It wasn't a dragon.

That swirl of beads on the back of the coat Hillary Rodham Clinton wore to face the grand jury -- and the media gantlet -- was not a dragon, despite the assertions of news outlets and next-door neighbors.

It is an abstract design that resembles an art deco rendering of seashells. That flourish, however, turned into a Washington political Rorschach test. People saw what they wanted to see. There probably are some folks who would swear they saw flames shooting out of the imaginary dragon's mouth.

The White House's word on the coat: It's three or four years old and was designed by the first lady's Arkansas clothier, Connie Fails. Mrs. Clinton wore the coat during the campaign as well as during the inaugural festivities. (A remembrance of happier times?)

The bulk of that swirling shape is composed of silver beads but two large gold buttons anchor it on each end. From a style perspective, the wearable art coat is a bit glitzy for a daytime grand jury appearance. We would have gone with a black cashmere duster sans beading. Or maybe a nice camel hair balmacaan.

But that's fashion. The issue of the dragon was about subtext, semiotics . . . wishful thinking. A dragon! Dragon lady! Monster!

Remember the famous "pink press conference"? Newsweek brought it up again, reminding its readers of how Mrs. Clinton, moving to plug a flood of criticism about her legal dealings, appeared before the media wearing a pink sweater set. It was trimmed in black and quite tasteful. What could it mean, other than that the first lady likes pink? (She wore a pink suit when she visited Beijing.)

Political wags figured it meant that the first lady was trying to change her tough, lawyerly image and to come across as soft, sweet and innocent. That wasn't a pink sweater set; it was a public relations ploy.

What should Mrs. Clinton have worn?

What would have happened if she had chosen something purple? She probably would have been accused of trying to put on royal airs. White would have meant she was trying to claim purity and innocence. Red would have signaled that she was conjuring up the don't-mess-with-me aura of Nancy Reagan. Bar Blue? Going for Barbara Bush's lovability, of course. Yellow? Clearly, she'd be pulling the Little Miss Sunshine ploy. Black? Stone the witch.

Mrs. Clinton's dilemma is that women have no business uniform. They have no garb that allows them to slip in and out of a situation without fashion commentary that mixes in pop psychology.

Sometimes this is a pleasant thing. Choice can be good. Women can go to delicious extremes in their wardrobe. They can convey an image that is playful, sexy, glamorous, dowdy, powerful. What they can't be, even when they want to be or need to be, is fashion neutral.

Men don't have the luxury of style freedom, but they have the ability to opt out. Men can stand apart from their clothes.

A man, in the same predicament as Hillary Clinton, could simply have put on a navy suit and a white shirt and no one would have mentioned his clothes. When House Speaker Newt Gingrich has media encounters -- let's call them the "ill-fitting suit news conferences" -- no one accuses him of trying to play a role. No one finds meaning in his straining buttons.

Women can rarely separate themselves from their clothes. Especially powerful women. If Mrs. Clinton had worn a navy suit, she clearly would have been trying to dress like one of the boys . . . in hopes of getting empathy. Such a schemer!

No matter what the first lady wears, it means something. And when approval ratings are down, it undoubtedly will mean something bad. CAPTION: No fire-breathing beast: Hillary Clinton wore a coat embroidered with a swirl of beads, not a dragon, to her recent grand jury appearance.