Washington power dressing moves beyond the red suit

Women no longer have to leave their personalities in the closet

They have been called “status wrinkles.”

They are the unavoidable crinkles — the center-front whiskering — of pure linen frocks after only minutes of wearing. There was a time when something so minor represented a danger zone for the upwardly mobile female executive who lived a sartorial life defined by prim business suits, starched shirts, suffocating pantyhose and a relentless quest for cookie-cutter perfection.

Knee-high leather boots worn with a pencil skirt and jacket could cause gasps on Capitol Hill. A sleeveless dress was a shock to the power grid. A gray suit was regulation business attire.


Asset management company principal Elise Hoffman: “I want my personality to shine through, as well as my good judgment.” (Charlie Archambault/For The Washington Post)

Elise Hoffmann, 55, lived through that era. In 1981, she was a summer associate on Wall Street when “I got pulled aside by a midlevel man because I wasn’t wearing pantyhose.” Duly chastised, she toed the line. But 33 years later and now a principal at Marshfield Associates, which manages $2 billion in assets, with an art-filled office that overlooks Dupont Circle, Hoffmann sports “status wrinkles.” She also wears black leather skirts with lace hosiery, J. Mendel sheaths and dresses by Marni — an Italian brand that shuns straight-line tailoring in favor of tucks, swirls and marsupial pouches.

The choices are not a matter of trend tracking. Instead, they speak to Hoffmann’s professional identity, her experience, her self-confidence and the way power dressing has evolved over a generation. The fashion vernacular now allows her to speak with nuance.

“We are idiosyncratic as investors. We’re financially creative,” Hoffmann says. “I see how I dress as supplemental to that. I want my personality to shine through, as well as my good judgment.

“Anything overtly sexy, that’s the third rail. No cleavage,” says Hoffmann, who often shops at Georgetown’s Relish for professional attire rooted in classicism but not stifled by it.

In the span of the working lives of women who now sit at the top of their profession, fashion has become equipped to speak to their individuality, mood and personality, as well as career gravitas. Women’s power dressing, once defined by self-conscious façades, has given way to personal style.


Real estate firm partner Leslie Ludwig: “As you get higher up in your career, you’re willing to take more chances.” (Charlie Archambalt/For The Washington Post)

Most obviously, even on an especially serious workday, no one feels compelled to dress like a man. Quite the contrary. “The younger professional women in development, which is male-dominated, they dress more feminine in skirts, dresses and high heels,” says Leslie Ludwig, a partner in the Maryland-based real estate firm JBG Cos. “They’re making a statement in a good way. … They’re more glamorous.”

The reason for the shift, say Washington area women, has to do with the influence of popular culture, a welcome maturation of the fashion business, and women setting the agenda instead of having to kowtow to it.

The media depiction of women in authority — whether in real life or fiction — has them looking polished, pulled together and overtly feminine but not femme fatale. “All the women are beautiful,” Ludwig says of television characters such as Olivia Pope and Alicia Florrick. “I think a lot of the reason why women are addressing hair and makeup is media.”

Of course, Hollywood thrives on hyperbole, and “the more successful the show, each season the women get sexier,” Ludwig says, chuckling. “ ‘CSI’ has women out there digging up dead bodies in four-inch heels!”

The fashion industry has struggled with the aesthetics of female power for decades. In 1992, Donna Karan created her much-lauded “In Women We Trust” advertising campaign, which depicted the swearing-in of a female president. With a mane of flowing brown hair, the commander in chief wears broad-shoulder peak lapel blazers, body-conscious skirts, black opaque tights and ropes of gumball-size pearls. The look was a more sensual version of a man’s business suit.

By the 2000s, that look of power had evolved into a reconstituted “sexy secretary” aesthetic. A 2005 Versace advertising campaign featured Madonna styled for the boardroom in a low-cut ivory sweater, a tight-fitting pink skirt and stiletto-heeled sandals that required a fresh pedicure and a podiatrist on call.

Michael Kors regularly depicted women of means dashing for private jets and leaping from chauffeured vehicles in towering heels, fur wraps and skirts with thigh-high slits. And Dolce & Gabbana tailored beautiful jackets and skirts, but the women in its advertising campaigns typically wore them with corsets from which their bosoms heaved.


Justice Department attorney Vanessa Reed: “If you talk to jurors and if they’re honest, they will tell you they notice attire.” (Charlie Archambault/Charlie Archambault)

“For years, designers were creating clothes for a woman who was arm candy for a successful man,” says Vanessa Reed, 47 and a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice. “She had reflected power.”

Women of clout — such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — relied on the classic minimalism and dusky palette of Giorgio Armani for their workday wardrobe. Others, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, turned to the slightly more embellished Akris. The aesthetic was less rigid than mannish suits and more evolved than the “sexy secretary” trope, but it still hewed to a reliance on some form of a blazer. And in the congressional ranks, that blazer was typically red.

But in recent years, fashion brands led by female designers, such as Marni’s Consuelo Castiglioni and Céline’s Phoebe Philo, have gained traction in Washington. Marni’s sensibility is eccentric and artsy, but also modest enough for a conservative work environment. And Céline and its imitators bring a rigor and restraint that is as ascetic as it is eloquent. “That really didn’t exist 10 or 15 years ago,” Reed says.

If there is any go-to uniform for a day when the stakes are especially high, it is now the simple aerodynamic dress. “I might grab a Céline sheath, something very minimal,” Hoffmann says. “The sheath dress, it has a subtle authority. I always like to look sharp, and a certain minimalism goes with that. Minimal, but precise.”

