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Hillary: Suited for the Occasion

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 21, 1997; Page D01

There is only one word for it. Hillary Rodham Clinton glowed. Her blond hair was pulled up and back into a French twist. Dress designer Oscar de la Renta came through with sparkling embroidery, delicate tulle and a grand, golden flowing satin cape with a rounded stiff collar.

Standing on the dais last night at the Capital Hilton at the gala celebrating Congressional Medal of Honor winners, the first lady flashed a brilliant smile and slipped off her cape to reveal a gown of gold-embroidered tulle with a fitted bodice and full skirt. She clearly loved her dress and wanted to show it off. And really, that's all that matters.

But that's not the whole story. Mrs. Clinton tried with all her might to turn de la Renta's modern, sportswear-inspired, T-shirt style evening gown into something buttoned-up and stodgy and just right for Washington's dusty definition of the party circuit. She took a dress that was full of glamorous sex appeal on the runway and she raised the neckline. She lowered the sleeves, down, down, until they reached her wrists. She wore cream satin evening gloves, lest any hint of skin below the neck be visible.

Perhaps it was best that Mrs. Clinton abandoned the short sleeves. But one wished, if only for the sake of variety, that the neckline didn't rise so desperately high, clutching at her chin.

The inaugural ball gown was an emphatic announcement that the first lady was going to play the style game her way. She is a woman of restrained and traditional tastes who has begun to feel more comfortable with fashion. And although she has expressed a willingness to experiment with and enjoy clothes, she will not be controlled by trends set in New York and Paris and Milan. Part of her new-found sense of fashion includes developing a clear idea of what flatters her most. And indeed this dress did. It was a personal home run, but a fashion base hit.

The same philosophy ruled the first lady's ensemble choices for her husband's swearing-in ceremonies yesterday. Thank heaven there was no hat.

Mrs. Clinton shunned pillboxes, fedoras and flying saucer chapeaux. She refrained from plopping any sort of silk flora or abstract sculpture atop her well-coiffed head. Instead, she let the simple lines of her coral Oscar de la Renta suit with its matching single-breasted mandarin-collar coat speak volumes about her recently found—and still rather precarious—fashion sense. Her matching taupe accessories, including gloves and leg-lengthening heels, emphasized the understated sophistication of her Inauguration Day ensemble.

There was, however, the matter of the gold brooch dotted with gemstones. Like a security blanket from a staid and overly accessorized past, it clung to the left side of her coat, clashing with the pearl button earrings that glistened under the noon sky. It stopped an admiring eye like a visual speed bump.

The president was sworn in wearing an uninspired burgundy-and-midnight tie with the prerequisite dark suit. His oft-unruly hair seemed to have been tamed by a fresh cut. He slipped off his black overcoat before stepping forward to recite the oath of office. No one expects the president to greet such a formal occasion in a blue velvet suit—singer Babyface offered that homage to Vegas at the Presidential Gala the night before. Still, it would have been nice had Clinton worn something other than a self-possessed smile to distinguish himself from the rest of the unimaginative politicos seated on the Capitol platform.

Daughter Chelsea wore a blue-gray, military-inspired jacket with a matching coat and a short A-line skirt. The wonderful full coat, with its oversize Peter Pan collar, was shrugged off by the 16-year-old, following the example of her father, when she walked part of the parade route. And, oh my, but the skirt was short, revealing nearly the full length of her dancer's legs.

The brooch and the disappointing tie were quibbles given that four days' worth of inaugural fashion saw big hair that only a Texan could love, cowboy boots only a rodeo star should wear and Whoopi Goldberg, at the Presidential Gala, dressed in a forest green velvet evening tarp that the good-natured might call a caftan and the callous might refer to as a four-person tent.


That was the sound of the floor of the Washington Convention Center straining under the weight of beads and sequins at the Arkansas and California balls last night. The baubles there were not tiny or delicate but hulking teardrop pearls along with brass ball bearings that could put an eye out and sequins the size of poker chips. Several people took to squatting on the floor with shoes removed, having given in to the weight of their metallic dresses. One fellow was carting around a folding chair for his companion. Who knew when she might collapse in a heap of bangles? Two sisters at the Arkansas ball, Louvenia Hampton and Maefrances Gist, picked up a pair of contrasting sequined berets—one in black and the other in silver—on a shopping trip to Memphis.

Chelsea Clinton seemed to take her evening inspiration from Carolyn Bessette Kennedy in adopting a sleek, minimalist style. Her floor-length ice-blue satin dress was sleeveless and had a drop waist. The cut-in bodice revealed her youthful, toned shoulders. Draped around her arms was a matching sheer stole, which she handed off to her mother so she could groove to Sheryl Crow singing "All I Wanna Do." Bill Clinton wore the same style of double-breasted tux that served him so well at Sunday's Presidential Gala.

Cleavage popped out everywhere. Two other sisters, Marcela and Malena Abranowicz, this pair at the California ball, chose Jessica McClintock corseted dresses, one in gold, the other in black velvet. Their delicate bosoms were pushed up toward their chins a¼ la Glenn Close in "Dangerous Liaisons." "No," said Malena, "it's not comfortable. But I guess ladies have to suffer for beauty."

The California ball was also a haven for hat-lovers. Doris Allen of San Francisco arrived wearing a silver silk floral wreath atop her head. It had been made for her by a—shall we say—"friend" back home. And Deborah Sult-Crable of the District was doing her best Holly Golightly in a wide-brimmed black picture hat that she'd purchased in London's Heathrow Airport.

