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

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; E01

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.

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.

But a Michael Kors sheath? That is not a scandalous frock. And it's a lot more convincing and powerful than that dutifully dull, gray stereotype.

In the story, Gillibrand has no problem chatting with a reporter as she trots around New York "looking like a million bucks in a little black dress and high heels" during the September shopping bacchanal known as Fashion's Night Out. She even made a divalike move and executed a wardrobe change that evening, switching to a different little black dress by Nanette Lepore for a visit to that designer's Madison Avenue shop.

Why can't Gillibrand favor Washington and the hustings with her best aesthetic efforts? No midday wardrobe changes required.

In the Vogue photographs, Gillibrand is depicted on the job -- or at least the editors' fanciful version of it. She's strolling on the Capitol plaza and playing with her boys in her office. In each instance, she's wearing a dress that is strikingly elegant and stylish, but certainly not inappropriate for her position. She's playing an idealized version of herself with the help of kind lighting, fluffed hair and a flattering assessment of her preparedness and kindness.

The fantasy is heightened by the emptiness of the Capitol backdrop, the tidiness of an office that is also serving as a children's playroom and the just-bloomed perfection of the white tulips on her nearby desk. But the clothes? The clothes are wholly realistic.

Over the years, as a new generation of women has arrived in Washington or stepped into politics, the cliche that it is the land of frumpiness is no longer accurate. First lady Michelle Obama stumped for Democratic candidates in brightly colored sheaths. President Obama's domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes favors power dresses and feminine skirts. Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett has a sophisticated style and a distaste for boxy suits.

Sarah Palin, with her pencil skirts, leather jackets and multi-strand necklaces, is the anti-frump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has an easy elegance and a penchant for Giorgio Armani. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina wears trim suits that have verve and personality. Women may have grown skittish of donning some avant-garde designer for a White House function, but the days when St. John Knits ruled the landscape ended long ago.

The photographs of the senator in Vogue might have been self-consciously posed. But the costuming was spot on. That's what female power looks like these days. It is elegant and body-conscious. It can just as easily be symbolized by a dress as a suit. It is unabashedly feminine without any hint of insecurity or immature girlishness.

The Vogue photographs aren't meant to be an unvarnished depiction of Gillibrand. They reveal no laugh lines, no hints of fatigue. The images are part of a stylized, glamorous fantasy. But as the look of female power shifts and evolves, the myth of the goddess warrior is becoming real. And anyone who thinks that fuddy-duddy is wise, necessary or expected is dreaming.

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