LEADING ROLE - Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, brings to her new position a sense of style that is admired on both sides of the aisle as well as in other departments in Washington.
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
LAUDING someone for their style on Capitol Hill is a lot like celebrating the best surfer on Florida’s Gulf Coast — it’s all relative, and some would argue irrelevant. Washington has never embraced fashion (nor, for that matter, has the fashion world embraced Washington), and for understandable reasons. In political circles, fashion is a loaded term, smacking of frivolity and vanity.
So, to a large extent, politicians have been fashion agnostic, sticking stubbornly to their dark blue suits, red power ties, multicolored scarves and lacquered hair.
But with the ascent of Nancy Pelosi, 66, widely recognized and admired for her Armani and easy fashion savvy, the days of the dowdy Washington dress code may be numbered. At least that is the hope of a number of women on Capitol Hill, Republicans and Democrats, who see Mrs. Pelosi, the new speaker of the House, as a fashion leader, too.
What’s more, these women do not altogether fear that their seriousness as politicians will be undermined by speaking aloud about hem lengths or helmet hair, or what one of them, Representative Mary Bono, calls the “St. John uniform,’’ a reference to the safe brand of choice on Capitol Hill.
“I am so sick of the matronly box — the rest of America doesn’t dress like that,” said Ms. Bono, 45, who, with her Palm Springs address, affection for the martial arts and her marriage to the late Sonny Bono, is decidedly un-Washingtonian.
“We all want to be taken seriously and you certainly don’t want to be too sexy,” added Ms. Bono, a California Republican, “but you have to maintain your femininity. Pelosi is a beautiful dresser. I’m hoping she has great impact — fashion-speaking, not politically speaking.”
During her first week on the job, Mrs. Pelosi clinched votes in the House on the minimum wage, financing for stem cell research and Medicare drug prices, drawing two veto threats (for research and drugs) from a notoriously veto-averse president.
And she did it looking preternaturally fresh, with a wardrobe that, while still subdued and overreliant on suits, has seldom spruced the halls of Congress. On Jan. 9, a Tuesday, she wore an impeccable black and white tweed skirt suit, with strong shoulders and the jacket nipped at the waist; on Wednesday, she draped a red shawl insouciantly around a red suit outside the White House; and on Thursday, she appeared in a mod, deep-blue velvet, slimming pantsuit.
Fashion authorities say Mrs. Pelosi should be applauded for her color choice (burgundy on Jan. 4, the day she was sworn in), her playfulness with jewelry (chunky, but tasteful, including signature Tahitian pearls) and her suit selection (from velvet to tweed), all of which can be imitated at a more affordable price by women who are not wealthy. Women are already taking note of her style; orders of Tahitian pearls have skyrocketed.
“She wears the clothes and the clothes don’t wear her, and that is the way it should be,” said Pamela Fiori, the editor-in-chief of Town & Country magazine, who emphasized that Mrs. Pelosi’s words are nonetheless more important than her clothes. “If she can have a little bit of influence in the Senate and House or in the home, that is not such a bad thing.”
Just raising the issue of a powerful woman’s wardrobe choices strikes some people as sexist, an undermining of her talents and qualifications. And last week, when a reporter approached several of the female members of the House and Senate, or their staff, to talk fashion, some did not want to engage. Others cringed, at least initially. But when the conversation veered into the nitty-gritty — what do you wear, where do you buy it, what image do you want to project — the women in politics happily chatted away.
“Ah, Ferragamo,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein, 73, a California Democrat, admitting she spoils her feet as a form of revenge on the Capitol’s marble floors.
Women in politics are the first to say that they give serious thought to their appearance because, like it or not, voters at home, powerbrokers on the Hill and the news media are all mindful of the slightest faux pas. It is wrong to look too risqué, they say. But isn’t it retrograde to equate looking good with being empty-headed?
“As women policy makers become more trusted on the issues, they may feel there is more leeway,” Representative Stephanie Herseth, 36, a South Dakota Democrat, said optimistically. She recently got an earful for lightening her hair.
The men have it much easier because unlike women, they seldom are punished for fashion mistakes.
So it is understandable that women in politics are so skittish about their choices. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, 59 was tortured for her monthly makeovers when she was first lady. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 52 photographed wearing black knee-high boots, an above-the-knee black skirt and a military-style black coat in 2005, was called a dominatrix by the fashion critic of The Washington Post.
Women in politics are still operating in a male world and don’t want to appear as lacking gravitas.
“This is still essentially a man’s town,” said Susan Molinari, a Republican and the former representative from Staten Island who runs the Washington Group, a government relations and lobbying firm. “Elected officials deal with serious subjects and want to be taken extremely seriously. You evaluate everything you wear. Does this detract? Does this get in the way of my message?”
Even Speaker Pelosi has her limits. Her staff members, after repeated requests, declined to talk about her clothing choices for this article. In a recent interview on “60 Minutes,” Mrs. Pelosi said her husband often buys clothes for her.
The truth is that women’s choices on Capitol Hill are often dictated by their job. Legislators are constantly walking long distances across punishing floors (comfortable, low-heeled shoes are a must), wrestling with finicky furniture (think durable fabrics) and hopping from committee rooms to fund-raisers (versatility is key). It is not enough to look good for a mere three hours, which is why many women favor St. John knits.
“You want something that isn’t fragile, that won’t shred at the sight of a splinter,” said Representative Ellen Tauscher, 55, a California Democrat, who calls the wood furniture she sits on in committee rooms “older than I am.”
“At the same time, you want people listening to what you are saying and not looking at what you are wearing,” said Ms. Tauscher, who is a leader on military issues.
To say that constituents do not care about fashion or image is simply not the case for most politicians. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 40, a Florida Democrat, said her constituents love to talk about her look.
When she started straightening her hair, her new look landed in newspapers and elicited an avalanche of commentary, mostly positive. The change did not detract from her seriousness; she is now chief deputy whip.
“I say to my constituents, ‘Give me advice,’ ” she said. “And my seniors, everyone, says, ‘Debbie, get yourself a haircut.’ If I look like a schlepper, I’ll hear about it.”
She, too, reaches for the St. John uniform (despite Ms. Bono’s wish). But unlike some other lawmakers, she adheres to a strict budget. Her St. John wardrobe was purchased on eBay, sometimes by her husband, she confided: “You can’t buy that stuff in the store. It’s expensive.”
In fact, the orange skirt suit she wore one day on the House floor last week was Valentino. “Rodeodriveresale.com,” she said conspiratorially. “You know how expensive Valentino is?”
Recalling her entree into Washington politics, Ms. Wasserman Schultz said, “I had to dress more conservative.”
“But being dowdy is not effective, either,” she added. Her closest friend, she recalled, recently ordered her to “stop dressing like your mother.”
Does she feel any freedom to be bold? “Not around here,” she said.
There has been progress. Image consultants said Senator Clinton appears to have finally found her fashion center — long Nehru-ish jackets with pants, often in black, a vivid shirt underneath and bold jewelry. Her hair mostly compliments her age and standing. In fact, many women senators now embrace the black pantsuit. On one day last week, 6 out of 16 of them walked the Senate chamber in black pantsuits.
With so many images of scantily clad celebrities and so few of well-dressed professional women, every little bit helps.
“You don’t have to grow up to look like a librarian,” said Lauren Solomon, founder and director of LS Image Associates, which has clients in the corporate and political fields. “But you don’t have to look like a hooker, either.”