By Robin Givhan
Plenty has been said about the current presidential maelstrom. What hasn't been tragic often has been petty and crude. But one of the more curious comments to emerge from the muck has been this: Tape-maker Linda Tripp "is someone who revered the White House. She thought it was Heaven on Earth under [George] Bush. . . But suddenly it was taken over by these hordes of kids who played basketball in the hall and wore jeans to work. She's a proper lady," Tripp's friend, New York literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, told The Washington Post. In the New Yorker magazine, Goldberg further expounded on Tripp's annoyance with the Clinton administration's casual clothes.
Attire has become an odd footnote in this embarrassing debacle.
That appearances have even been mentioned at all -- considering that the presidency could be at stake -- speaks to the tremendous expectations about the public face of power, highlights prejudices based on dress and suggests that even as the White House is referred to as the "people's house," an unshakable assumption of grandeur and formality remains.
Tripp's noting the regular lack of business suits in the Clinton White House reflects all that these uniforms have come to symbolize. Fashion historian Anne Hollander has said that "the suit is a triumph of civilization." It signifies authority, responsibility, seriousness and steadiness. Replace a suit with jeans and a button-down shirt and you have exchanged the rigid hierarchy for near chaos.
In Washington, many measure their self-worth by their proximity to the seat of authority. And they want their power brokers to look the part. Shed the suits and the center loses its identifying markers, its panache. Certainly, the White House did not abdicate its power, just one of the accouterments of it. Political clout no longer looked so glamorous.
"I think Americans have a certain subconscious attitude about the White House," says George Reedy, former press secretary for President Lyndon Johnson and professor emeritus of journalism at Marquette University.
"The White House has to be held as almost a sacred institution."
Scruffy jeans on sacred ground!
Recently, there has been talk, too, of short skirts, shaggy hair and sandals in the White House. The chatter is a flashback to the '60s, when an older generation was dismayed and frazzled by a youthful counterculture. Clothes still retain their political weight, their ability to make an ideological point or the prickliness to annoy.
As events have unfolded, people have gotten stuck on details of attire because they are quick iconography. They tell us something. Even if no one can agree on what. Former White House intern Monica Lewinsky's DKNY beret with a bow is noted. What does it say? That she is designer-label conscious? Trendy? A spoiled little rich girl? Or simply a fan of hats?
Tripp has been grist for the style mill. Her hair, her nose, her glasses, her overcoat, her physique have all been studied. So far, though, the remarks have been catty, not enlightening.
What is evident, however, is a subconscious understanding that in Washington -- and perhaps here more than anywhere else -- attire is bound by rigid rules and expectations. When that standard is ignored, an uneasiness arises. And when perceptions of status and prestige are threatened, an old pair of jeans can irritate already raw emotions.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company