On Culture

Robin Givhan on Sonia Sotomayor's Safe, Restrained Look at Confirmation Hearings

Sonia Sotomayor is moving forward with an eye on the past, as in the 1980s.
Sonia Sotomayor is moving forward with an eye on the past, as in the 1980s. (By Brendan Hoffman -- Bloomberg News)
By Robin Givhan
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Over the course of the last decade, the fashion industry has preached a new gospel of women's power dressing. It asserted that a sheath conveys authority just as surely as a business suit with its shoulder pads, notched lapels and matching skirt of a discreet length.

Accessories also have been promoted as essential elements in a woman's wardrobe because they can provide not-so-subtle clues about the wearer's personality. Women have been encouraged to shun pantyhose and pair bare legs with their professional attire, particularly when it is Washington in July and hosiery would merely be an unnecessary addition to one's overheated discomfort.

But if there has been a single sweeping edict from the fashion industry on the subject of workweek style, it has been for women to confidently flaunt their femininity. To let their individual voices be heard. Strength, femininity and fashion can coexist in the boardroom as well as on Capitol Hill.

This week, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor did not appear to have been swayed by the fashion industry's argument. Not in the least.

Her wardrobe, as she sat for her daily grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not reflect the fashion industry's constant refrain. In fact, it did not even appear to have been influenced by the 21st century. Instead, Sotomayor's clothes evoked authority in the manner of a 1980s lady power broker.

And while a wing of the fashion industry has been enraptured by the styles of the 1980s, its focus has been more on embellished military jackets, harem pants and jersey dresses that look as though they might spontaneously combust on a particularly hot day. That is not the part of 1980s fashion history Sotomayor was channeling. She embraced that period in fashion when femininity had no place in the executive suite.

On the first day, she wore a cobalt blue jacket that cinched asymmetrically with the help of four big black buttons. She paired it with a black shell, a black skirt and sheer black pantyhose. The color of her jacket was simple and bold. It was not a complicated shade of blue -- the kind of color that people struggle to describe because it can look different depending on the light -- nor was it subtle. Instead, it was akin to the cheerful hue made famous by Barbara Bush back in the late 1980s and early '90s.

The next day, Sotomayor wore a bright red jacket with black topstitching. She paired the three-button blazer with a black skirt and again, sheer black pantyhose. By Day 3, she had stepped away from the bright colors and instead wore a black pinstriped skirt suit that could easily have been used to illustrate the old John T. Molloy "Woman's Dress for Success" book -- a manual whose heyday was in the 1980s.

Sotomayor wore virtually no visible jewelry -- not even a watch. Perhaps it would have been too tempting to sneak a peek at her wrist (see George H.W. Bush's debate debacle) and too dangerous if her facial expression had said: "Oh, geez. It's only been an hour?!" Her single notable accessory was a slim bangle on her right wrist. Her neck, so exposed by her jewel collars, was bare.

Aside from her decision to emphasize skirts instead of trousers and the shoulder-length dark curls framing her face, there was nothing in Sotomayor's style that acknowledged her femininity in a significant way. Instead, her style seemed studiously constructed to deliver the least punch. It offered no hints of personality. There were neither pins -- flag or otherwise -- on her lapel, nor any kind of personal frippery that might have drawn the eye. Her lipstick was a neutral pink gloss. Even her nails had been stripped bare; there was no hint of the cherry-red manicure that she has, on occasion, worn.

Instead, her style was an almost by-the-numbers uniform that spoke of manuals, consultants, media coaches, committees and politics. In short, it was safe and guarded. Almost all the personality had been siphoned out of it except for that bit of topstitching on her red blazer and a vaguely Edwardian flip on her bright blue collar.

In recent years, it's been men in Sotomayor's position, with their hands raised as they promise to tell the truth. In matters of aesthetics they've had it easy. They needed only to wear a tidy dark suit with an unstained tie and a crisp dress shirt. A fresh haircut was always a wise move. Meeting these meager requirements has sometimes been a struggle. Still, both Samuel Alito and John Roberts were mostly unremarkable when they appeared before the Judiciary Committee.

The families are always another story. Martha-Ann Alito dressed like a PTA mom turned peacock. And last week, Sotomayor's mother, Celina, sometimes clutched her handbag in her lap as though she didn't quite trust that Capitol Hill crew.

Sonia Sotomayor didn't try to imitate the boys by assembling androgynous ensembles. That would not have gone over at all. Too dark a palette or too sleek a silhouette would have looked too urbane. Too unapproachable. Too minimal. Too suspiciously New York liberal.

Sotomayor avoided wearing clothes so bland that they faded into the background and left her looking dowdy and retiring and like she was trying to remake herself into something she is not. Based on her résumé and her life story, "flat" and "dull" are not adjectives that could accurately be applied to the "wise Latina." So she was not a blur in beige.

Instead, her colors were bright, but in the manner of all those congresswomen who have never seen a primary hue they didn't like because those searing shades look so good on television. Sotomayor channeled Hillary Clinton during the Ohio primaries; she looked like a high school principal.

The jackets all had strong shoulders -- as in shoulder pads but not the good Dynasty kind -- so that Sotomayor looked crisp and sharp and not like a lump sitting behind that desk. The jackets had plenty of buttons so they didn't gap if she slouched -- and really, who could sit with ballerina posture during all that mind-numbing questioning and non-answering?

Sotomayor combined a black skirt with a staid array of jackets. She established a pattern of visual reassurance. (And that cast on her leg had the added bonus of making her look tenacious and game.) She didn't take advantage of the freedoms that fashion offers, and she expressed little personality. Instead, her clothes said simply, in matters of law and justice: "I am palatable. I am familiar. And in addition to my ethnicity, I also know how to leave my gender at the door."

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