- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

Bo Derek, actress, former sex symbol, activist and Kennedy Center trustee, was on a plane to Washington when she heard the wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador was giving a farewell party for the Swedish ambassador and his wife.

Rima Al-Sabah, the Lebanese-born blonde and glamorous haute hostess, was thrilled when Miss Derek decided to show.

But instead of a cocktail dress, she arrived in a corporate gray business suit.

It was the only thing she had packed to come to Washington besides her bluejeans, and she planned to wear it to Capitol Hill for a lobbying effort.

Funny thing was, no one batted a Maybelline’d eye.

“This is a town where women like to be taken seriously,” said Mrs. Al-Sabah, a fashion-conscious wife and mother who gravitates more toward Dolce and Gabbana than Brooks Brothers. “They are feminine, but serious-minded at the same time.”

Now comes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

With her Oscar de la Renta scarlet silk gown, her knee-high boots and long jacket, her pastel Akris suits and jaunty flip, she’s making women in Washington watch with a mixture of envy, awe and inspiration.

“I think she’s amazing,” said Mrs. Al-Sabah. “She is dressing feminine, yet she’s serious-minded. I think she’s got a lot of style.”

Suddenly, people are asking: Why can’t Washington women dress, well, more like women?

It’s a town of career gals, first of all, a legacy of the World War II influx of typists, assistants, news hens and war brides. It’s not a town of “ladies who lunch.” Even if she doesn’t have an official job, her spouse probably does, and that means endless rounds of charity events, board meetings, meet and greets, grip and grins, drop-bys and drive-bys. So the same conservative navy-blue blazer that works for a coffee in the morning inevitably shows up for the cocktail hour.

Few have the luxury, as does first lady Laura Bush, of changing wardrobes for different events.

Personal shoppers can (and do) help, but in the end it’s a city where chic is a four-letter word. So are Washington women fashion-challenged, or just saddled with the albatross of dressing “appropriately”?

“I think that’s the number one thing to go for: appropriateness,’ ” said Letitia Baldridge, White House social secretary to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. “This is a very serious city. People look very much alike in their neat pants and tops and handbags and designer sunglasses.”

Washington women, simply put, are afraid.

“Women here cannot be chic,” she says. And retailers understand the paranoia.

“You can’t even buy a decent ball gown here,” said Mrs. Baldridge. “You have to go to New York.”

Mrs. Baldridge gives Miss Rice high marks for style. “She’s a very handsome woman, and she’s got a great figure. Everyone’s jealous of that.”

In the annals of Washington fashion flops, none can match Joan Kennedy’s mini-skirt outfit, worn to a State dinner. “She wore her skirts way up to the top of her thighs,” Mrs. Baldridge said.

Then there were Nancy Reagan’s toreador pants (Ole!). More recently, Martha Stewart elicited Inside the Beltway boos when she arrived at a White House State dinner wearing pink silk Shantung Capri pants and a white shirt stained with makeup. “People just blanched,” one guest said.

And what about Jane Fonda’s velvet Scarlett O’Hara ball gown, also worn to the White House on a steamy, summer 90-degree eve, with her decollette proudly exposed.

It’s not only cleavage that Washington women disdain — it’s color.

Fitness guru Denise Austin, who was born and raised in California and now lives in Alexandria, wore a coral-colored Carolina Herrera gown to an inaugural ball. “I was the only one in orange,” she laughed. “Everyone else wore black.”

At the White House, Mrs. Bush’s female staff usually are attired in uniform black pantsuits and pearls. They have been dubbed “The Pearl Girls.”

“I think I started that,” said Ann Stock, former White House social secretary. “We called it the Black Social Office Outfit. You can wear it with a T-shirt during the day, then switch with a nice top and pearls for night.”

Hollywood stars even know to tone down the glitz for a Washington visit. When testifying on the Hill, actress Julia Roberts looked uncharacteristically frumpy in a baggy black pantsuit and glasses. Actress Angelina Jolie looked as if she was showing up for jury duty, even wearing a dark navy-blue covered-up sheath to a black-tie event at the Kuwaiti Embassy.

Mrs. Stock, now vice president of the Kennedy Center, keeps four or five outfits in her office closet for emergencies, plus 10 pairs of shoes. As for Miss Rice’s fashion sense, “Yes, she’s having an impact. She’s showing how to dress appropriately for the occasion. I thought she looked terrific on the last tour of the Middle East,” she said.

One reason Miss Rice may have more freedom to express herself is that she’s single. She doesn’t have to answer to a spouse who gets the jitters over his wife’s Inner Bimbo.

“In Washington,” said Mrs. Baldridge, “if you show a little skin, women think they’ll be criticized. And their husbands will be ridiculed. You know, ‘Look at that trollop he’s married to.’ ”

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