State of the Union’s unspoken fashion rule: Women in Congress, dress like gumdrops.


Michelle Obama wore an almost-black pine green ensemble by Azzedine Alaia. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

If there was any doubt that there are a record number of women serving in Congress, one had to only look out across the audience at the annual State of the Union address at the cacophony of color. Instead of the usual dull sea of dark suits and bobbing gray heads, the room was a patchwork of bright boucle, glittering brooches and even a bit of (what appeared to be) pumpkin-colored leather.

The men were wrapped safely and snugly in their navy and gray. Except, of course, Willie “Boss Hog” Robertson, the hirsute patriarch of “Duck Dynasty,” who tied a star-spangled bandana around his head lest anyone mistakenly assumed that he was the least bit impressed to have been invited to the Capitol to sit among the leaders of the free world on a national occasion.

And while Vice President Biden and House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) turned their firm handshake-shoulder grab of a greeting into a bromantic tweaking and tugging on each other’s sartorial splendor, there was little else out of the ordinary on the menswear side. The president’s navy suit was well tailored, with just a hint of his white cuff exposed at the wrist. His pale blue tie had an admirable dimple. His American flag pin was dutifully and prominently displayed on his lapel. All was as is expected — or rather, as is required.

It was among the women, as usual, where one could find the aesthetic action. No longer did bright colors merely dot the room. Instead, given a quick and passing glance, the place looked like a Jackson Pollock drip painting, filled with colors that once were sorely limited in those austere chambers. But it is an unspoken rule that the women of Congress, in the Cabinet — the women whose political savvy, intelligence and drive got them to this pinnacle of power — must wear garments that light up the room like a flare. Look at me! I am here! We are here! Women are here!

The female power brokers of Washington wear color like virtually no other group of working women. Penny Pritzker, the new secretary of commerce, was aglow in pumpkin. So was Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn). Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) wore taxicab yellow. There was magenta, fire-engine red, purple, cobalt, grass green, more orange and even red plaid.

When will the gentlewomen of Congress stop feeling as though they must announce themselves for the cameras, their constituents and their colleagues? How many more women will it take in the upper echelons of Washington before they can all relax, suit up with authority — see Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) — and stop dressing like gumdrops?

In contrast, many of the businesswomen who joined first lady Michelle Obama in her box for the address wore shades of deep burgundy, soothing blue, black or gray. Sure, there were some bright colors in the balcony. But it was notable that Mary Barra, the new General Motors chief executive, and Andra Rush, founder of the Rush Group, were in quiet, calm and assertive tones.

And, of course, the first lady was the most subdued of all: She chose monochromatic, almost-black pine green, with a full skirt and cropped jacket. The ensemble was by Azzedine Alaia, the designer of her favorite wide, black leather belt. The work of the Paris-based designer has been in regular rotation; Obama notably wore an Alaia dress on a date night with the president during the first term. The signature cut, with its fitted waist and exuberant skirt, speaks of grace rather than power. Personal preference rather than politics.

The women on the floor have a kind of power that eludes the first lady: policymaking, legislative. They have moved up the ranks to rival the men — and, in some cases, trump the men — in authority. They don’t need to adopt a dour wardrobe of all gray. Congresswomen, there’s no need to peacock for the cameras. Trust that they will come to you.

Robin Givhan is a fashion critic and writer, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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