By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010; E03
As the country has celebrated the life of civil rights activist Dorothy Height, who died in April at 98, few folks could resist commenting on her distinctive style. She was known for her formal wardrobe of feminine suits in lush colors and, most specifically, her glorious hats. Across a crowded room -- one thick with powerful men in dark suits, political women in conservative uniforms and a privileged "Joshua generation" that shuns neckties and dress shoes -- she was easy to spot. She was the matriarch under the wide, portrait brim; she was the lady in the milliner's masterpiece of horsehair and peacock feathers.
Her fashion flourishes, as a matter of creativity, longevity and spark, deserve their due.
Along with her stylish flair, and some might even say her profound eccentricity, there was also the unmistakable air of dignity. But there was something else, too. Each time she entered a room, she brought with her a rich lesson in history, discipline and personal responsibility.
In matters of appearance, there are a host of ways in which one can flash both self-confidence and self-respect. Both, for instance, can be swiftly communicated through carriage and posture, without the help of garments. There's a reason so many parents remind their children to stand up straight. Slouching does not imply engagement or focus. Height, most definitely, stood tall.
She could have relied solely on a "ladies who lunch" manner of dress, diligently ensuring that her handbag always matched her shoes, and her jewels were unfailingly real. And in truth, there was a regal quality to Height's style.
She could have assembled a wardrobe of business suits, in the manner of so many political women. And certainly, Height's wardrobe was professional.
But her mission was a most complicated one. It combined business and politics, theater and moral certitude. She had to cajole and debate, charm and speechify. So she dressed in a manner that seemed to combine all those needs. She wore the conservative cuts of Capitol Hill and Wall Street with the ornamentation and color of an impresario who needed to captivate an audience before she could energize it. And she had the hats -- the church lady hats -- that spoke of fervor and devotion: God-is-good and God-is-great. Her style was distinctive and so was her job.
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In a White House statement after her death, President Obama noted that Height "served as the only woman at the highest level of the Civil Rights Movement -- witnessing every march and milestone along the way." As the one and only, she represented not just herself but her gender. On the stage, under scrutiny, she had to be all things: feminine, strong, humble, proud . . . she had to be a presence, but not a distraction.
She found -- and she maintained -- a style that served her well when she was marching on the Mall for equality, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and using her quiet elegance as a counter-argument to society's perception that in so many fundamental ways she, as a stand-in for all black women, was not worthy.
Height's style was captivating because it appeared to be seamless, never wavering, never turning sloppy or half-hearted. The images of her as a young woman standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial look as though they could have been snapped on the steps of a church. There is righteous certainty in her stance. She is wearing a hat, of course. She also is wearing a suit, a blouse and a pair of button earrings. Her hair is neatly coiffed with a little fringe of bangs. It's Aug. 28, 1963, in the nation's capital.
Records indicate that the temperature went into the 80s that day, yet she is not alone in her formality. Women in the crowd are neatly turned out in dresses and suits. Men wear jackets and ties. How hot and sticky must the protesters have been? How physically burdened? Wouldn't they have been more comfortable in shirt sleeves and shift dresses? Perhaps.
But they were engaged in serious business. And while they were marching for equal rights -- the women in heels, no less -- they already had their dignity. Their attire reflected the power and value of what they already possessed.
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In her later years, Height often would be the sole woman on the dais or in the spotlight who seemed to have worked so hard and taken such care with her appearance. Her hat would match her suit or coordinate with it just so. The hair would be set, with each curl put into its place. As she got older, this could not have been an easy task. It would be wrong to say that her aesthetic was retro or vintage. It was merely polished and proud.
Her style remained a testament to the fervent belief that even after so many years of activism, she still represented not just herself, but so many others.
With each public appearance, Height's personal story brought history into full focus without her having to say a word. When she sat in a classroom or was honored at the White House, it was as though grainy 16mm film footage from the 1960s had suddenly been brought to life and into present-day, vivid color. If there was a single aspect of her wardrobe that connected her to the past, it was her fierce visual declaration that dignity is expressed in many terms, not the least of which is the manner in which one faces the world.
Height's clothes didn't speak of a different time, but rather a different attitude. It's an attitude that leaves so many elders -- and no small number of young people -- baffled by the continued affection that some men have for trousers that slide down their hips. What was once a fashion trend has transformed into a cultural indictment that has riled lawmakers, parents and even a president. Their sloppy clothes, inspired by the disenfranchised, declare, "I am not worthy" -- of your respect and of self-respect.
In contrast, Height had a consistent message: Dignity is reflected in how one chooses to dress. It is determined by whether one chooses to swagger or to shuffle. And by the decision to relinquish one's fate to others or to declare oneself deserving of something more and better.
Dorothy Height took her public persona seriously. Her clothes were a constant reminder that appearances matter. And bound up in her long fight to see a society that judges each of us by the content of our character comes the lesson that dignity has always been within our control.