Ethics woes tarnish Rangel's flashy, old-school style

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) acknowledges that he has made mistakes but insists that he is not corrupt. The House voted Thursday to censure the congressman.
By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 9:07 AM

Rep. Charles Rangel almost always looks as though he has emerged from a sepia-tinted photograph - a rather dashing relic of another time. His gray hair is brushed sideways and back and held smoothly in place. He wears the dark suits of the modern politician, but he boldly eschews the mundane red tie for more dynamic four-in-hands. He punctuates his ensembles with colorful pocket squares, gold collar bars and circular tie pins.

The New York Democrat's dapper, old-school style has been on prominent display of late for reasons that are not at all attractive. His bonus time in front of the cameras stems from the House Ethics Committee's finding him guilty of 11 ethical violations. On Thursday, the full House voted to censure him.

The story of a politician caught on the wrong side of the law - or, in this case, common sense and rectitude - sadly is not unique. But in matters of style, Rangel, a congressman since 1971, is a rare breed. He is not an eccentric peacock in the House of Representatives. He doesn't use some quirk of attire - a bolo, a bedazzled Thanksgiving float of a hat - to distinguish himself. Instead, he speaks of a generation of male politicians, particularly African American ones, who wore their suits with a perfect balance of swagger and gravitas. The effect was twofold: Look at me. And take me seriously.

Rangel's sartorial gestures exude effort and intent. Each element of his ensembles read like the complicated and studied construction of personal armor, cultural decorum and public persona.

His bold ties, in wide stripes and oversize polka dots, dazzle the eyes with their shades of pink and orange. They are rarely worn without a coordinating pocket square. But take note: Those bits of cotton and silk are not folded as neatly and discreetly as the tightly coiled characters on "Mad Men" prefer. Instead, clouds of colorful silk explode from Rangel's breast pocket. The choice is not so much a matter of protocol or etiquette - no dress code requires a pocket square - but rather a personal flourish. It is the menswear equivalent of a brooch, a silk scarf, a necklace, all rolled into one.

But Rangel, 80, doesn't stop there. He is a man who favors collar bars, those slim metal pins that hold the tips of a collar neatly in place and give a tie knot a subtle lift so that it arcs gracefully over the hollow at the base of the neck. He also embraces signet rings and even statement-making rings embedded with semi-precious stones.

Rangel's aesthetic sensibility predates the flashy, hip-hop style of men such as Detroit's former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who favored flamboyantly tailored suits and jeweled ear studs. And D.C. Council member Marion Barry spent much of his mayoral career in Nehru-collar shirts and suits adorned with African-inspired cloth.

That school of attire is aimed at showing wealth, social rank or one's fundamental segregation from the culture at large. Their authority came from their willingness to buck the status quo in a host of ways, including their clothes.

Rangel's style is all about tradition, structure and the hard work of fitting in without giving in or giving up.

His look should not be seen as merely an ostentatious version of the typically unremarkable corporate uniform favored by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, District Mayor Adrian Fenty or even President Obama. These are men whose day-to-day professional style might best be described as reassuringly blah. It is calibrated to mark them as methodical, focused and sober. Their clothes are not a signifier of their personality but rather a kind of camouflage of it.

One glance at Rangel and one can't help but think of the black politicians who came out of the civil rights movement, the church, the community - men such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., whom Rangel unseated when he first won election to Congress. They took such care with their attire because they were deeply conscious of their dignity, of their self-respect - at least publicly. Their clothes asked observers to make positive inferences about their character.

Their wardrobe took on outsize importance in the public sphere. When so many judgments were made based on skin color, clothes were an aspect of their appearance they could control. They could be more than professionally dressed. They could be dashing. Elegant. Quite simply, they could be better than the white male standard.

There was a moment in August when Rangel stood in the House well and addressed his colleagues in a manner that was both defiant and urgent. But as he stood there in his dark suit and white shirt, something was wrong. His tie was crooked; his hair a little mussed. Rangel, by no means, looked disheveled. But for a man whose attire is always such a carefully moderated blend of tradition and showmanship, control and daring, it was a telling lapse.

His words focused on his determination to fight the ethics charges, on his refusal to be pushed out. But his clothes suggested that he'd already lost control of his personal narrative.

The whole notion of censure is founded on public embarrassment. Its goal is to make a congressman look bad. Censure is all about appearances.

And for a lawmaker who has taken such care with his and invested so much in his sartorial identity, looking bad is not just a matter of losing the public trust, it also signifies the undoing of a very public man.

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