By Jason McDowell Creative Director Published Nov 17, 2008 at 10:29 AM Photography: Jason McDowell

Class and decadence.

If there is an economic recession it was hard to notice at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Annual Fashion Gala highlighting the works of Peggy Jennings, which was held at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

The smooth white hall was illuminated with trendy blue and red spotlights and every table was precisely decorated with candles and flowers. Artistic scaffolding towers were topped with what appeared to be over-sized, inflatable urchins or some kind of abstract flame.

The VIP room was decked with vintage furniture from the 70s, free-form amoeba tables, dusty blue couches, and vintage television sets playing experimental video sitting atop creatively colored stands. The only thing missing from these kitschy, decorative furnishings was the burnt orange shag carpeting.

Marcus Doucette from 88.9 Radio Milwaukee was DJing with his perfect mix of chill, exotic beats. Servers carried tiny hors d'oeuvres that fit perfectly on the tiny plates provided and mini mixed cocktails in their individually portioned glasses. There was also an open bar with enthusiastic bar tenders on hand to concoct the drink of your desires. I tried some wine called L de Lyeth Cabernet Sauvignon. It had bit of a bite, but that's as "Sideways" as I can get with wine.

On top of the pricey entrance fee (somewhere between $200 and $1500 dollars depending on your seat), a silent auction featured hundred-dollar ties, pricey spa excursions, and personal musicians. There was also a live auction, hosted by Milwaukee movie-star Mark Metcalf, for a set of finely designed clothes, luxurious trips to New York, and weekend getaways in pricey cars.

Perhaps this is where signs of the slowed economy felt the most present. The auction proceeded slowly and the crowd was talkative and uninterested. A weekend in a Maserati only brought in $2500 and bidders were looking for deals; one even asked that a dinner date with Metcalf be included.

When attending a runway show there is action beyond the strip. The attendees become a fashion show in themselves. Each person who walks through the door gives their own performance in their best sense of style. The floor provided ample evidence that it doesn't matter how much you spend on an outfit, you just have to own it. Brightly colored dresses. Finely groomed moustaches. The highest and pointiest of heels. Frilly blouses. And, of course, the little black dress which will reliably weather any outrageous trend.

And that was something I didn't see on the runway: outrageous trends. Once the show started I was struck by how very plain the first few outfits were. There were a lot of pencil skirts, micro-patterns and blazers. My companion agreed that they were "so conservative my mother would wear every last one of these." Perhaps we should consider this mission accomplished.'s Friday preview article mentioned this show was "exceptionally appropriate because it's an election year" and the styles certainly seemed to say "Presidential chic."

The next set of memorable outfits were cut just as conservative and sported large, colorful flower prints. A business casual blazer with a lacy skirt followed. It was several outfits in before I started seeing anything remotely daring.

One of my favorites was a brown, layered, gauzy leopard print dress. Because each layer was partially translucent the radical animal-spotted pattern was downplayed, mute, taking it from tacky to sexy. A couple dresses later the same pattern re-emerged, this time with a pink Jackie O blazer. Another favorite was an orange and white sherbet sunflower pattern that looked like it was ripped from a curtain from the 70s.

Of course this intense display of haute couture was all put together for the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, a fine institution that Milwaukeeans should not be shy of supporting, whether it be $15 or $1500. The group is critically acclaimed and it's hard to imagine not being able to make it to one of their 120 annual performances. 

Jason McDowell Creative Director

Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.

In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.

Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.