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Elena Kagan goes on Supreme Court confirmation offensive in drab D.C. clothes

How discombobulated would folks be if a male nominee walked the Hill wearing a Thom Browne suit with trousers that ended at the ankles or if a woman strode purposefully down the marble corridors in a pair of platform Christian Louboutin heels and a Marni sack dress? There'd be nothing profoundly inappropriate with any of that other than the images wouldn't square with the preconceived notion that sobriety equals intellect. Bland equals responsible. Matronly equals trustworthy.

Turning to archetypes

Tied up in the assessment of style -- Kagan's or anyone else's -- is the awkward, fumbling attempt to suss out precisely who a person is. For Kagan, that means folks are using fashion as a limited tool for making sense of her sexual orientation (Well, she's 50, a bit plain and never married!) and then going on to the larger question of whether being gay or not matters on the high court. (Doesn't everything matter -- including whether one has a small-town background or an inner-city one -- in how one interprets the world?)

So the chatter on the Internet and in the coffee shops, turns to the lesbian archetypes: the Birkenstock-wearing, crunchy granola womyn; the short-haired, androgynous type; and the glamorous, lipstick-wearing Portia de Rossi girl. What does Kagan's short hair mean? Or the fact that she wears makeup?

Is it so wrong to lean on cliches for guidance? Well, yes. And, also, no.

People make choices about their appearance for all sorts of complicated reasons. And often, they glom on to a cliche because they find it reassuring and easy. They wear the dress of a particular social tribe because they want people to make assumptions about who they are -- because letting folks come to a conclusion on their own is often easier than having to explain.

Ultimately, of course, on matters so personal, only the individual's speaking up can truly make things clear.

Yet, while most nominees aim for a wardrobe that sends no wayward signals, it may be that Kagan would be just as happy if her clothes said whatever it is that everyone wants to hear.

But if they don't, at least she will be presumed reliable and reassuring. Dowdy and dull. And very, very wise.

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