Fashion: Robin Givhan on candidates' and their families' election-night apparel

Whether they won or lost, the candidates all broadcast something about themselves in their choice of attire on Election Day.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010

When the winners and losers of the midterm elections took their bows late Tuesday night -- or in some cases the wee hours of Wednesday morning -- they also lined up for the official family photo that will go into the history books. The tableaux have much in common with traditional Christmas-card portraits: They are a self-consciously staged expression of togetherness and joy in the face of chaos and, quite often, overwhelming disappointment.

The election-night images are also notable for their general sameness. For all the political talk about how Washington is suffocated by career politicians biding their time, elitists who have nothing in common with the working man and stubborn polemicists who delight in obstruction, one can't help but notice that the folks soon to be rolling into town look an awful lot like the ones who will be packing their bags and moving out.

Why didn't a single one of these Everyman pols seize the symbolism and greet supporters in a Carhartt jacket and Red Wing boots?

As usual, most of the candidates and their families could not resist the ostentatious use of red -- as if his wearing a green tie or her wearing a yellow dress would cause their identity (or their patriotism) to be questioned. Let the country be relieved that Old Glory's design does not include puce or mauve.

Many a political missus donned a simple sheath dress that bared her arms. As Rep. Kendrick B. Meek (D-Fla.) admitted defeat in his Senate bid, his wife, Leslie, stood by his side wearing a sheath in a rich shade of russet. And Rep. Roy Blunt, the Republican senator-elect from Missouri, was joined onstage with his wife, Abby, who wore a sheath in a slightly off shade of red that would best be described as geranium.

It's tempting to ascribe the plethora of sleeveless dresses to a Michelle Obama effect, if only because it would mean that all the first lady's campaigning had had some sort of impact on the election, albeit not the kind the Democrats had hoped.

But in all truth, this first lady does not own the classic sheath -- just as first lady Jackie Kennedy did not. So rather than saying that Mrs. Obama launched a flock of imitators, it would be both generous and accurate to note that she has reminded women how sophisticated and polished that simple silhouette can be.

The newly reelected Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) raised her arms in victory Tuesday night wearing a red blazer and black trousers, while her rival, Republican businesswoman Carly Fiorina, greeted her supporters -- but didn't concede -- in a cherry-red, alligator-embossed, knee-length jacket over a slim red skirt. When Fiorina finally threw in the towel on Wednesday, she wore a fitted red blazer and matching pencil skirt.

From a purely fashion point of view, Boxer's ensemble was old school, traditional Washington -- "so yesterday," as a defeated Fiorina might say. One wonders: Is having a heaping helping of fashion sense any consolation when you're in the loser's circle?

Of all the election-night family portraits, two of the most striking -- the yin and the yang of aesthetics, one might say -- were stage-managed by Republicans Rand Paul and Marco Rubio.

Paul, who was elected to the Senate from Kentucky, spoke to his supporters with the members of his family and inner circle standing behind him. God bless the red, the bright red, the head-to-toe red. His wife, Kelley, was wearing a bright-red jacket over black underpinnings. There were a host of red ties, including on the senator-elect, a red cardigan and the unfortunate costuming of an infant as a cross between Baby New Year and Uncle Sam.

All tykes may be cute, but that does not mean that all kids' clothing is adorable, too. Specifically, putting a Stars-and-Stripes headdress on an infant is not charming in this circumstance; it's not a Fourth of July picnic. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the baby is beloved; the baby must be onstage for this momentous moment. Nobody wants to put baby in the corner; just don't turn the baby into a political mascot.

Over at Rubio headquarters, the family was assembled with a watchful eye towards aesthetics, not just flag-bearing. To celebrate their father's victory in the Florida Senate race, the four Rubio children were dressed in black and white. Extra style points are awarded for the way in which the girls' headbands and the jeweled trim on their dresses echoed mother Jeanette's strand of pearls. The newly crowned senator wore a red tie with his dark suit. The four-in-hand matched his wife's red dress -- a sheath, of course.

The Rubios -- so coordinated, such judicious use of red -- weren't breaking fashion ground. But at least they will go into the history books primped and polished to celebrate election night, and not costumed like caricatures.

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