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Kirsten Gillibrand's costuming in Vogue are spot on as the new power dressing

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By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is the latest Washington player to be wrapped in the warm glow of Vogue magazine. She is photographed by Norman Jean Roy, who during the presidential campaign depicted Cindy McCain as a sun-kissed California blonde in these very same pages.

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In the November issue, Gillibrand -- a New York Democrat up for reelection on Tuesday -- is shown as a coolly accomplished Hill-dweller wearing a camel-colored sheath and ivory overcoat by Michael Kors, as well as a tweed coat and matching dress from Dolce & Gabbana. As one might expect, this being Vogue, Gillibrand looks quite splendid. Her hair is practically golden; through the magic of retouching and a posse of stylists, her look is impeccable.

If anyone ever wonders what possesses so many of the image-obsessed, plaintively non-elitist but wildly self-important denizens of the nation's political sphere -- from then-first lady Hillary Clinton to then-Gov. Sarah Palin -- to submit to the editors of a New York-based fashion magazine, let this story serve as the explanation. People who are profiled in Vogue are not raked over coals or dealt with in a grumpy or cynical manner. They are made to shine in a way that is both aspirational for the magazine's readers and reflective of a world far lovelier and more dazzling than the everyday.

As a vote-getter, a Vogue story might well be a wash. For every flattering word, there is the risk of being perceived as a lightweight -- a calculus that kept Clinton out of the magazine during the throes of her presidential run.

The feature on Gillibrand wouldn't be particularly notable if it were not for an exchange she has with writer Jonathan Van Meter that begins with a mention of her 40-pound weight loss. Gillibrand describes the excess pounds as pregnancy weight -- she has two young sons. The senator went from wearing a size 16 to fitting into 4s and 6s, thanks to a strict diet and increased activity. She rewarded herself with a new wardrobe.

But alas, Van Meter laments, she will not, in her workaday life, be showing off her new figure with fashionable frocks of the sort found in the pages of Vogue. He then uses the phrase "fuddy-duddy" to describe the wardrobe requirements of her job.

If any evidence is needed to illustrate precisely what that means, plenty arises from the campaign trail and from Capitol Hill. At a recent stop in Brooklyn, for instance, Gillibrand is in full politician mode, which includes sidling up to cute children in the presence of a camera.

The candidate is wearing what would best be described as the old-school Washington uniform: a bland gray jacket with a matching skirt that falls just below the knees, opaque tights and a pair of flats -- the kindest assessment of which is that they look comfortable. Are these folks afflicted with some sort of post-Desirée Rogers stress disorder?

If there's a frowsy Capitol Hill dress code, Gillibrand and her colleagues have only themselves to blame. No one is forcing members of Congress to take the veil.

There's nothing career-damaging, gossip-worthy or problematic about what Gillibrand is wearing in the Vogue shoots. It isn't low-cut, too tight or too weird. Indeed, there are plenty of professional and well-to-do women who wouldn't mind heading to their office in a sleek sheath with a coat tossed jauntily around their shoulders. And a lot of them do.

While women on the Hill might still keep to a reserved hemline, non-sexy fit and no low-cut decolletage, there's a wide swath of fashion that remains open to them, ranging from the intellectual ease of Marni to the sensual power dressing of Lanvin or Donna Karan.

No one would expect Gillibrand to embrace a Japanese avant-garde sensibility and start wearing hump-backed dresses and coats styled after straitjackets. And it might be a stretch to get constituents to sign off on a senator who opted to model a Carven mini-dress -- a la Rogers in the current issue of Chicago magazine.


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