The back was the erogenous zone at the Tennessee Ball in Union Station. Dresses dipped low, sometimes with straps that crisscrossed or snaked at the rear in seductive diagonals. And if ambiance has anything to do with carriage and presentation, then the vaulted ceiling and soaring columns of the Beaux-Arts train station and its soaring columns were the best accompaniments to what were mostly sleek classic gowns that dared to reveal more than the usual amount of flesh.

As the evening wore on and singer Gloria Estefan performed from her perch, shoes were tossed to the side and revelers danced in stocking feet as tiny runs started to form at their heels.

At the Omni Shoreham hotel, across the hall from the mid-Atlantic gala, came the pounding strains of a disco beat from the Triangle ball hosted by the Human Rights Campaign. It wasn't one of the 14 official balls, but many of the trappings were the same. There were the red, white and blue decorations: poster-size Out magazine covers featuring Woody Harrelson as Larry Flynt wearing an American flag diaper. There was the band: four strapping young men dressed all in black. And there was the coat check line, this one stretching on for about 200 feet.

The lifestyle might have been alternative, but the fashions, mostly, were Washington-conservative—basic black tie with maybe a decorative button cover or a multi-colored cummerbund to hint at the gay spirit lurking beneath the standard uniform. Candace Gingrich combed Nordstom's petite department to find the sapphire blue blazer that topped her black trousers. "I am a perennial last-minute shopper," she said. "Just thank goodness it wasn't black." Her partner, Kris Pratt, chose a Jones New York black pantsuit, a white collarless shirt adorned with a single black button rimmed in rhinestones.

The whole scene was a bit of yawn. Until the band left the stage and the deejay took over. And then this was the party that showed the city how to have a good time. Men started unbottoning their starched tuxedo shirts, revealing buff chests; they did not worry that every hair stayed in place. And they hit the dance floor hard.

Soul diva Aretha Franklin, whose voice purred with passion and roared with power during a duet with James Taylor at the Presidential Gala, seemed to be wearing the drapes from her living room. Her white satin evening gown was adorned with gold scrolls and squiggles of the sort that usually decorate formal window treatments. Lord love her, but Franklin couldn't stop with the mind-boggling dress. She used the remnants of fabric from the gown to stitch up a pair of over-the-elbow gauntlet-style gloves. Her ambitious hairdo curved and swirled like a Henry Moore sculpture.

The first lady also had a fashion step backward at the USAir Arena gala Sunday. She wore a floor-length pine green skirt with a matching jacket. The blazer's contrasting collar and cuffs were blinding metallic gold. The whole ensemble aged her by at least a decade.

The weekend's endless stream of parties, dinners and galas all seemed to draw from the same guest list. And as revelers stayed up too late, drank too much, overate and began to talk louder and louder in increasingly crowded spaces, the tiniest fashion misfires became deeply annoying. Actor Kevin Spacey's strawberry blond highlights started to look orange. Documentary director Ken Burns—with his medieval bowl haircut—looked more and more like Gilligan.

And one winced at the sight of Miss America, Tara Holland. The beauty queen with the frozen grin showed up at Saturday night's Conde Nast/MTV party at the Corcoran Gallery wearing an above-the-knee dress with alternating panels of solid black and leopard print. She accessorized it with a brooch that looked as if it had been pounded out of a Dr Pepper can.

Joe Klein, Mr. Anonymous, marched into the same fete wearing a suit and a Army green parka suitable for crossing the tundra. How much did he get for the movie rights to "Primary Colors"? Surely there must have been money left over for a proper overcoat.

While a few of the worst fashion moments could be traced to the Hollywood crowd or those with movieland connections, the bunch from California—and New York—was responsible for some of the most inspired sightings.

"Who is that?" asked a shocked woman at the Corcoran with a "That Girl" flip cemented into position. The object of her look of horror was Diva Zappa, younger sister to Dweezil.

"I got into the National Enquirer for fashion crisis of the week," the young Zappa bragged. She was a vision in a pink fake-fur Todd Oldham jacket. Underneath it she wore a medley of studiously bargain-basement-looking separates, including a slightly-too-small pale pink shirt. "Genuine Wookiee" boots made her feet look as if she had wrapped them in yards of brown shag carpet. Her platinum hair, with its dark roots, was tied up in dozens of tiny pigtails. The circuslike regalia was fabulously, hilariously tasteless.

A stylish trio cruising the concourse at the USAir Arena Sunday night proved that some real women are indeed as tall and thin as models and that some men know how to be fashionable without turning themselves into fops.

Barbara Machen of Los Angeles arrived dressed in a steel-blue Donna Karan slim-fitting evening skirt with a matching shell and stole. She wore black suede Yves Saint Laurent sandals and her chestnut hair hung straight. "Everyone keeps saying, 'You're not from here, are you?'‚" Indeed, she stood out in the sea of multicolored sequins and flash-frozen hair that prowled the stadium in search of popcorn and corn dogs.

"This is the first time I've been to an inaugural event," she said. "I thought this looked very galalike." And then she pointed out the understated black Gucci loafers worn by her companion, Trevor Webb. He was wearing a Perry Ellis tuxedo with a black brocade waistcoat. (I know, I know. I have railed against nontraditional black tie in this very newspaper. Sue me.) Their friend Darrin McElroy was wearing a four-button Hugo Boss tuxedo. His blond hair had that slightly gelled, tousled, perfectly unkempt look that seems to come naturally to Angelenos.

Thanks to the cold weather, Washington was awash in fur, and revelers were paying no attention to the pleas of one anti-fur protester dressed in a white bunny suit who held a placard reading "Only animals wear fur." Sorry, Bugs. In this cold, folks were wearing—no, flaunting—their fur coats. Savannah, Ga., native Sara Jospin wore a reversible nutria-lined, fox-trimmed raincoat to the Presidential Gala. "Isn't it beautiful?" she asked.

Then whispered, "It's borrowed."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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