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Dressed for Access

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It wasn't hard to spot Brad Ellis: He was the guy standing outside Station Square's Whim nightclub on a recent chilly Saturday night -- wearing a Baltimore Ravens hat and a T-shirt that said, "You bet your sweet ass I hate Pittsburgh." 

But it wasn't his Steelers-bashing garb that kept the 26-year-old Baltimore native from getting through the club's doors, from which the pulsing beat of Usher's 2004 hit "Yeah!" was blaring. 

"You can't wear work boots," the bouncer said, pointing at Ellis' tan Timberlands. 

"That's crazy," Ellis said, ducking out of the line. "I don't know why they do that."

Such confrontations happen every night at Pittsburgh bars, where dress codes are often a point of confusion and contention.

Because the codes tend to weigh against fashion favored by many young black men like Ellis -- baggy clothing, plain white T-shirts, hoodies and boots -- some bar-goers say they are racist. But are they really? Bar owners and bouncers flatly deny it. And while dress codes seem simple -- a list of rules taped to a bar's front door -- enforcing them is more complicated than it might seem. As a bar-hopping City Paper reporter recently learned, in fact, the policies are anything but black-and-white. 

 

In Pittsburgh, dress codes are most frequently found in the club-hopping districts of Station Square, the Strip District and the South Side. While the bars and clubs themselves come and go, their dress codes are remarkably consistent. 

South Side's Diesel, for example, prohibits patrons from wearing "excessively baggy clothing," "athletic wear," "hoodies," "long shirts," "jerseys," "camouflage" and "head wear." Similarly, Whim bans hoodies, athletic jerseys and hats, along with "plain white T-shirts" and "Timberland work boots." Nearby Bar Room, meanwhile, has a dress code with almost the same wording as the other two, banning "excessively baggy clothing" along with jerseys and camo. 

Such restrictions prompt suspicion, in no small part because such attire is widely popular with black males.

"I think the purpose is basically to keep black people out," says ChaRon White, a local hip-hop artist who is black. "There's no other explanation for it."

The policies may seem straightforward, he adds, but it's the enforcement he wonders about. White recalls an occasion more than a year ago, in which he and a friend were stopped at the door of a now-defunct Strip District club for wearing Timberland boots and sneakers. As they argued with the bouncer, White recalls, "a couple of white guys walked out wearing sneakers and white T-shirts," both of which were also banned by the dress code. 

"You can never sit down with some of these venue owners and ask them, 'What's your agenda?'" White says. "It leaves you guessing, and it leads you to assume, is it a racial thing?"

"If your policy says 'No hats or sneakers,' it should be no hats or sneakers for everybody," agrees Tremaine Thompson, a black 26-year-old from Lawrenceville who has also run afoul of dress codes. "It shouldn't be just a selective crowd."

Thompson, a local concert promoter, is practically a poster child for what dress codes exclude: He favors white T-shirts, baggy pants, hats and Timberland boots.

"I went to a bar on Route 51, and when I got there [the bouncer] was like, 'You can't wear white tees,'" Thompson recalls. After being denied, he says he called his friend who was already waiting for him inside. "I was like, 'I'm about to leave. I can't wear a white T-shirt.' When she came out, she was like, 'Are you serious? There's like 100 white boys in there with plain white tees.'"

Bar owners categorically reject claims of racism, though few who were contacted by City Paper wanted to discuss the matter publicly. 

One exception was John Teleha, who manages three Station Square venues: Bar Room, SteelHouse and Saddle Ridge. All have the same dress code barring baggy clothes, athletic wear, boots and other items.

"I can't speak for anybody else, but here, the dress code is not racist," says Teleha. "It's not made to keep black people out." He notes that his clubs are frequently patronized by blacks, and says it's "ridiculous" to think he'd want to drive them away.

"The dress code thing is tough" to explain, he says. "It's a battle." But it's one he's willing to fight.

When running a club, Teleha says, "You want to have a certain image in there. You want everybody to look nice. ... Have a good time, but don't look like a bum."

Other bar owners cite safety as a concern. One South Side club owner, who spoke only on condition that he not be named, expressed concern that baggy clothing could be used to sneak in weapons and liquor. "You don't know who's bringing in what," he says.

Violence is a real problem. In recent years, the Strip District experienced a spate of shootings inside and near its nightclubs, including two shootings in a three-week period of 2006. The South Side has become increasingly chaotic, with two late-night stabbings within a block of the East Carson Street main drag, and a shooting just outside Town Tavern this summer. 

