A New Leader's True Colors

Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, showed off an array of traditional African attire during a recent diplomatic visit to the United States. Her head wraps often conveyed a regal air. However, the Harvard-educated economist's wardrobe isn't without Western touches.
Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, showed off an array of traditional African attire during a recent diplomatic visit to the United States. Her head wraps often conveyed a regal air. However, the Harvard-educated economist's wardrobe isn't without Western touches. (By Chip Somodevilla -- Getty Images)

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

An interesting expression of political style recently came from Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the new president of Liberia, who steadfastly adhered to a wardrobe of traditional African dress during a round of speeches, meetings and handshaking in the United States.

When Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist, spoke to a joint session of Congress last week, she looked striking in a head-to-toe explosion of dramatic swirls of ruby red, black and shimmering gold embroidery. The spectacular nature of her garb made the typical congressman's red tie and the congresswoman's red suit look not just banal, but utterly dreary.

When Johnson-Sirleaf addressed the U.N. Security Council, she chose another dynamic pattern, this one dominated by a glorious shade of lapis blue. For a visit to Providence, R.I., she wore an ivory ensemble with a matching head scarf. This look was especially soothing as it called to mind the uniform of an old-fashioned "mother of the church" -- one of the women who hold vigil from the first pew, armed with cardboard funeral home fans and ice water to aid any congregant overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit.

When Johnson-Sirleaf met with President Bush in the Oval Office this week, she was cloaked in lilac. In every instance, her head scarf matched her robes.

She does not always wear traditional attire. During her presidential campaign she was photographed wearing gimme caps. She wears jeans. One suspects that there are a few sweat shirts in her closet emblazoned with Harvard crimson.

Johnson-Sirleaf's manner of dress is deliberate and intriguing as she sets out to bolster Liberia's relationship with the United States and to define her country's national identity.

On her recent U.S. trip, a favorite accessory was a simple strand of cultured pearls. With that in mind, one couldn't help but compare her to Afghanistan's Hamid Karzai, who stepped onto the world stage four years ago wearing a mix of traditional robes, Western tailored suit jackets and distinctive hats made of karakul lambskin. Tom Ford, then the creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, noted that Karzai was essentially the most elegant man in the world. It was obvious hyperbole, but it did underscore the notion that some aspect of cosmopolitan polish is linked to balancing the personal and the public, the local and the global.

Johnson-Sirleaf is not especially chic, not according to the traditional rules of women's fashion, which are rather strident in their demand for heels and body consciousness. At 67, she has a soft face, a sturdy physique and practical spectacles. During her campaign, she won the nickname "Iron Lady," although there is nothing particularly steely in her appearance.

But her attire expertly suggests both the importance of her position and the dire circumstances of her country. In Providence, her austere ivory headwrap eloquently conveyed modesty and simplicity.

It acknowledged her position without bombast. As she stood before Congress in glorious shades of red and gold, she looked regal. She wore her head scarf like a crown, and indeed, the coils of fabric demanded that she stand tall. The head wrap requires an almost formal posture, something that fashion designers have long noted.

In the spring of 1997, the designer Jean Paul Gaultier presented his black-chic collection, which combined various aesthetic expressions of the black diaspora -- from traditional African style to Harlem street wear. The most distinctive element of that critically acclaimed collection was the way in which he relied on head wraps and hats to give his models a noble bearing. Black women have had a long and well-documented affinity for millinery of all sorts. There is dignity, grace and power in Johnson-Sirleaf's glorious turbans.

Those head wraps physically increase her stature. They set her apart. They define her as African. But with her discreet little pearl necklace -- so very Western, middle-class, tasteful, familiar -- she created as masterful a combination as if she'd worn traditional robes and a tailored blazer. With Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa meets the Junior League with stylish ease and quiet dignity.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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