Women give a nod of thanks to first lady Michelle Obama, who has shunned the suits worn by her predecessors in favor of sheath dresses and cardigans. “She dresses for the person that she is: mother, first lady, CEO of the East Wing,” says Reed, herself a mother of three.

Power equals freedom, and the influential young guns of the Internet age regularly flout decorum with their hoodies. Before them, Hollywood’s top dogs took meetings in T-shirts and sneakers. For some women, rising in the ranks meant finally being able to exchange skirts for trousers.

Before moving into real estate development, Ludwig was in banking. She, along with her male counterparts, had to wear starched shirts and stolid suits to the office. When she wore pants in the 1990s, one male colleague wryly asked if it was “casual day.” Her personality, she says, always had to be left in her dressing room. Today, at 52, she retains a conservative style, which is her nature, but is not reliant on skirted suits nor trapped by the dated assumptions of some colleagues. “As you get higher up in your career, you’re willing to take more chances,” Ludwig says.


Real estate company president Deborah Ratner Salzberg: “Why bother with wearing ugly gray?” (Charlie Archambalt/For The Washington Post)

When Deborah Ratner Salzberg, president of the real estate company Forest City Washington, was a trial attorney in the early 1980s, she always dressed for duty in a gray suit. Then she had an adviser tell her that (male) colleagues were only going to be looking at her legs. It was a demeaning remark that Salzberg, now 61, turned to her advantage. “I bought a purple suit,” she says. “Why bother with wearing ugly gray?”

CNN correspondent Dana Bash, 42, recalls being wed to the traditional blazer when she started appearing on air in 2002. “It was a big deal to me,” she says. “Not long ago, to command power you had to wear the Theory suit.”

Now her uniform of choice is a dress, tights and boots. “One dress I love — for me, it’s a little edgy — it’s sleeveless. It’s black and it’s leather. I’ve worn it on TV,” Bash says.

Of course, not every declared risk works out. “I once wore a maroon leather dress with sleeves, which looked fabulous in real life but didn’t look great on TV,” Bash recalls. “It was shiny, and it looked like something Pinky Tuscadero would wear.”

On one of television news’ most important evenings — election night 2012 — Bash also wore a dress. It was a carefully considered choice. As chief congressional correspondent, she had the responsibility of analyzing House and Senate races as results poured in. Bash knew she’d be on air alongside a crowd of men in black suits, as well as in front of an ever-changing backdrop of blaring graphics.

She called her retail consigliere, Julia Farr, owner of the boutique of the same name in Friendship Heights. “I had Julia come down and hold a couple of dresses up to see what worked and how I wanted to come across,” Bash says. She chose a simple, long-sleeve purple dress by Nanette Lepore. Bash wore no distinctive jewelry, but chose “black heels — five- or six-inch heels,” because she was going to be standing next to relatively tall men and wanted to be at their eye level and “because I love shoes.”


CNN correspondent Dana Bash: “One of the benefits of being a woman is I don’t have to put on a black suit.” (Charlie Archambalt/For The Washington Post)

“One of the benefits of being a woman is I don’t have to put on a black suit,” Bash says. “I could do it, but why do it if you don’t have to?”

Fashion now allows women to communicate more than “I am qualified.” There is potential to deliver subtle messages about mood, intent and even course of action.

“For me, at this stage in life, my clothes reflect how I feel,” Reed says. “I dress to feel confident. I dress to feel secure. I dress to make me feel good. If someone’s been a real [jerk], if I think I’m going to walk out of a meeting, I might wear a red suit. If opposing counsel is someone I like, I’ll be more relaxed. … I might be in flowers — I feel it conveys I’m open to creative solutions.

“I dress differently if I’m dealing with a judge or if I’m dealing with a jury,” Reed says. “If you talk to jurors and if they’re honest, they will tell you they notice attire, or if a lawyer is late or the desk was disheveled. You’re going on a job interview in a courtroom, and I need the jurors to trust what I’m saying. I want them to see that I’m reliable and credible.

“And as a woman, you don’t want a neckline that’s too low or a hemline that’s too high,” Reed continues. “The profession itself is conservative in nature, and it’s so male-dominated. People are still discovering what a successful female lawyer looks like. It’s evolving. But a female lawyer can be dressed more feminine.”

That shared, mind’s-eye image of female power remains especially fuzzy at the highest level: commander in chief. Aside from the short-lived television drama “Commander in Chief,” in which Geena Davis played the title role, there’s little that visually defines how such authority and strength might look on a woman.

Hillary Clinton is the only woman who has come close to reaching the presidency, and her attire has been an outsize focus of fascination and judgment. Observers are flummoxed by her appearance because there is no point of comparison by which it can be declared right or wrong. Her fashion woes are driven by our patriarchal angst.

“I think if costume designers were dressing the next commander in chief,” Bash says, “they’d dress her like Pelosi. It’s the theory of ‘do no harm.’ ”

The question of style “is one of the last issues of equity,” Bash says. “As a woman, I hope the issue is finally off the table.”

In the quest for the perfectly eloquent workday ensemble, women often speak of feeling comfortable in their clothes, but with an apologetic shrug, as if personal ease is a surrender.

But being able to focus on contentment may be the ultimate sign of success. “What’s my image of a powerful woman?” Salzberg muses. “Let me think about it.” And she is silent for more than a few beats.

“There are no rules,” she says, “only minimal standards.” And wrinkle-free is not one of them.

Robin Givhan will return to The Post as fashion critic in June.
E-mail us at wpmagazine@washpost.com.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit  WP Magazine.
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Robin Givhan is a staff writer and the Washington Post fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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