Despite such incidents, Lt. Shirley Sloan, acting commander for the city's Zone 3 police station, has doubts about whether dress codes prevent violence. "I don't see how [the policies] would change anything," she says. "If you're going to tell me to wear tight clothes, I'm going to bring a girl and stick [a weapon] in her purse."

Still, Justin Strong, who owns Shadow Lounge and AVA in East Liberty, says he can understand why clubs try to protect the image they've built. 

"If I have a whole bunch of people over the age of 60 coming in with corduroy blazers, I'd be like, 'Dang, they're messing up what people are thinking of the Shadow Lounge!'" he says, half-jokingly. "So no corduroy blazers, and I'm going to make my music loud." Other clubs owners, meanwhile, may say, "I want what I see on Jersey Shore. I don't want to see a whole bunch of black dudes in there with hats and pants down.'"

Strong himself has experimented with dress codes, having hosted a networking event called First Fridays Pittsburgh from early 2009 through this past July. The event, which targeted urban professionals, banned baggy clothing and sneakers -- prompting anger from regulars who suddenly couldn't get into their favorite spot. 

"It became too much BS for us," says Strong, who found it especially difficult to determine when clothes were excessively baggy. "It was just too hard to enforce." 

Elsewhere, meanwhile, that job is left to bouncers. 

"A lot of black guys get upset," agrees a South Side bouncer who also requested anonymity. "But it's not a racial thing. I've turned down as many white dudes as black dudes.

"People who don't fit the dress code are usually the guys starting problems," he adds, but "[i]t's so not racial. If it's a skinny, preppy guy like you, and you wear a white tee, you're not getting in."

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I figured I'd give it a try. And I enlisted Charon White's help. 

On a Saturday night last month, we both visited Station Square. I wore a white tee with baggy wide-leg jeans three sizes too big, sneakers and a backward cap; White wore baggy jeans, a white T-shirt, hat and an oversized black hoodie.

Starting at 11:30 p.m., we visited three Station Square clubs. At one, I was waved in after a quick ID scan. White, meanwhile, was told he had to lose the hoodie. At a second club, we were both admitted -- but while I was able to walk in with my hat still on, White was told to check his inside. 

And at one club, I was refused admittance entirely -- "No white tees, buddy," the bouncer told me -- while White was permitted after tucking in a chain hanging from his pants.

"They actually let me in!" White said minutes later. "That's shocking." 

Afterward, White said he was confused by the seemingly random enforcement. While he still suspects that racism plays a part in how the code is enforced, he later admitted, "I didn't really know how to take it" when he got into a club where I was denied. 

Still, he wondered whether things would have been different had he gone out with a group of friends. "[The bouncer's] not going to look at one person as a big problem."

Or maybe he would. 

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On a separate occasion, I toured East Carson Street wearing the same clubbing outfit I had on in Station Square. Early in the evening, from 8-9:30 p.m., all five bars I visited were nearly empty, and I had no trouble entering any of them, despite violating their dress codes. But as the night progressed and the bars began to fill, my luck began to change. When I visited the same five bars between 10:30 and 11 p.m., I was denied admittance to one bar, and told to remove my hat at another.  

Teleha, the Station Square club manager, agrees that enforcement varies depending on the time of day, the night's entertainment and the bouncer. For example, while SteelHouse doesn't allow sweats, it's a sports bar, and exceptions can be made during sporting events.

"Some of my [bouncers] aren't as stringent as other guys," he says. "Some guys are more lax, and they go, 'Oh, I know those guys. Yeah, they're a little bit baggy tonight, but those guys have been here before.'

"Are there some guys in our club on a Saturday or Friday night that maybe shouldn't be in here?" Teleha adds. "Yeah, there are probably a few. If you went to every point in the dress code, you could say 'no.'"

But from a bouncer's perspective, a patron's clothing isn't the only factor.

"Their demeanor could determine if I like this person and let them in the club," says Nate Mosey, who has worked as a bouncer in Station Square and elsewhere. 

"When I look at somebody, I have a good sense of them at the door," adds Mosey. Customers who give him a lot of attitude, or are cursing in line with friends, are more likely to be picked off for violating the dress code. But if they look a bouncer in the eye and hand over their ID politely, Mosey says, he's more likely to overlook a violation. 

"I know I shouldn't be judging," says Mosey, who is black, "but I have the right to do it."

Still, some patrons say it's the lack of consistency that makes dress codes so infuriating. 

