On Election Day, it was curtains for the Republican agenda.

One day later, President Bush joked by invoking draperies and tripped over the tassels.

At his televised news conference Wednesday, Bush acknowledged that Democrats had taken control of the House of Representatives. Then, instead of directly recognizing Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as the first Madam Speaker, he quipped that he had sent the woman who would be second in line for the presidency "the names of some Republican interior decorators who can help her pick out the new drapes in her new offices."

(Aides in Pelosi's office took the remark as simply a partisan punch line, saying Friday that the White House had not sent along any names of decorators.)

Some Washington decorators, however, aren't laughing.

Victor Shargai, who has furnished the interiors of offices in the Capitol and on the Hill, found Bush's joke "demeaning" -- to women and to decorators.

"I think the U.S. as a country is beyond it," Shargai said.

The president could be criticized for making a blatantly sexist remark, but it must be noted that when offices change hands, there is a tradition of altering the decor.

According to the House Committee on Administration's "Guide to Outfitting an Office," members inherit the furnishings of the previous occupant. They can also select furnishings from the House Support Services catalogue at no charge. The online version makes no specific mention of draperies, but there's a basic budget.

"People do things according to their financial stature," said Shargai, who consulted on office decor for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.). "Some people pay for what they want, some people use their small budget. There's a lot of red and blue and gold."

And there's no question that spinning the midterm election like an HGTV makeover special seems disparaging to women. It's hard to imagine that the same joke would have been told if the speaker in question were Dennis Hastert.

But history is more complex. Decorating used to be a gender-neutral brand of power politics. Bush might simply have been exercising the Napoleonic imperative.

The French emperor took a fearless interest in decorating and threw the weight of his coronation robes behind the Lyonnais silk industry. That's because he understood that the luxurious French fabrics were a source of employment and a potential generator of cash to fund his conquests.

Liana Paredes Arend, a French decorative arts specialist at Hillwood Museum & Gardens in Northwest Washington, traces power decorating back to Louis XIV, who supervised the creation of Versailles right down to the draperies.

"There was very clearly a programmatic effort to put forth the aesthetic aspects of government," she said. "They had meaning beyond domesticity."

Women "started to meddle" a bit in the era of Marie Antoinette, she said, but decorating remained an affair of state rather than a fringe benefit. It was all about trade, power and image.

Fast-forward to Washington, circa 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the firm of McKim, Mead and White to remodel and redecorate the White House. At the Rough Rider's insistence, Victorian excess was removed. Records for the East Room attest to the addition of "draperies of heavy yellow silk damask."

By 1961, presidents were no longer involved. Jacqueline Kennedy took on the task of White House "renovation," which was deemed more suitable than "decorating" with taxpayer dollars. But the importance of setting the stage for statecraft was acknowledged.

If Pelosi needs help in selecting paint chips, she could turn to another former first lady: New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. As Clinton's book "An Invitation to the White House" attests, she changed plenty of draperies and carpets.

"When we first moved in," she writes, "the once vibrant blue draperies and upholstery had faded to a pale aqua. We knew we had to pick a perfect tone of blue.'' She personally fine-tuned an elaborate trompe l'oeil border.

"I suggested taking a small sample of the wallpaper and cutting a moon-shaped sliver out of it. It worked."

The current White House benefited from Clinton's effort, which includes the made-for-the-cameras backdrop of a tomato-red carpet at the entrance to the East Room. The bold carpet runner, bordered with gold fronds, was designed by the Clintons' Arkansas interior designer, Kaki Hockersmith.

Over the years, the Bushes have done their share of redecorating, too, beginning immediately with a decision to replace the Clinton carpets in the Oval Office with a peach-colored relic from the Reagan years.

In January 2002, President Bush showed off the completed renovation of his office, which included Texas landscapes, striped armchairs, bronze-colored draperies and a custom-made carpet with the presidential seal. Bush family decorator Ken Blasingame worked with first lady Laura Bush on the private quarters upstairs.

Shargai points out that the architecture of an office building has a lot to do with the styles that evolve.

The Hart Senate Office Building, for example, is "ultra-modern," he said, and vintage buildings offer "incredible backgrounds" with the potential for 12-foot ceilings with windows to match.

And then there's the kind of themed decor that makes the hometown press proud -- say, the politician from Cooperstown, N.Y., whose office reflects the cradle of baseball, or the one from Minnesota whose office honors the birthplace of Spam.

Whatever the architecture, Shargai recommends that Pelosi "surround herself with an interior that looks just as she dresses -- simple, appropriate for her, classic."

Mario Buatta, dean of American decorators and interior designer for the president's Blair House guest quarters, offered his own take.

"She should go for something that's flattering," he said.

The curtains in Pelosi's current office are said to be blue. An aide considered a follow-up question -- "Are they Bush blue?" -- but could not check the drapery to find out. The office was temporarily off-limits while the speaker-to-be was hard at work.