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

Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; E12

U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, doing the customary meet-and-greet with the senators who will decide her fate as a Supreme Court nominee. Whether Kagan leans left or right in her judicial demeanor is for court observers to debate. But in matters of style, she is unabashedly conservative.

The other men and women who have gone through this process have not been daring in their wardrobe choices either. There hasn't even been a pair of artful eyeglass frames in recent memory.

Justice Samuel Alito, for instance, looked utterly ordinary during his confirmation hearings -- a forgettable blur of Washington's standard dark suit, red tie, white shirt. And the most recent addition to the court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, appeared to have been given a fast tutorial on the importance of wearing strong colors, basic black and neutral nail polish. All hints of personality were deftly extracted from her wrists, her lapels, her earlobes.

Given all the assumptions about the frivolous nature of fashion, perhaps their unremarkable appearance was reassuring. After all, the position they aspired to is freighted with so much serious responsibility.

But Kagan took the anti-style offensive several steps further. She put on rouge and lipstick for the formal White House announcement of her nomination, but mostly she embraced dowdy as a mark of brainpower. She walked with authority and stood up straight during her visits to the Hill, but once seated and settled during audiences with senators, she didn't bother maintaining an image of poised perfection. She sat hunched over. She sat with her legs ajar.

Kagan made her debut as a U.S. Supreme Court nominee dressed in a hip-length emerald-green jacket, black underpinnings, sheer black hosiery, sturdy black pumps, a strand of pearls and matching earrings. Her style was tidy and conservative but with a generous sprinkling of frumpiness of the sort that federal Washington can't resist -- at least when in front of a camera's intruding lens.

Looking drab has its advantages for both men and women in the nation's capital because it insulates them from accusations of superficiality -- a sure-fire political career killer. And as a society, we still cling to certain cliches about absent-minded professors whose brilliance is only matched by their just-rolled-out-of-bed appearance. We connect brains with bad clothes.

But Kagan is only 50 years old, which might be the equivalent of 100 in Hollywood years, but within the Washington establishment she would be classified as a young'un. Her style, however, makes her seem so much older. There's little that could be described as fun, impish or creative in her dress. It's a wholly middle-age approach to a wardrobe -- if one stubbornly and inaccurately defines that transitional period in life as the beginning-of-the-end of sex appeal, effervescence and sprightliness. Kagan's version of middle-age seems stuck in a time warp, back when 50-something did not mean Kim Cattrall or Sharon Stone, "Cougar Town" or "Sex and the City."

If cities such as Los Angeles and New York are obsessed with appearing younger, Washington is the rare place where looking older seems woven into the official dress code.

Body language

In the photographs of Kagan sitting and chatting in various Capitol Hill offices, she doesn't appear to ever cross her legs. Her posture stands out because for so many women, when they sit, they cross. People tend to mimic each other's body language during a conversation, especially if they're trying to connect with one another. But even when Kagan sits across from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has her legs crossed at the knees, Kagan keeps both feet planted firmly on the ground. Her body language will not be bullied into conformity.

She does not cross her legs at the ankles either, the way so many older women do. Instead, Kagan sits, in her sensible skirts, with her legs slightly apart, hands draped in her lap. The woman and her attire seem utterly at odds. She is intent on being comfortable. No matter what the clothes demand. No matter the camera angle.

For a Supreme Court nominee, the road to confirmation always begins with these theatrical displays: the announcement by the president during which he brags on the nominee's qualifications, the parading of the nominee through the hallways of the Capitol, the fielding of questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's a weeks-long photo op. A chance to scrutinize the record but also the look, the attitude and the presence of the job candidate. Kagan knows the cameras are there. She just doesn't seem to care.

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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