washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Fashion and Beauty

Condoleezza Rice's Commanding Clothes

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 25, 2005; Page C01

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield on Wednesday dressed all in black. She was wearing a black skirt that hit just above the knee, and it was topped with a black coat that fell to mid-calf. The coat, with its seven gold buttons running down the front and its band collar, called to mind a Marine's dress uniform or the "save humanity" ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix."

As Rice walked out to greet the troops, the coat blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots. The boots had a high, slender heel that is not particularly practical. But it is a popular silhouette because it tends to elongate and flatter the leg. In short, the boots are sexy.


Rice's black high-heel boots: As a fashion statement, absolutely powerful. (Michael Probst -- AP)


Friday's Question:
It was not until the early 20th century that the Senate enacted rules allowing members to end filibusters and unlimited debate. How many votes were required to invoke cloture when the Senate first adopted the rule in 1917?
51
60
64
67


Rice boldly eschewed the typical fare chosen by powerful American women on the world stage. She was not wearing a bland suit with a loose-fitting skirt and short boxy jacket with a pair of sensible pumps. She did not cloak her power in photogenic hues, a feminine brooch and a non-threatening aesthetic. Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame "Matrix" jump kick if necessary. Who wouldn't give her ensemble a double take -- all the while hoping not to rub her the wrong way?

Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power -- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual.

Rice challenges expectations and assumptions. There is undeniable authority in her long black jacket with its severe details and menacing silhouette. The darkness lends an air of mystery and foreboding. Black is the color of intellectualism, of abstinence, of penitence. If there is any symbolism to be gleaned from Rice's stark garments, it is that she is tough and focused enough for whatever task is at hand.

Countless essays and books have been written about the erotic nature of high heels. There is no need to reiterate in detail the reasons why so many women swear by uncomfortable three-inch heels and why so many men are happy that they do. Heels change the way a woman walks, forcing her hips to sway. They alter her posture in myriad enticing ways, all of which are politically incorrect to discuss.

But the sexual frisson in Rice's look also comes from the tension of a woman dressed in vaguely masculine attire -- that is, the long, military-inspired jacket. When the designer Yves Saint Laurent first encouraged women to wear trousers more than 30 years ago, his reasons were not simply because pants are comfortable or practical. He knew that the sight of a woman draped in the accouterments of a man is sexually provocative. A woman was embracing something forbidden.

Rice's appearance at Wiesbaden -- a military base with all of its attendant images of machismo, strength and power -- was striking because she walked out draped in a banner of authority, power and toughness. She was not hiding behind matronliness, androgyny or the stereotype of the steel magnolia. Rice brought her full self to the world stage -- and that included her sexuality. It was not overt or inappropriate. If it was distracting, it is only because it is so rare.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company