BY JODI S. COHEN AND MAEGAN CARBERRY
CHICAGO - (KRT) - Before visiting the White House, Kate Darmody thought carefully about her outfit. She bought a dress from Ann Taylor. She put on a strand of white pearls.
And then she slipped on flip-flops to meet the president. So did about half her teammates from the national championship Northwestern University women's lacrosse team, invited to the White House on Tuesday after a 21-0 season.
She didn't think twice about the footwear until she got an email - in all capital letters - from her brother. "YOU WORE FLIP FLOPS TO THE WHITE HOUSE????!!!!" he wrote after checking out the picture on the team's Web site.
Aly Josephs' mother had the same reaction after seeing her daughter in the front row of the photo - five players away from the president - wearing brown suede flip-flops with a skirt, sleeveless top and matching beaded jewelry.
"Don't even ask me about the flip-flops," her mother said when a reporter began asking her about the picture. "As somebody who is 52 years old, it mortified me. I don't go out of the house without pantyhose on."
Twenty and 30-somethings pair flip-flops with everything from shorts to cocktail dresses, the thongs acceptable (at least to them) at work and at clubs. For their moms, the shoes were meant for the beach.
One of the hottest trends this summer, flip-flops are no longer a dime-store purchase, with some costing several hundred dollars. They come flat and with wedge heels. They have rhinestones and sequins and flowers. The straps are made of terry-cloth and leather.
But in today's more laid-back society, is there a distinction between ratty old flip-flops and ones from Neiman Marcus? Can they be worn at the White House, arguably the most formal setting in the United States?
Shoe expert Meghan Cleary, author of "The Perfect Fit: What your Shoes Say About You," says no. In her book's chapter on flip-flops, where she weighs whether "to flip-flop, or not to flip-flop" in particular occasions, she would add a White House visit to the later category.
"For me, flip-flops are just not for a formal occasion," Cleary said. "But meeting the president, maybe this really speaks more to the worldwide acceptance of the flip-flop."
The Northwestern Wildcats lacrosse team members, however, dressed in skirts and dresses, thought nothing of it. Of the nine women in the front row with the president, four wore flip-flops. The rest wore heeled sandals.
"Nobody was wearing old beach flip-flops," explained Josephs, 20, who wore $16 brown, flat flip-flops with rhinestones, one of about 15 pairs in her closet.
"I tried to think of something that would go well with my outfit and at the same time not be that uncomfortable. But at the same time not disrespect the White House," said Darmody, 22, who decided on a wedge-heel flip-flop. She said that from May to September, "that is all I have on my feet all the time."
The teammates, and their athletic director, commented several times that it was actually the University of Michigan softball team - dressed in khaki shorts, polo shirts and sneakers - that was way underdressed.
"I would have felt out of place if that was what I was wearing," said Darmody, a midfielder on the lacrosse team.
But etiquette experts generally thought the flip-flops were also out of place.
"Many people are confused nowadays about when an occasion calls for dressing more formally. I'd say meeting a world leader is one of those occasions," said Charles Purdy, who writes the "Dear Social Grace" column in the San Francisco Weekly. Lesley Carlin, co-author of "Things You Need to be Told," said wearing flip-flops to the White House is a "huge no-no."
"You see them a lot more, but I've heard a lot of people remarking, `Those belong at the beach and not at the office.' It may be widespread, but not necessarily acceptable."
Even Joe Guidry, a salesperson at the upscale Stuart Weitzman store in Chicago, said he wouldn't advise women to wear the company's $150 flip-flops to the White House.
"Meeting the President? I personally wouldn't wear them," he said.
White House spokeswoman Erin Healy wouldn't comment on whether the White House has a dress code. Soon after President Bush took office, he suggested that men should wear a tie in the Oval Office, and staffers reportedly do not wear jeans in the West Wing.
Ann Stock, who was Hillary Clinton's social secretary, said that while there was no written dress code for White House guests, "people who visit the White House know they're going to a very special place and that one should dress appropriately. And people do."
Meanwhile, Nancy Reagan's social secretary, Muffie Brandon, was aghast to discover that some female staffers routinely wore flip-flops to work in hot weather. "We do not wear clogs at the White House," she said.
Josephs' mother, Lydia, said her daughter's freshly-pedicured toes were the first thing she noticed when she saw the picture.
"I called her up and screamed at the message machine, `How could you go to the White House in flip-flops,'" she recalled. "She said, `Mom, it didn't matter. Everybody was wearing flip-flops' ... she couldn't understand what I was asking."
So was Tom Darmody, 38, who emailed his sister after seeing the picture.
"I was a little taken aback, to say the least," said Darmody, an attorney, who admitted he might be jealous as his feet sweated in socks and leather shoes. "You are two people away from the leader of the most powerful country in the free world and you're wearing flip flops?"