For Court, Slipping Into Something a Bit More Conservative

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the woman accused of being a D.C. madam, made an appearance in federal court earlier this week dressed in a navy blue suit and a pair of sensible heels. Whether Palfrey's California-based escort service has actually been providing the men of Washington with something more than the law allows has yet to be determined in court. But the image she presented to reporters and photographers outside U.S. District Court was not nearly as tantalizing as the charges.

She looked as if she were running for city council rather than heading up a prostitution ring.

Palfrey was wearing navy blue trousers with turquoise and white pinstripes and a navy blue blazer that buttoned almost to her neck. The top button was open to reveal a hint of a turquoise shirt underneath. She was not wearing much jewelry other than a pair of ornate, but not inappropriate, drop earrings. A pair of black-rimmed spectacles hung from the neckline of her shirt collar, and when she slipped the glasses on, she looked practically professorial.

No one expects a woman accused of a crime -- particularly of being a madam -- to arrive for court dressed in a tight dress and a feather boa. But Palfrey's attire was pure mid-level establishment. She would not have looked out of place on Capitol Hill. The alleged madam could pass for a legislative aide.

If there were any aspect of her appearance that made Palfrey stand out, it was her lipstick. Not because of the color, which was a geranium red, but because of the precision with which it was applied and the fact that her lips glistened like patent leather. It is the sort of cosmetic flourish that drags out a morning routine because it requires a slow, steady hand to paint on such perfect sweetheart lips. The lipstick is distracting, but not damning. The color and the shine drew attention to her mouth and served as the tiniest nod to sex appeal in an otherwise all-business facade.

Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss
"Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss.(Nick Ut - AP)
Is this what a madam looks like? Fiction has offered up a variety of stereotypes: from the spike-heeled, leather-suited dominatrix to the rotund and vaguely maternal sort who favor caftans and Kools. But real life has provided more instructive examples in the form of Heidi Fleiss, the "Hollywood Madam" of the 1990s, and Sydney Biddle Barrows, who did business in New York during the 1980s as the "Mayflower Madam." Each dressed for the well-to-do customers that her employees serviced -- a device certain to lessen their sense that there was anything scurrilous about the sex-for-money transaction. This was no street-corner exchange with a hooker in a miniskirt and tube top and a pimp hiding in the shadows. It was prettied up as a respectable business deal between men and women in suits.

Fleiss, with her tousled brown hair, had a wardrobe like a young Hollywood agent at the time. It included tasteful dresses with deep V-necks and power shoulders and neutral pantsuits with an Armaniesque nonchalance.

Barrows, a blueblood blonde, had the hyper-groomed style associated with the sort of Manhattan woman who lunches at Bergdorf Goodman, wears her grandmother's pearls and is not a homemaker but runs a household. Her clients could pretend an appointment with one of Barrows's elegantly attired working girls was no more scandalous than dinner at some clubby Upper East Side haunt followed by an especially satisfying "dessert."

Included in the cost of a high-priced call girl is discretion -- but also the appearance of keeping to one's own kind. These on-the-clock encounters are not aimed at exploring society's underbelly. It's more like having a business acquaintance with benefits.

If it turns out that Washington men have their own madam -- with a stable of college-educated call girls -- then it makes sense that she would look like the many anonymous staffers who are paid to keep these men's schedules and -- for a time -- their secrets.

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