A Milwaukee truism: If the tux fits, wear it. Unless there's a pair of shorts within reach.

The store’s name, Academy Award Clothes, only added to its charm. Because the warehouse-like interior, rows of discount duds and proximity to LA’s Skid Row all made it clear that Oscar contenders did not shop here.

But my stylish mother, who has a great eye for deals, did. And this day in the summer of 1987, she had an eye on a particularly LA outfit for my then-teenaged self: a tuxedo.

I GREW UP in Los Angeles. My folks still live there. It’s exotic for them that they have a son who now lives in Central time.

And somehow my hometown has become exotic to me. Growing up, my impression of LA style was anything goes. Whatever would take you into the surf, down the sidewalk, up the red carpet. You could dress way up – which was my mom’s plan for me at Academy Award Clothes – or you could dress way down.

But that was then. On a recent swing home, I visited Warner Brothers Studios. An old high school friend had offered a behind-the-scenes tour. Because it was 85 in the shade, I jumped into some shorts, running shoes and a Brewers tee. When I arrived, he looked at me, concerned. “Shorts?” he said.

He reassured me there wasn’t a dress code. But I quickly realized there was a pecking order, and shorts put you lower on it. Shorts meant you were stage crew, or a tourist. The more you mattered, the more you wore.

ONE OF THE (many) things I like about Milwaukee is that it’s hard to do clothing wrong here, with the obvious exceptions: Cubs hat at a Brewers game, Bears shirt anywhere. Otherwise you can dress up or down as much as you like. In summer especially, “be comfortable” seems the rule. Shorts are always welcome, even if the occasional temperature plunges lakeside aren’t.

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And so, too, tuxedos. I no longer recall why it had been determined that long-ago afternoon that I needed a tux. I didn’t ask. My mother has style. I did not. I was 19. God knows how I’d gotten that far in life without a tuxedo.

We found one. Nothing fancy, if you can say that about a tux. And you can, if it’s cut conservatively – no frills or wide lapels here – and made of 100 percent unnamed but clearly artificial fabric. Into the closet it went.

AND THERE IT STAYED for nearly two decades, largely untouched, until my wife, daughters and I moved to Milwaukee 12 years ago.

This is no one’s black tie capital. But it’s a town that likes a good time, and again, doesn’t really care what you wear so long as you don’t do anything halfway. Like cheese? Wear a massive triangular hunk as a hat. Own a tux? Wear it to your daughter’s softball game. Which I have. To clarify: it was “Senior Day.” I was the emcee. But when the next game came and I wasn’t wearing the tux, people asked, why not?

Good question. In short, I’ve decided, if the tux fits, wear it. And as long as I don’t button the jacket and no one looks too closely at the pants, it does fit. What’s more, it fits every occasion: I’m judging a children’s public speaking contest at the bookstore? Tux. Fundraiser for the elementary school? Tux. Father-daughter dance? Tux. So what if it’s not wool? Moths don’t like it. Everyone else does.

Oddly, one place I’ve never worn that tux is LA. The Academy Awards has yet to call. But when they do, I know just what I’ll wear, and with true Milwaukee pride: shorts.

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Liam Callanan’s third novel, Paris By the Book, was published in April. He is an associate professor of English at UW-Milwaukee

“Dressing the Part” appears in the July 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 2nd, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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