(Illustration by Nicolas Gremaud/for The Washington Post)

The author Barbara Ehrenreich tweeted an urgent-sounding question at Nancy Pelosi shortly after she was sworn in for the second time in her career as speaker of the House in January: "How do you retain your perkiness with a lifestyle that involves no sleep or exercise? Is surgery necessary? And where did you get that fantastic red dress?"

Ehrenreich, who is 77, might have been speaking for many who have lately seen in Pelosi, 79, a recipe for stylish feminine authority with a healthy dose of attitude. Since Pelosi smacked the gavel in the dress that caught Ehrenreich’s eye, she has become a fashion influencer, albeit a (perhaps) reluctant one.

Julia Perry — the stylist behind 71-year-old CoverGirl model Maye Musk (who is also the mother of Elon) — says she thrills at what she hopes is an emerging moment for mature women. “It’s really exciting — anything that bucks ageism!” Perry says, noting that Pelosi’s vibrantly colorful choices are part of her strength. “Young women are looking up to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nancy Pelosi and Brigitte Macron. This is women of a certain age who are earning their platform.”

Pelosi remains a divisive figure, though, including among liberals. And among certain fans of her style, there’s a hint of ambivalence. In a phone conversation, Ehrenreich, a self-described leftist and author of the muckraking book “Nickel and Dimed,” said she has often found Pelosi’s politics too centrist. “I’d always thought of her as a sort of mainstream Democrat,” said Ehrenreich, who is a vocal supporter of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She described Pelosi’s swearing-in dress — which is really more fuchsia than red — as a metaphor for her complicated feelings about the House speaker. “I don’t actually wear dresses,” she said dryly, but Pelosi “looked great. And I thought, wow, she’s really coming into her own.”


House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before a ceremonial swearing-in on Capitol Hill during the opening session of the 116th Congress. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Publicly, Pelosi hasn’t embraced the attention on what she wears. (She declined to comment for this article.) She isn’t alone in this stance: Female leaders often reject scrutiny of their appearance, which can be inherently sexist and has long been believed to distract from their ideas and accomplishments. Yet there are signs that attitudes are changing. Younger leaders are often more willing to embrace style as another weapon in their arsenal. Ocasio-Cortez famously shared one of her favored lipsticks (Stila’s Stay All Day liquid lipstick in Beso) when she heard women were asking.

Pelosi may not like to talk about her clothes, but it’s clear that she puts thought into what she wears. She bought the fuchsia dress, which is from the Swiss label Akris — the women’s wear equivalent of Brioni, the Italian brand favored by male executives — at Bergdorf Goodman specifically for the swearing-in ceremony, according to a person familiar with the transaction. (That person, who was not authorized to speak for Pelosi on the topic, talked to me on the condition of anonymity.)


Nancy Pelosi garnered buzz for the red coat and sunglasses she wore after a meeting with President Trump at the White House in December. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Pelosi also stayed largely mum when her clothes drew attention in December. As she strode out of the White House looking victorious in a brick-red wool coat and sunglasses, having baited President Trump into taking responsibility for the coming government shutdown, she tipped her sunglasses. Her swagger went viral. So did the coat.

“Has anybody figured what coat this is she’s wearing?” tweeted Barry Jenkins, director of “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” in a thread that revealed him to be as passionate about clothing as he is about Pelosi. He wrapped up: “She knew exactly what she was doing wearing THIS coat on THIS day coming out of THAT room, placing THOSE shades on JUST so. This is diplomacy in motion, soft power wielded like a machete through the diligent, decisive act of dressing.” (Jenkins did not respond to several interview requests.) Asked by Elle magazine whether the red coat was a deliberate choice, Pelosi said, “I had no plan or intention; it was just clean. Clean should be the first criteria.”

The person I spoke to who is familiar with Pelosi’s habits was eager to debunk an oft-repeated myth that her husband, Paul, acts as her stylist. He doesn’t. The speaker doesn’t employ one and shops for herself at places such as Bergdorf and Donna Lewis, an independent boutique in Alexandria, Va. According to the source, Donna Lewis is where she buys a number of her workhorse tailored skirt- and pant-suits.

The red coat turned out to be six-year-old Max Mara. The Italian brand, deluged with requests, promised to reissue the style. Ian Griffiths, a British former punk-rocker who is the designer of Max Mara, even explicitly adopted Pelosi as his muse for his fall 2019 collection, which he described as “a thorough analysis of how clothes empower.” The runway show in Milan in February opened with three bold colors — turquoise, blue and cornflower — of the sort that Pelosi favors.

That month, InStyle magazine announced a new fashion craze — the “Pelosi power scarf” — which sent women to Hermès scarf counters for the same silk pieces. And when Julia Roberts, Helen Mirren, Angela Bassett and myriad others donned pink dresses at the Oscars ceremony in February, Pelosi was widely credited with helping to spark the trend with her fuchsia Akris dress.

While the speaker may not acknowledge it, her safe yet well-cut choices do convey a message. “She’s conservative without being boring. She’s an alpha woman who is not afraid to show her feathers,” says Jill Totenberg, a communications consultant who has coached executives on their presentation strategies. “It evokes strength.”

Nina McLemore, a designer who dresses a lengthy list of influential leaders including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, Hillary Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, says Pelosi — who is not a client — follows most of her rules for power dressing. Those include: solid, bright colors (patterns are distracting); well-fitted pants (neither baggy nor snug); sleeves at or above the wrist bone (too long and “they make you look insignificant”); and high-quality fabrics (“men actually know more about the quality of fabric than women realize”). “She stands straight and she’s perfectly groomed,” McLemore says of Pelosi.

Shannon Watts, founder of the gun-control advocacy group Moms Demand Action, admires the way Pelosi’s suits often match her “killer heels” in bright tones. Yet none of that would matter if Pelosi weren’t a skilled — and, at the moment, highly successful — politician. “Speaker Pelosi stands out in every room she’s in mainly because she’s a brilliant badass,” Watts notes. Indeed, it’s certainly no coincidence that Pelosi’s fashion cachet increased at her moment of political triumph — a hard-fought return to the speakership that required her to lead the Democrats to victory last November, then survive a rebellion within her own ranks.

And it isn’t just her clothes that are inspiring imitation. Lauren Mechling, a New York-based author and editor, noted recently on Twitter that her mother had asked her hairstylist to make her “look like Nancy Pelosi.” It was a joke — sort of. “She respects [Pelosi],” Mechling explained in an email. “A well-coiffed hero!”

Christina Binkley is a fashion and culture journalist in Los Angeles and the author of “Winner Takes All.”