White House Correspondents' dinner: D.C. spiffs up its act

For years, outsiders have joked that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, but there's a strong argument to be made that that is no longer true.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010

There is one essential thing to be learned from this year's White House Correspondents' Association dinner about Washington's relationship with fashion: It has improved significantly. The appearance of the guests took on a decidedly more elegant and sophisticated tone compared to years past, when the annual convergence of media, politics and Hollywood glitter earned its "nerd prom" epithet.

Washington has reached a detente when it comes to style. The C-SPAN city hasn't exactly embraced the work of fashion's most forward-thinkers, but it is inching toward the realization that there is nothing demeaning, silly or elitist about making an effort to dress well for a big night out.

Whether journalists should be engaged in a giant schmooze-fest with the people they cover is a subject for media ombudsmen to discuss. And whether there is something profoundly hypocritical about politicians breaking bread and drinking booze with the very journalists they regularly try to circumvent or spin is an ethical issue that folks might want to contemplate with their clergymen or therapists. We are here only to assess the silk, satin and high-twist wool. And there is good news to report there.

For years, comedians, self-deprecating locals and snotty outsiders have joked that Washington is Hollywood for ugly people, but there's a strong argument to be made that that is no longer true. Folks in this town have gotten better-looking. We have former centerfolds, after all. (See: Sen. Scott Brown. See him wearing an unfortunate vest that looks like it was stitched from Christmas wrapping paper.)

And the visiting razzle-dazzle population is, well, just not as dazzling as it once was. For example, no matter how many 12-year-old girls might emit piercing screams of protest, Justin Bieber, with that bowl-cut blowout, looks like a Muppet emerging from a wind tunnel.

The media hordes, both the D.C. crowd and their New York counterparts, cleaned up nicely Saturday night. Shall we not be coy and cut to the chase? Ann Curry, Katie Couric, Meredith Vieira: bravo to you all for proving that glamour, sex appeal and brains can be a dazzling combination on the red carpet. Helen Thomas -- so pretty in pink satin.

The men mostly didn't do anything particularly daring or creative. And that is a good thing. There's nothing worse than when gentlemen get it into their heads that they have to jazz up a classic tuxedo with an outlandish cummerbund or an "artful" tie. Chris Matthews's black-and-white polka-dot bow tie was just whimsical enough.

Every man looks handsome in a well-fitting tuxedo, and though there are no readily available stats on this, it looked as if a significant number of men took extra care in making sure their jackets fit well and not like they'd borrowed them from younger, thinner and shorter brothers. Yes, Tim Geithner, you cut a fine figure!

To what do we owe this uptick in fashion savvy at the correspondents dinner? Could it be the fact that the dinner is now a full-blown social weekend overrun by celebrities real and faux? (And may we offer up Kim Kardashian -- hiding under 10 layers of mascara -- as evidence of the latter?)

Hollywood knows how to do glamour, and if media outlets are going to invite all manner of starlets and hunks to walk the red carpet as their guests, then it makes sense that the hosts would not want to look like the country cousins. No one wants to stand alongside some actress who has gotten dressed with the help of an entire village of consultants and come off looking like a frump. Hollywood has made Washington try harder.

But the celebrities have also given D.C. a break. Rare is the actress who arrives in this town with all glamour guns blazing. There was an awful lot of basic black on the red carpet, very little cleavage and only a modest display of bare legs. Here's to you, Donatella Versace, for bucking that no-naked-leg trend!

The stars do not have to pull out all the stops; they don't have to call in couture. The competition for attention just isn't that stiff. All they have to do is show up and they will get a respectable amount of coverage. Photographers will call their name. Cellphone cameras will be aimed in their direction. So with Hollywood dressing down and Washington dressing up, everyone looks like they're going to the same party, except, perhaps, for Dana Delany, who seemed to have forgotten that Washington is more formal than Hollywood and so "black tie" means "long" -- or at least, grown-up -- and not a cute little spangled cocktail dress.

We would, of course, be remiss if there was no discussion of the first couple here. Power gives most any person a certain blinding aura, and Mr. President is also tall and slim and wears his clothes well. If the boss sets the tone, it makes sense that members of his administration would aim for a bit more polish. The first lady's clothes have been an obsession in some quarters -- yeah, yeah, we know what's been published in this newspaper. We could do without the accusatory glare, thank you very much. Whether one loves or hates her style (and for the record, she looked very elegant in her long red gown), it has provided fun fodder for cocktail party chatter.

Talk of style is in the air. It is being considered and mulled. And so one has to believe that when closets were flung open all around town in anticipation of this dinner, looking good -- and not just looking appropriate -- was a more common goal.

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