Dress to Dis

It's nearly 1:00 a.m., and the Sunday-night party at Pearl (1 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach) is only just beginning. Pretty young blond women escorted by older men in suits or white half-buttoned shirts line a wall fitted with a fish tanklike contraption filled with champagne, bubbles racing to the top in a dizzying, endless stream. The waitresses and bartenders wear orange custom-tailored flight attendant-style dresses featuring round peek-a-boo cut-outs showing lots of cleavage; the hems are just short enough that when they lean forward, butt cheeks show.

The more discriminating sister to the famous Nikki Beach downstairs, Pearl boasts a champagne bar that could break an average Joe in a single pop; its magnum bottle of Roederer Cristal carries a $3000 price tag. But then Joe Average is not a name you'll find on this restaurant/club's guest list. Try Paris, Madonna, or Naomi instead.

Working people do sneak in here. But — like the stars — they need to impress with their threads. Take Melissa, a petite South Beach resident in her midtwenties, who on this night sports a blue tank top with a skull-and-serpent print on the front and a pirate ship on the back.

"It's an Ed Hardy," she tells me. She says she bought it for $70.

Her jeans?

"Frankie B. About $250," she says. "They're the only jeans I buy, because they're the only ones that fit my butt, seeing as I don't have one." She does a little turn. Yep, it's flat.

"When it comes to clothing, I'll try anything," she says before running away with a gal pal.

Inside the main party room, a small runway becomes a stage for two club dancers, the most striking of the pair a tall, model-thin woman with jet-black hair, high-heel boots, and an ultrashort, tiny black flower print dress that reveals butt-squeezing panties, red garters, and matching fishnet stockings. The same runway is extended to host Friday-night fashion shows featuring local artists, says Jason Vernau, the blond, blue-eyed club fashion director.

José, a 23-year-old personal assistant and Delano (1685 Collins Ave., Miami Beach) employee, watches the antics, his back against the bar. He's wearing a shirt I recognize from many South Beach clothing stores as, yes, another Ed Hardy. The price?

"One forty," says the newly transplanted California native, his face turning a little green. It's ostensibly a plain T-shirt with an eagle and an American flag printed on the front. He says he feels pressure to buy higher-priced gear here. Miami style seems to be more "chic-y" than Los Angeles, he says — defining the word as "classy but refined" when I press him.

"I think it's more materialistic than back home," he says. "I see a lot of people in big labels. I would never pay so much money for clothes back home, but here it's like the fad."

I ask him to take a look around and point out anyone rocking a look that's just horrendous.

He leans back, ponders, and then answers, "I think everyone looks fine. Except that girl over there."

He points subtly to a long-haired brunet in an astoundingly short black dress, a low white belt, white shoes, and white hoop earrings. "That dress looks nasty. It's tacky, shows no class, and if I had a girlfriend and she went to a club like that, I would be done with her. Besides the fact that you can see all her freaking panties popping out everywhere."

He is not exaggerating. The dress looks like a high school wrestling uniform minus the crotch.

I ask what compelled her to put together this ensemble.

"Matching is my life," says Jessica, an FIU student. "Tonight it's all about black and white. I don't need labels. I wear whatever looks good, as long as it matches. I even have a white handbag tonight," she says, extracting it from under a table to show me. "The other key to my wardrobe is 'sexy.' My ass is just supposed to be showing. Sexy classy. Well, classy minus the ass-showing part."

Outside on the back patio, one man stands out from the rest. He looks like a cross between P. Diddy and an astronaut, in a bright white jacket, silver cargo pants, sunglasses, and silver Chuck Taylor high-tops. His name is Mario, he's 26, and he's an Italian visiting Miami for the first time.

"I dress as I feel," he says. "Every time different. I mix expensive with casual. This jacket is from a suit from Napoli. It costs together about 2000 American dollars. These," he continues, pointing to the pants, "just seventy. That's Italian style." When I ask him if he's worried about ruining his beautiful white jacket on the dance floor or in the bar, he says, "No. If gets dirty, I must clean."

Downstairs at the door, fashion director Jason has a few things to say about club trends. So what's hot right now, Jason?

"True Religion, Cavalli, Joystick, D&G — but not as much as they used to be — Fender, Soul Revival, Giuseppe, Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Nason, Aldo, Dior, Miu Miu, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, La Perla ..." the list goes on. "Tonight I'm wearing Antik Denim jeans, which would normally cost $300, but I shop on eBay," he laughs. "I can't spend $300 on jeans."

He hands me his card and tells me to call him with "any more questions, or if you would like some consulting for your own fashion needs."

I blush, looking down at my plain brown tiny-tee (a Ross find), my thrift-store suede skirt, and Liz Claiborne shoes, which, true to their price, have been killing me all evening. Wonder if he has any advice on finding a wide high heel for less than 50 bucks that can survive more than three outings without deteriorating into a useless, painful torture device?

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Camille Lamb Guzman is a journalist who writes on wellness, travel, and culture. She is also finishing a book of creative nonfiction.