Muted Tones Of Quiet Authority: A Look Suited To the Speaker

Pelosi in an Armani pantsuit at yesterday's news conference: Clothes for playing with the boys without pretending to be one.
Pelosi in an Armani pantsuit at yesterday's news conference: Clothes for playing with the boys without pretending to be one. (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 10, 2006

The image of Rep. Nancy Pelosi standing in front of a formation of American flags Wednesday morning, taking questions as the presumptive new speaker of the House, was an arresting one and not simply because she is the first woman to be in that position.

The California Democrat was dressed in a blue-gray pantsuit with a blouse in a similar but slightly deeper hue. She wore a necklace that was a complementary mix of colors. Nowhere on her person did there appear to be a flag, an eagle or any other booming statement of patriotism that can so quickly transform a workday ensemble into a Fourth of July costume. Holding a news conference in front of flags was plenty; she did not feel compelled to drape herself in one.

Pelosi's suit was by Giorgio Armani -- the Italian master of neutral tones and modern power dressing -- and she wore it well. She looked polished and tasteful in front of the cameras. It is tempting to even go so far as to say that she looked chic, which in the world beyond Washington would be considered a compliment, but in the context of politics is an observation fraught with insinuations of partisanship and condescension.

(The appearance of the current speaker, Rep. Dennis Hastert, will go unmentioned here except to say that there is nothing chic or particularly polished about it.)

Reading the symbolism in that Armani label -- and it's reasonable to do so because designer brands are supposed to communicate an image -- it speaks of a specific approach to authority and clout. There are many ways for a woman to dress in a professional manner, from Ellen Tracy and St. John to Chanel and Akris. Putting on an Armani suit sends a message as pointed as if a man chooses shirts from Turnbull & Asser instead of Arrow. That man is not trying to be flashy, but he is intimately aware of the value of a winning appearance, both in the way in which others respond to it and also in the way in which it makes him feel. He isn't simply trying to be appropriate: He is aiming for dapper. He aspires to give off a brighter sheen than his colleagues. There is a bit of quiet one-upmanship in the choice.

Armani stands as a kind of professional armor. It is protective but soft. Tailored but with a drape. It is the style of business dress that in the 1980s famously feminized menswear and brought masculine confidence to women's wear. An Armani suit, for a woman, is a tool for playing with the boys without pretending to be one.

Among those who spend any amount of time flipping through fashion magazines, Pelosi, 66, would not stand out as a style icon. In fact, in a recent "60 Minutes" interview, Pelosi's husband, Paul, admitted that he shops for her clothes because she doesn't especially enjoy afternoons at the mall.

Still, in the context of Washington, Pelosi cuts a distinctive figure. She gives the impression that she cares about the way she looks, but gives no indication that she obsesses about it. Such pride is an admirable quality and one that most parents attempt to instill in their children, admonishing them to sit up straight, polish their shoes, or smooth their hair for the class picture.

Pelosi's attire suggests that she understands that appearance matters in politics. And while that might not be fair, that is part of the cost of participating. It's right up there with eating pork chops on a stick, kissing babies and pretending to care about the Iowa butter cow.

Gender matters, too. Remember when the security moms replaced the soccer moms? Stump speeches are tweaked depending on whether the audience is made up of middle-aged mothers or mostly male union members. Pelosi herself has made no secret that being a mother, a grandmother, the sole daughter in a family with five sons, has influenced the way in which she sees the world. How could it not?

Pelosi appears consciously, comfortably and authoritatively female. It is as though she looked in the mirror and included on the long list of questions that a woman might ask herself: Do I look appropriate? Do I look professional? Do I look strong? Do I look smart? Do I feel comfortable? She sneaked in the query that is the ultimate taboo: Do I look pretty? That's not conceited or shallow or irrelevant. It's human.

Attire is not the sole province of women, but in comparison with men, it remains an area in which they have the greater number of choices, more flexibility, the heavier burden. The public has already settled on the defining characteristics of a powerful man: He wears a dark suit that is well tailored. He pairs it with a crisp white shirt, and if he wishes to underscore his authority, he wears French cuffs. He wears a four-in-hand -- a bow tie if he wants to emphasize his eccentricity. He tries to look dignified and serious.

But what does a woman of great power look like? Does she choose her own version of camouflage and, as Hillary Rodham Clinton famously did during her first campaign for the Senate, wear a black pantsuit as a personal uniform? Does she wear stiffly tailored suits and a lapel festooned with patriotic brooches in the manner of former secretary of state Madeleine Albright? Or, like current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, does she mix professorial reserve with a hint of confident sex appeal?

Pelosi had to decide how a woman who will be second in line of succession to the presidency should look. And what she came up with is someone who wears a neutral-colored, softly tailored power suit. One that is accessorized with style rather than rote references to love of country. She looks dignified and serious. And in this case, she also happens to look quite good.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company