The Alitos: Well Suited, And Dressed For Duress

Color them cozy: The pair often echoed each other's color choices, such as his red tie and her red dress.
Color them cozy: The pair often echoed each other's color choices, such as his red tie and her red dress. (Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

Martha-Ann Alito sat in the row of supporters directly behind her husband, Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. One tried not to stare at her clothes. But while Alito was attired in Washington's equivalent of battlefield camouflage, his wife was in exuberant parade dress.

Over the course of four days, as Alito faced the Senate judiciary committee, the couple often touched hands during breaks and gave each other glancing smiles and occasionally pressed their heads together in intimate conversations.

She did not sit behind him nodding like a dutiful, TV-perfect wife. Sometimes she slouched. She looked attentive but not enthralled. Pleasant but not obsequiously adoring. They looked like a married couple, but not the typical political one.

Samuel Alito eschewed the more formal -- and some would argue more elegant -- French cuffs for the standard barrel ones. His shirts were perfectly starched. His suits were dark, sober and trim. He looked tidy but not fancy. The nominee wore nothing eye-catching. He didn't even have an American flag pin affixed to his lapel, an accessory that has been de rigueur for anyone facing a microphone, television cameras and a row of lawmakers. Visually, Alito was as unremarkable as possible. Even the patterns on his ties, which were either a patriotic red or blue, were so subtle as not to even register unless inspected under a magnifying glass.

Alito has been described as a nerd. (He took up juggling, after all.) But he mostly shook off the markers of social awkwardness or eccentricity with the simplicity and discreet tailoring of his clothes. There were no image missteps because he stuck to the basics. He didn't look bespoke, but he looked Brooks Brothers solid.

He and his wife of almost 21 years wore similar wire-rimmed glasses. His were only slightly more angular than hers. They both have short-cropped brown hair. And they often looked as though they had coordinated their ensembles in the manner of a family heading off to the Sears photo studio. On the first day of hearings, her red suit with its contrasting piping matched his red tie. On the second day, she echoed his pale blue shirt with her blue sweater, which fell discreetly to mid-thigh. On the fourth day, her white jacket over a red dress mirrored his white shirt and red tie.

Visually, the Alitos seem perfectly suited to each other, and one appreciates that visual loyalty. It is comforting to see that neither dashes ahead of the other with trendy flourishes or daring silhouettes. It could not have been easy to select a wardrobe for this trying week in the public eye. They chose to face all those cameras in a way that shows them as a team rather than two solo players. They selected their wardrobe from the same middle ground.

His wife's ensembles varied among casual tan slacks with a sweater, bright red anything, and a brown tweed suit and blouse that seemed to be coordinated with a rigor more commonly found in Garanimals. She liked to accessorize with pearls, gold chains, earrings, bracelets and rings. Sometimes she'd wear this treasure trove of jewelry all at once. She was particularly fond of a brooch that resembled nothing more closely than a half-peeled banana. (It could have been a fleur-de-lis, but only as it might be drawn by a 5-year-old.)

There was nothing particularly fashionable about her clothes -- not in the sense that they reflected some contemporary trend. But they were familiar and reassuring because they are the sort of clothes that populate office complexes, PTA meetings and the closets of many a working mother.

Martha-Ann Alito was not dressed like the quintessential Manhattan mother proud that she and her daughter wear the same size True Religion jeans. She did not look like a Los Angeles mother who does her carpooling in a Juicy Couture sweatsuit. And she did not have the stereotypical style of a Washington power wife with her St. John Knits suit, unflappable demeanor, unmussable hair, and ability to nod admiringly at her husband's every word and look relentlessly engaged by the most long-winded droning.

And that's okay. Her clothes were more Redbook than Vogue. More main floor than designer salon. In her red suit with its black trim -- so Kasper, so Albert Nipon -- she looked average.

There was something charmingly awkward about her blue cardigan. A cable-knit cardigan! At a Senate hearing! The sweater has all those connotations of Dan Rather informality, softness, ease and grandmotherly coziness. It is the antithesis of power and strength. The sweater was also baby blue. That isn't clothing as armor, but clothing as security blanket. Remember Linus?

It was as though the nominee's wife had quietly brought her own binky into the room. But then, who couldn't use a little comfort during such a public ordeal?

Her gold tweed suit might have passed without much commentary -- save for the fabric's similarity to the upholstery that once covered La-Z-Boys. But then some committee members pressed her husband on his relationship with Concerned Alumni of Princeton, an organization notable for its displeasure over the admittance of women and minorities to the university. Martha-Ann Alito's face crumpled into a pained frown and she began to cry. She was swaddled in gold tweed.

She wiped away tears. She left the room.

And one suspected that all the security blankets in the world would not have made a difference to an average woman in such extraordinary circumstances.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company