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Aspen's Status Symbol du Jour: Plastic

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Credential season is here. Not sure? Just look at the person next to you.

With this weekend's Food & Wine Classic, the Aspen Music Festival & School less than two weeks from the start of its summer-long schedule, the Jazz Aspen June Festival revving its engine and the Aspen Ideas Festival just around the corner, the invasion of shiny laminates hanging on well-heeled, well-fixed necks all around town is in high gear.

In a slightly larger moneyed town -- Manhattan -- credentials became chic only after Sept. 11. Following the terrorist attacks in 2001, office buildings around New York strictly enforced security policies requiring employees to display proof of company and personal identification at all times while at work.

In Aspen, however, credentials aren't used for identification purposes so much as for social status verification. Credentials are worn not just while attending the events for which they've been printed but on the sidewalks outside the events, the sidewalks nowhere near the events, inside restaurants miles away from the events and while shopping at stores that have zero affiliation with the events. Credentials have replaced silicone breasts, golden retrievers and hybrid cars as the must-have accessories in Aspen.

To be fair, it's entirely possible that some people wear their credentials round-the-clock because they've planned their ensembles around them. Some may have chosen their outfits depending on the colors of the credentials. Others may have weighed whether to wear a polo, V-neck, scoop neck or button-down if lanyard chafing around the neck or on the sternum is a concern. Many may have accessorized accordingly, choosing not to wear necklaces or other upper-body jewelry so as to avoid having anything that could potentially block the names or access written on the laminates.

Analysts have yet to determine whether Aspen's winter -- with the World Cup ski races, Winter X Games and Aspen Film's Academy Screenings -- has meant better business for lanyard and plastic companies than the events of the summer season.

Of course, there are also the unofficial, nontraditional tourist credentials during the cold and warm weather. The presence of fur coats the week between Christmas and New Year's indicates people from both coasts have arrived. Cowboy hats usually signify the presence either of Texans or blondes or anyone looking for a little extra attention (or a combination of the three).

Hummers or other unnecessarily large, pricey SUVs or extra-small, midlife-crisis sports cars in bright colors generally denote the time of year has arrived when second- and fractional-home owners are in town for their annual 10-day stay. The single-day ski pass from 1992 still attached to the pocket zipper of the CB ski jacket whispers that value season has begun.

Then there are the informal local credentials -- the ones that scream, "I live here all year, bro." A ZG license plate. Bike and Thule racks on the backs and roofs of the Subarus and Jeeps. Permanent raccoon eyes. A picture on the wall at the Tavern. Calling the Tavern the Tavern without putting the Woody Creek in front of it and not feeling silly saying it -- like saying Ajax instead of Aspen. (Although the people who actually run the mountain -- Skico -- specifically make a point never to refer to Aspen Mountain as Ajax.)

Less clear is how many birth names match those on the official credentials worn. Nothing says, "I paid full price to be here because I didn't know anyone who would lend me their pass when they weren't using it" like wearing a credential with your actual name on it. Excepting the local media, of course -- their credentials may as well read, "Chances are you'll find no coverage anywhere of the event I'm attending, but that absolutely doesn't mean I won't enjoy your offer of free (pick one) food/wine/music/suggestions on how to save the world, one recyclable water bottle at a time."

At least Aspen's status symbol du jour doesn't require checkups with a plastic surgeon, a green poop bag in the hand of a responsible dog owner or a tank of gas at more than $4 a gallon in order to be maintained. A shiny new credential every once in a while seems to be enough to keep most people in Aspen happy.