Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

That Then Now
designer Oscar de la Renta)

there was a time in Washington, decades ago, when frumpiness was next to godliness, and any woman seeking perfection of style – even her own sense of style – would be thought of as a peacock or something worse: a show-off looking to seduce through the body instead of the mind. Good-looking women looking good weren’t à la mode in a politics-takes-all town.
Designer duds were off-limits lest the press get wind of the cost. And heaven forbid if a woman turned up for lunch in trousers. Pants suits didn’t cut the mustard along the Potomac.
Flash forward to the present day when a secretary of state wears stiletto-heeled boots to “review” the troops (as Condolezza Rice did in Germany not long ago) and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi routinely dons Armani – in bright colors, no less. Where ambassadors’ wives once wore a hat and gloves as a matter of protocol, they now are more likely to appear in be-ribboned Gucci and the latest Chanel, minus head or hand adornments beyond jewels of choice.Fashion in the capital follows the politics of the day in many ways. Domestic dress trends are tied to ricochet rhythms of public life.A senator campaigns in handsome conservatively-tailored

clothes and makes waves with her energy and industry;but, let a little décolletage pop into the picture, and the bloggers start meowing. Still, as fashion takes a few steps forward (Ms. Rice again, in a very unself-conscious and stunningly bareshouldered gown) it occasionally takes a few steps back (Capitol Hill staffers abandoning power suits in favor of T-shirts and flip flops). Washington role models such as journalistic dynamo Katharine Graham and social doyenne Pamela Harriman were never notably interested in, nor achieved recognition for, their fashion – who they had at their tables mattered much, much more.
Fashion – good taste, even elegance – has seemed something of a dirty little secret in these parts. Hence, as a subject of importance, it is largely hidden; it comes to the fore more as a cult than a creative obsession. Nonetheless, style mavens and stylish boutiques always have existed here – think Jackie Chalkey and other pioneers – to serve forwardthinking women.They set the pace when Presidential wives could not. Mamie
Eisenhower and Pat Nixon feared the wrath of stepping outside convention (even for a mink coat). Jackie Kennedy came along in the

1960s and lo, the light did shine – even though the classy Oleg Cassini wardrobe and Camelot myth were something of a political tool. Nancy Reagan put couture on the map again and Barbara Bush followed in her way, relying on staid designers who knew how not to upset the norm (or the form). Hillary Clinton experimented a bit too much, but settled into a reassuring routine and even had guests at White House functions who were every bit as glamorous as the Reagans’ glitzy Hollywood crowd. Most recently, Laura Bush has brought conservative elegance back.

Matters are brightening. Presidents’ wives no longer lead – nor should they. Not in an era when Washingtonians are more adventurous in dress than ever before and more willing to experiment by shopping in an increasing number of specialty stores. What the future holds is anyone’s guess – the election cycle can influence trends in ways not even pollsters can predict. Count on a growing need for – and an appreciation of – self-expression. The visual profile of Washington has come into its own in the age of YouTube and Facebook. wl



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