Fashion at the State Fair is usually an oxymoron, but 4-H has a tradition of bringing home-grown style to the dressed-down fairgrounds.
It wasn't until she walked across the stage that Brittney Carlson got nervous.
All day long -- through the fitting, the choreography, the judging -- she'd been completely comfortable wearing the outfit she made: the red-wool jacket and coordinating dress. But this was it. This was her moment.
To an amped-up version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," she made her way to the microphone, flashed a smile at the crowd gathered in the 4-H Building and announced: "Brittney Carlson, Polk County," flashed another smile, then walked back to the line of girls and boys taking part in the 4-H Fashion Revue.
Within a few minutes, she'd know if weeks of work would win her a medal.
This wasn't the first time the 17-year-old and her homemade ensemble had been in the spotlight. Carlson, who's from the tiny town of Winger (population 205), had already won first place at the county level, which earned her a spot at the long-held, little-known state competition.
Since 1902, 4-H has had a prominent place at the Minnesota State Fair, even for city folk. No one's quite sure when the youth organization started including a fashion show, where students model outfits they made or bought. But for at least 85 years, accessorized ensembles and runway walks have been as much a part of 4-H as showing cows and shearing sheep.
Earlier in the day, Carlson and the other 37 contestants in Wednesday's event were dressed, pressed and waiting in line. Surrounded by other 4-Hers giving demonstrations about gun safety and Australian animals, they took their turns meeting one-on-one with one of several judges.
Their outfits are evaluated on a specific criteria -- from construction to fabric selection to accessories. The contestants themselves are judged on first impression, posture, poise, grooming and the fit of the garment.
Carlson was assigned to Debbie Kennedy, who had been involved with 4-H when she was growing up and has been judging off and on for 20 years. (Kennedy is married to former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy.)
Kennedy greeted Carlson and asked a series of questions, all of which Carlson answered politely and with a smile. Kennedy inspected Carlson's outfit and admired her technical skills, especially the hidden side zipper. She even paid Carlson a compliment.
"The highest compliment that you can get is: 'Is that store bought?'" said Kennedy.
Carlson strolled away from the small judges' table and back again, so Kennedy could judge the fit of the garment.
After about 10 minutes, Kennedy was done. But Carlson wouldn't find out how she had done for several hours.
After the judging, Carlson and the rest of the contestants regrouped onstage. Under the direction of Richard Moody, who calls himself "the Tyra Banks of 4-H," they practiced moving around the stage, adapting their choreography to the sets created for other 4-H shows.
Moody, who produces several fashion shows around the Twin Cities, has been involved in 4-H for 23 years.
"You watch them transform," he said of the contestants. "The kids come back year after year."
And while he knows the fashion shows don't garner as much interest as the horse shows, for him fashion is an important part of the fair. "As a city kid, it's not about cattle -- it's fashion. It's global."
The 4-H Fashion Revue, the first of four held this year, started at 6:30 p.m. sharp. By then, the rows of green benches and bleachers in front of the stage were mostly full.
The contestants took to the stage, walking through the turns they'd practiced, then stepped up to the microphone one by one to announce their names, their counties.
Four winners were announced. Carlson wasn't one of them. But seconds later, her name was called. She'd been given a special award for garments made of wool. As she made her way across the stage to collect her plaque, Carlson once again flashed her winning smile.
Sara Glassman • 612-673-7177