"I've gone into a bar with a group of people, gone out to use my phone and not been able to get back in," says Ryan Cassidy, a local music artist. "It's priceless."

Once, Cassidy says, he was denied re-entry at a South Side bar. "'What do you mean I can't come back in here?'" he recalls asking the bouncer, who denied him for wearing a T-shirt with profanity on the back. "'I was already in there. My tab was open!'"

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Cassidy, who is white, doesn't think dress codes are racist: He recalls one visit where a bouncer hassled him for baggy clothing when a black patron wearing baggier clothes walked out of the bar. But he says other demographic factors do play a part. For example, he says, it doesn't hurt to arrive with ladies in tow. 

"Ten guys? 'We're full,'" he says, mimicking a bouncer. "Ten girls? 'Keep 'em coming.'"

Sometimes customers can use that to their advantage. 

Brandon Connor, a black 29-year-old Lawrenceville resident, says he once went to a South Side club to celebrate a friend's birthday. By the time he got there, he says, more than a dozen female friends of his were already inside the bar. But the bouncer refused Connor entry because he didn't comply with the dress code. 

"When I called [my friends] and he saw all those people coming back out of the club, then he decided to let me in," Connor recalls. "He saw money leaving."

The group left anyway, he adds.

Thompson says bouncers sometimes bend the rules once you waive a few bucks in front of them. "I go to a place, and they're like 'No hats,'" he says. Miming as if he's flipping through bills, Thompson continues, "'Can I come in now with my hat?' And he'll be like, 'Alright, cool.'"

 

Charles Morrison, director of Pittsburgh's Commission on Human Relations, says it's "scary" to think that bouncers have so much power to decide who gets in or out.

The law allows bars and clubs to institute dress codes -- unless "those who crafted the policy have an intent to limit or restrict [admittance to] a particular group of people. If they're going to put [a dress code] in place, it has to be applied uniformly."

In other cities, the failure to do so has resulted in lawsuits. Last October, a media firestorm ensued when students from Washington University, in St. Louis, complained of uneven enforcement by a bar in Chicago. The students had organized a senior class trip to the city, with a stop at a popular nightclub there. But while nearly 200 white students were admitted to the bar, six black classmates were denied entrance by a bouncer -- supposedly for having baggy jeans. 

The students, some of whom had gotten in wearing even baggier jeans, decided to conduct an experiment. They had a white student, who'd already been admitted to the bar, exchange jeans with one of the black students. Again, the white student was admitted and the black student was denied. A civil-rights lawsuit ensued, though it was later settled after the bar issued a public apology, provided sensitivity training to its managers and participated in an anti-discrimination rally.

In Pittsburgh, city law does prohibit discrimination on the basis of race. Morrison's commission is in charge of investigating complaints of alleged discrimination in employment, housing, public accommodations and civil-rights practices. 

"I have no doubt that sometimes these dress codes are created for excluding certain types of people," he says. 

Even so, it's been roughly eight years since the commission received a formal complaint alleging racist enforcement of a bar's dress code. And in that case, investigators concluded the policy did not target blacks.

Such discrimination can be hard to prove in any case, Morrison says. "Unless somebody admits, 'We wrote this policy because we don't want those people here,' it's difficult to show intent." After all, he notes, fashion is "cross-cultural," with blacks and whites often wearing similar attire. 

That's true, agrees Brian Brick, whose hip-hop clothing store, East Liberty's Time Bomb Spot, sells urban apparel to blacks, whites, Asians -- you name it. But that doesn't make being excluded from a club any easier. 

"[Bars] are hating on the people who wear our clothes," says Brick, who is white. "I've seen bouncers refuse people that have spent a lot of money at my store."

The hip-hop look simply "became popular," agrees Strong, the owner of Shadow Lounge and AVA. But "When a certain style becomes popular by a certain group of people that doesn't fit [a bar's] brand image ... it's easier for them to say, 'No white tees, no Timberlands, because that's what you have on."

But the price for that will almost certainly continue to be confusion, allegations of racism and resentment of the almighty bouncer. After White and I parted ways at Station Square, for example, I watched from a bench as a dozen young men stumbled past, heading away from the bars to the east of the Smithfield Street Bridge. All were white, all were clearly drunk -- and all were clearly pissed off about the bar that had just denied them entry. 

"We can't get in for a fucking hat?" one of the guys yelled. To which a friend drunkenly screamed back: "I'll walk in naked!" 

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