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Laura Bush, Stepping Out

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page C01

It is a well known, but sad, reality that four years in the White House leave presidents looking haggard and gray. And of all the many things that President Bush has given in service to his country, one of them is his youthful appearance. But for the first lady, four years of public scrutiny, formal events and access to the best designers on Seventh Avenue have led to a remarkable transformation. First lady Laura Bush has never looked better or more obviously regal.

When she and the president arrived at the American Legion's Salute to Heroes veterans' ball last night, her pale aqua lace gown, sprinkled with crystals, twinkled in the lights. Its long sleeves softly enveloped her arms in a silver blue mist. The tulle gown, designed for her by Oscar de la Renta, looked weightless. And it made her look radiant and glamorous.

At the Black Tie and Boots Ball on Wednesday night, Jenna Bush, far left, wore Lela Rose, Barbara donned Badgley Mischka, and the first lady sparkled in Carolina Herrera and dramatic jewelry. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais - AP)

_____From Robin Givhan_____
Clothes Make The Sanctuary (The Washington Post, Jan 14, 2005)
First Lady's Inaugural Wardrobe Sparkles (The Washington Post, Jan 11, 2005)
The First Lady Sews Up Her Inaugural Wardrobe (The Washington Post, Jan 7, 2005)
The Extravagance That Goes to Waist (The Washington Post, Jan 5, 2005)
Answering the Call of the Wild (The Washington Post, Dec 17, 2004)
_____Arts & Living_____
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The dress was also undeniable evidence her aesthetic sensibility has become more sophisticated, more refined and unabashedly rich.

After four years in the White House, Mrs. Bush's style has gone from serviceable to dynamic. She has mostly rejected the dressmakers of her past, the kind of folks who are adept at giving their clients what they want but who typically fail to deliver a clear point of view or much finesse. For the most significant pieces of her second inaugural wardrobe, she shifted her loyalties from Dallas-based designer Michael Faircloth to the New York-based de la Renta.

De la Renta designed the swearing-in suit -- a winter white cashmere dress and matching coat -- that she wore yesterday afternoon. The white cashmere suit speaks of wealth and prestige in every inch of its elaborate embroidery and its precious fabric. She accessorized the ensemble with camel-colored heels and white gloves. And while the gloves were surely a practical consideration for a cold January day, the shade of stark white might have been better suited to a first Communion than an inaugural.

In turning to de la Renta, Mrs. Bush embraced the indulgent luxuriousness of high style. De la Renta is considered an international designer rather than one with a specifically American sensibility. He has worked in Paris and designed for the Balmain couture house. De la Renta is grand. By working with him, Mrs. Bush signaled that she was ready to step into the limelight. At long last, she has stopped pretending that she is just like you, your mother and the folks back in Midland.

When she attended the Texas State Society's Black Tie and Boots Ball Wednesday evening, she wore a dramatic raspberry silk taffeta gown by Carolina Herrera. The dress had subtle stripes and a glamorous, iridescent sheen. But more importantly, Mrs. Bush accessorized the gown with a diamond and pearl necklace and matching drop earrings of significant carats. This is the sort of jewelry that one would be inclined to keep locked in a safe rather than tucked into a jewelry box -- the kind of jewels that should come with their own Secret Service code name.

Mrs. Bush wore this same jewelry for her visit to Buckingham Palace in 2003. It had been borrowed from her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush. The gems make the demure necklace she wore during the last inauguration look like a strand of gumball beads.

In the course of any transformation, there are bumps and backward steps. Elegance should be effortless, but really, it is not. It requires work and diligence. Elegance is refusal, as the famous fashion editor Diana Vreeland once said, and Mrs. Bush should have politely saved the Peggy Jennings ribbon-trimmed dress and coat that she wore to "A Celebration of Freedom" on the Ellipse Wednesday evening for another, less auspicious occasion.

Jennings has created sweetly feminine suits for the first lady previously, but this ensemble was bland and uninspired. It turned the first lady into the same blur of undistinguished style that has dogged her in the past.

