Sunday, September 03, 2006

Washington: A Style Capital?

By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Pantyhose. Pleated pants. Polo shirts with the collar turned up.

When it comes to things I hate about D.C. style, those are the P's.

I moved here from New York two years ago, and I knew I was entering a different world. I was coming from fashion-magazine land, and while I'd like to think that I'm not really a fashion person, let's be honest: I do take my jeans to the dry cleaner. I use words like "ruching" in everyday conversation. I have deeply entrenched opinions about the boot cut.

Shortly before I left New York, all nerves, anticipation and deep, gnawing doubt, one friend said brightly, "Just think -- there you'll be a really cool person." Um, thanks.

There are places where knowing a lot about fashion does make you feel cool. This is not one of them. Because, with some exceptions, people in Washington (cue collective intake of breath!) just don't care that much .

There were some early signs of this. Like the time I splurged on a delicately embroidered, staggeringly expensive Marc Jacobs cardigan. "I was at Old Navy this weekend, too!" said an acquaintance.

Or when I complained about finding pants long enough to suit my 6-foot-tall frame. A well-meaning (but, one can only hope, blind) co-worker responded, "Have you tried Lane Bryant?"

There's not much to say to comments such as these, unless you're comfortable with the sort of nickname I'm not allowed to print here.

But in time, you realize there are some wonderful things about living in a town where most people don't care that much about fashion.

For starters, they leave all the good stuff for you. In New York, you can get every last shrug, Ugg, bubble skirt, batwing top and trendy logoed handbag in the Western world. I'll be at the District's thrift stores, rifling through the pristine, dirt-cheap racks of Fair Isle knits and mod minidresses instead.

There was the day I happened upon a bunch of Esther Williams-worthy vintage bathing suits, pleated and boned to within an inch of their lives, for less than $20 a pop. Or when a shop owner and I entered into a meandering conversation about Bakelite jewelry (specifically), art deco (generally) and where to find a good cupcake (most important of all).

When you come across these like-minded souls, the two of you speak a secret language. You say, Celia Birtwell. Anna Karina. They reply, Tom Binns. Terry de Havilland. And you realize there are people all over the city who get why you care about this lovely, silly subject, and why it has nothing to do with Paris Hilton, Roberto Cavalli or what Eva Longoria wore to the Teen Choice Awards.

New York fashion has a lot to recommend it. But it's not always very much fun. When everyone around you is buffed and lacquered to a high sheen, when you spend more on clothes than you do on rent, your expectations are monumental. And life being what it is, something always ends up not quite right. The dry cleaner returns your slacks with one crease a quarter-inch left of center. Everyone at work gets their Miu Miu wedges a week before you do. You break the bank on a Devi Kroell bag, only to see its cachet plummet when Jessica Simpson makes it her signature.

That's why there is something wonderful about spotting a woman on M Street wearing a sale-rack dress and chunky, scuffed boots, a smidge of kohl around her eyes, bangs skimmed back with bobby pins. She's not worried about appearing overdressed, underaccessorized or so last season . She not worried, period -- she's dressing to please herself. And to the jaded among us for whom fashion is work, life or a bit of both, that can seem surprising. Which it shouldn't, because that devil-may-care attitude is what fashion is all about.


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