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The Look Is Red, White and Blah

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 3, 2004; Page C01


On the floor of Madison Square Garden, Republican men in dark suits and navy blazers swagger and stroll, greeting each other with a combination handshake and shoulder grab. Their hair is clipped barbershop short, but without the fresh-from-the-salon sharpness favored by men who describe their morning shave as part of a "grooming routine."

The delegates from Oklahoma -- both the men and women -- are wearing navy blazers with the state seal prominently positioned on the left breast pocket. And the folks from Texas are all wearing navy shirts and white cowboy hats because "we think we all look better if we look the same, dress the same," says Scott Sexton, a delegate from east Texas.

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Standing out in this sea of homogeneity is a man in a violet blazer. He strides so briskly across a narrow passageway, weaving in and out of the crowd, that one briefly wonders: Is he a mirage? In fact, he is Alex Carroll from Carmel, Ind., and he is here with his wife, Dana. And he is pleased that his ensemble is being complimented because he is a man who appreciates what the fashion industry has to offer. "I really like Versace and Thierry Mugler, and this jacket is Mugler. I got this one in Las Vegas," he says.

Carroll has paired his sharply cut jacket, which is as audaciously purple as a grape Jolly Rancher, with black pinstripe trousers and a dove-gray crewneck sweater. Dana Carroll wears black trousers, black shoes with gold trim and a tailored taupe jacket with tiny hand stitches along the lapel. She has accessorized her ensemble with a "Republicans for Choice" button. "I'm trying to be a little more conservative," she says. "I'm trying not to offend anyone."

Dana Carroll typically favors short skirts and Manolo Blahnik heels, but for the Republican National Convention she brought trousers and flats because too much attention to personal style in this crowd, she says, is likely to draw tongue-wagging double takes.

"Most Republicans are not known for fashion," her husband says.

One hates to make sweeping generalizations about an entire political party and its fashion sense. So it is best to restrict comment to those Republicans who have come here to hold their convention on the doorsteps of the nation's fashion industry. The Republicans in the hall this week did not do themselves proud. With only a few exceptions, they looked neither crisp nor stylish. And that was just fine with them. Unremarkable seemed to be their highest aspiration. And dressing like a flag, a state symbol or an elephant was the surest way to get a little attention.

"All my friends at home said this is your chance for 15 seconds of fame," says delegate Kay Hutchinson of Delavan, Kan. He was wearing a straw hat with a half-dozen sunflowers rising above its crown.

Delegates were not particularly worried about making a positive visual impression on the five undecided voters watching from home. If they were, someone surely would have suggested that the delegate from New Hampshire remove the moose from atop her head. Someone would have confiscated the brooch worn by the West Virginia delegate because it appeared to be a stuffed mouse head surrounded by organza ruffles. And someone would have warned the Alaska delegate that while her red Open ANWR cotton vest effectively delivered a political message on oil drilling, it made her look as though her follow-up phrase would be: "Would you like fries with that?"

Republican convention fashion generally falls into one of three categories: conservative, symbolic and I-adamantly-and-consciously-refuse-to-be-a-stiff. There is the familiar, exceedingly conservative fashion wing of the party that believes in the sanctity of a no-wrinkle St. John Knits suit or a reasonable facsimile of one. It typically is accessorized with a pair of sensible heels, a good handbag and the famed Ann Hand brooch with a golden eagle perched atop an oversize pearl in the manner of a chicken laying an enormous egg. Debbie Clair of Parker, Colo., considers herself in this category even though she has a Statue of Liberty crown on her head because "I've waited so long to come here," and she's having such a splendid time. Clair is wearing her eagle brooch with a taupe trouser suit.

Included in this group of conservative dressers are those who see nothing impolitic about being a guest in the nation's fashion capital -- with a wholesale business of $40 billion -- and declaring themselves far too "focused" for a discussion of attire. Pardon, but is one of those North Carolina delegates rolling her eyes at the mere mention of fashion?

"I just don't even want to discuss it. I'm so focused," says delegate Linda Daves of Charlotte. It was unclear what had captured Daves's laserlike attention. The only thing on the stage at the moment was a group of stagehands. But as is so often the case with people who loudly proclaim a topic off-limits, she pressed on.

"To compare how people dress is the epitome of snobbery. It doesn't matter if the person is dressed in the highest fashion that Fifth Avenue has to offer," she says. In New York, she says, "I see the crossroads of America. People can dress the way they want to dress. It just makes you feel so at home. It's so indicative of America." Did the RNC issue talking points on fashion after all?

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