There are any number of ways to measure the mood of this inauguration, whether it is in the money spent, the crowds attracted or the rhetoric spoken with such gusto. But in watching the revelers as they crowd into ballrooms, onto dance floors and into Metro, one is struck by the bold displays of furs, glitz and goose-pimpled skin shivering in satin and rhinestones.

Barbara and Jenna Bush have done what they could to make this a more fashion-conscious inauguration. The list of designer names that the two have brought to the celebration include Lela Rose, Derek Lam and Badgley Mischka. At the Black Tie and Boots Ball, Barbara wore a seafoam green gown by Badgley Mischka. Its glittering spaghetti straps crisscrossed her bare back. And while the neckline plunged, it did not dip to depths that would require the aid of double-sided tape or elaborate suspension systems.

Jenna's column gown was by Lela Rose and its most marked accomplishment was to emphasize the wearer's cleavage so that it was visible from at least 20 feet away.

For the swearing-in Jenna wore trousers. For a ceremony steeped in tradition and accompanied by a soundtrack that could easily have been pulled from any 1950s Sunday worship service, trousers were a thunderclap of modernity.

For the official inaugural balls, Barbara in cream and Jenna in emerald green each complimented their mother. Their attire had been thoughtfully considered for the kind of portrait it would compose for the night and for history. Neither dress revealed more than one might consider appropriate for such an occasion, although Jenna's gown by Badgley Mischka had a harder look to it -- more Video Music Awards than society ball -- than Barbara's by de la Renta.

The president, of course, wore a traditional tuxedo with black tie. He accessorized it with an American flag pin, presumably the same one that adorned his lapel during his inaugural address. For that occasion he wore a dark suit and his signature light blue tie.

At this inauguration, fashion trends have been interpreted by revelers from Ohio to Texas. Partygoers wore fur stoles that tied around their shoulder with satin ribbons, short jackets of mink, rabbit, fox and seemingly anything that had the misfortune of stumbling into a trap. Women tucked brooches into the center of their decolletage. And there was glitter and sparkles everywhere from the tops of women's shoes to men's tuxedo lapels aglow with Texas longhorn pins flashing with red, white and blue lights.

When the masses interpret glamour it means one thing: glitz. So bring it on. "This is my first and possibly only inaugural, so I wanted something glitzy," said JoAnne Ott, who is from a small town in Ohio just outside of Cleveland. She was shimmering in a purple tunic and black skirt at the Veterans Inaugural Ball.

At the Creative Coalition party, the women were noticeably thin and inclined to show plenty of skin. The men had mops of hair and didn't dabble in novelty cummerbunds. But just when one worried that there would be nothing but boring good taste, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin appeared in a silver bow tie. Solid silver.

"You've heard of the silver mines in Nevada, right? Well, I wish I owned one," he said. "Besides, all this needs is a little polish and you're done."

Formality and glamour are expressed through minimalism only in the narrow confines of Seventh Avenue. Out in an America where most people consider $500 more than enough to pay for a party dress, glamour comes in big puffy taffeta dresses with ribbon-embroidered bodices and princess dresses with stiff tulle skirts. These inaugural festivities offer reassurance -- or a painful reminder -- that even on the most formal occasions there will always be plain talk, bugle beads, beers in bottles and, at the Black Tie and Boots Ball, a couple of cows in the room.

One could climb atop a steer and be photographed on his back. So Nita Helmer of Midland, dressed in a red knit pantsuit decorated with threads of silver and wearing red Ferragamo flats, straddled him for her photo souvenir.

"I think they've got him so sedated he won't move," she said. "He'll probably be happy when this is over and he can go back to the lot."

Bevo, the famous longhorn steer that is the mascot of the University of Texas (Jenna's alma mater), also made a return appearance. He was greeted with a line of women in duchess satin evening gowns waiting for the opportunity to stand in the shadow of his horns and hold his leash.

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