shoes before you leave the house.

7. Don’t wear ties the same color as your shirt. The monochromatic look pioneered by Regis Philbin a decade ago is dead.

8. Do dry clean your blazer or suit regularly and keep it hung on a wooden hangar to retain the shape. Nothing worse than having a nice looking suit appear as if you just dug it out of the hamper.

9. Don’t leave the house with your necktie looking like you just ate at Red Lobster and forgot to take off the bib. The bottom of the tie should always cover your belt buckle. And no huge gold plated belt buckles that can double as a serving tray.

And finally … don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re in a fashion quandary. The nice people who work in menswear are trained to put together an affordable look without you having to drop a week’s salary. If that doesn't work, you can always email me for advice.  

Now if you'll excuse me, all of this talk about fashion do's and don'ts is bringing back traumatic memories of double knit reversible slacks and moon boots.

Here’s to next year. With your commitment to style, maybe we can move up the rankings.

Andrew Halcro is the publisher of AndrewHalcro.com, a blog devoted to Alaska issues and politics, where this commentary first appeared. He is president of Halcro Strategies and Avis/Alaska Rent-A-Car, his family business. Halcro served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1999 to 2003, and he ran for governor in 2006 as an Independent.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.