- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

Neither fashion mecca nor fashion wasteland, Washington has its own idea of how to dress.
A uniform of sorts emerges from this city of political leaders, civil servants, policy-watchers and lawyers. Think red, gray and blue.
For men, especially on Capitol Hill, the safe bet for those wanting to blend in is a dark blue suit, starched dress shirt, plain tie and polished shoes. Aides often wear a blue blazer and khaki pants.
Women don't have to adhere to the dress code that forces men into a jacket and tie on the floor of the House and Senate. But almost any gathering of political women has at least one in the red power suit.
That's the ultimate in attempting "to stand out in a sea of drab gray," according to Rep. Mary Bono, California Republican, a sometimes adventurous exception to the rule.
As social secretary to then-first lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Letitia Baldrige knows fashion and diplomacy. But when it comes to Washington's taste in clothes, she's not a bit diplomatic. "Washington is famous for having absolutely no fashion taste," she says.
Not everyone is so hard on Washington's way with clothes, but people with a keen eye for style say the city's politically driven events all those meetings, all those fund-raisers result in a certain conformity.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California is among Washington's power women in red her color of choice when appearing on TV recently, after becoming House Democratic leader.
Mrs. Bono came to Washington as the wife of a congressman, Sonny Bono, and won his seat after he was killed in a skiing accident in 1998.
She remembers her orientation as a member's wife in 1995, when a veteran political spouse was trying to be helpful by telling newcomers how to dress here.
They were told that each article of clothing and accessory had a numeric value and what a woman wore should add up exactly to 14 points.
"It was a little strange to tell us how to dress," she said with a laugh. She recalled being told, "You never, ever want to be seen in jeans on the Hill."
She often wore jeans. These days, as a lawmaker, she's more likely to blend in.
"Coming from Southern California, here is definitely not the place to try out new things," Mrs. Bono said.
Still, Washington's sometimes unspoken, stiff, conservative manner of dressing hasn't deterred some from putting aside the uniform and being more daring.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, is known for wearing loud neckties that may or may not match his shirts. Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado juggles fashions sometimes wearing a suit but preferring a black leather vest, jeans and silver jewelry when riding his Harley-Davidson.
But what it boils down to for many, Miss Baldrige says, is dressing according to "what can be hung in the closet and put on in five minutes. It's rushed and frenzied because the schedules are tough."
The uniform often extends to accessories, too.
Former first lady and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, incoming North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright have all worn a pin of a red-eyed, gold-plated eagle atop a fake pearl. The design, by Washington jewelry designer Ann Hand, has been around since 1992.
Maria O'Leary, whose women's clothing shop in Alexandria has catered to a Washington clientele for 36 years, says women here have been "stepping out a bit" in the past 10 to 15 years.
"For the reason that women are no longer supplicants, they are in positions of power and don't have to ask the boss for permission" about what they wear, she says.
Women who are not dressing for their husband's political constituency are more likely to dress in an individualistic way, Miss O'Leary says. "In some of the offices in the Senate or House, some are from small towns, so it's important to them that their constituents see them in conservative clothing."
The main thing that Washingtonians and people anywhere else need to keep in mind is that any attire that takes away from the business at hand is incorrect, Miss O'Leary says.
Miss Baldrige, who dispenses etiquette advice to corporations these days, says women who waltz into a Washington office wearing a micro mini, for example, risk being judged in ways that someone in New York or Los Angeles might not be.
In those cities, she said, people might pass judgment on the skirt. Here, people "will stop and stare and make a decision on that woman."
Although little can compare to the Jackie Kennedy fashion statements of yesteryear, there have been some more recent splashes among first ladies.
Mrs. Kennedy's dresses were Oleg Cassini, Givenchy, Chez Ninon and Gustave Tassell. She wore hats, often pillboxes by Halston. The outfits were usually simple and conservative in solid colors, made special by an elegant bow or sash.
Nancy Reagan's red Adolfo suits, Barbara Bush's Bill Blass and pearls, and Mrs. Clinton's hairbands caught the public's eye.
First lady Laura Bush favors dusty pastel suits.
"Laura Bush looks lovely, beautifully groomed," Miss Baldrige says. "She wears the same suit a few times, whereas Jackie wore it once and put it away."

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