The Donna Karan commander in chief advertising campaign from the 1990s. (Peter Lindbergh for DKNY)

If there was a particular moment in the recent history of fashion magazines, a moment that signaled a shift in how fashion perceived women in Washington and the ways in which their ambitions could be both celebrated and marketed, it was in 1992, when designer Donna Karan commissioned an advertising campaign to promote a new collection of her sportswear, which happened to be filled with menswear-style tailoring along with feminine blouses and camisoles.

Karan had always defined herself as a designer who was especially empathetic to the needs of women. She wasn’t trying to decorate them. She wanted to create clothes that solved problems — that made their lives easier and, in the grand language of fashion, elevated them.

She wanted an advertising campaign that spoke to her design philosophy but also paid homage to her vision of a “strong executive woman.” She and her marketing team asked themselves: What was the ultimate position of power? What was the most important executive suite of them all?

The answer, Karan said in a recent interview, was the Oval Office. And that year, she launched her “In Women We Trust” advertising campaign. It was a series of photographs featuring model Rosemary McGrotha, who was in her mid-30s, with thick, shoulder-length hair, dressed for business.

In one memorable image, McGrotha wears a double-breasted pinstriped jacket with a triple strand of gumball-size pearls. She appears to be taking the oath of office, with Secret Service agents hovering in the background and a first gentleman watching the proceedings. In another, she is stepping off a private jet wearing a wrap skirt that has slipped open to reveal her long legs, discreetly sheathed in opaque tights — a phalanx of uniformed men carry her bags. She looks like a boss, and she looks womanly. Two notions
that, for years, had been at odds.

“When that fantastic commander-in-chief ad came out, I fell in love with it,” recalls Cindi Leive, Glamour magazine’s editor in chief. “But it was 100 percent a fantasy that a woman — forget being president — that a woman could look like that and dress like that and be a public servant.

“It looks less like a fantasy today,” she says.

In 2016, fashion’s vision of women in Washington and the reality have finally merged.

Fashion magazines, with their elaborate narrative advertising campaigns and fanciful editorial spreads, have a leading role in how women are perceived in popular culture. They define the beauty standard. They expound on the feminine ideal. They illustrate how power looks on a woman.

And for years that vision was terribly staid. “There’s this retro image of Washington style, when you think of the pearls and almost a Southern style of dressing,” says Anne Fulenwider, editor in chief of Marie Claire.

Whether Vogue or Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Elle or Marie Claire, glossy magazines have a long history of publishing stories and essays that aim to speak directly to women and the important issues in their personal lives, their careers and the ways of Washington.

Tucked between the pages dedicated to society parties and recipes for smoked turkey au gratin, for instance, Vogue’s political coverage dates back as far as 1900. In the 1940s, Vogue was running stories penned by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and introducing its readers to “The 9 Congresswomen.” That latter story, written in 1945, looked at the small group of women on the Hill: “Each one as different as the gents on the bench in the way that they vote.”

The story discusses the “lady” lawmakers’ focus on issues varying from the rights of migrant workers to banking regulations, and it also reflects the ways in which their appearance was a matter of public interest and conversation.

Mary Norton, a Democratic congresswoman from New Jersey, who was identified as the dean of the women’s contingent, was described as “a knowing politician” with “grey hair cut like a man’s, the face of an aging belle, with shrewd, deepset eyes and a way with people.”

Congresswoman Emily Taft Douglas, an Illinois Democrat, had a “pinkly scrubbed face, grave blue eyes, fluffy brown hair and the appeal of a Jenny wren.”

Early on, appearance and substance were intertwined in fashion magazines, with women in Washington sometimes viewed with a particularly critical eye. They were outliers — a separate species, apart from actresses, musicians, socialites or even businesswomen. The rules of attire were different for them. And they remain so today.

“When we’re photographing a member of Congress, many have said, ‘I want to have fun and look amazing and have a fashion moment, but it’s not going to fly in my district for me to wear a $5,000 look. I want to wear something a woman in my district can buy at the mall,'” says Leive, who has helmed Glamour for 15 years.

Women in Washington who were seeking institutional authority and influence had to walk a fine line. And fashion has been loath to provide them with the aesthetic tools to make their endeavor any easier.

“I graduated college in 1979,” recalls Cynthia Weber-Cleary, a veteran fashion editor who spent more than 15 years at InStyle. “Women were struggling to find a uniform like the one that men had. One that didn’t distract from their message or seriousness.”

But their efforts turned into a cliche. “In 1981, my first fashion job was as an assistant at Vogue,” Weber-Cleary says. “Power dressing was definitely a ‘thing,’ with a silhouette that had defined shoulders with big shoulder pads, the rich look with gold buttons. It was all about power, but power seen through the lens of men.”

Gravitas was masculine.

Stylistically, that Karan advertisement signaled a shift in the way the fashion industry related to women in Washington. Power didn’t have to mean a big, boxy suit. Femininity didn’t mean a frilly dress. Sex appeal did not involve a plunging neckline.

The Karan advertisement saw a softening of power. It offered women another way of expressing confidence. In recent years, the sheath dress became every woman’s favorite work ensemble, championed most prominently by first lady Michelle Obama. Now, there are bold jackets with prominent shoulders. There are even blouses with floppy bow ties. Again. The point is that there is no longer a uniform. There isn’t a template. Only individuals.

In the modern era, political women are portrayed in fashion magazines in a warm, flattering light. Writers are tasked with underscoring their confidence and tenacity, not which side of the political aisle they call home — or the nitty-gritty of policy positions.

“Everyone wants to look powerful,” says Fulenwider, whose Marie Claire has featured White House Social Secretary Deesha Dyer and Alyssa Mastromonaco, former deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House. “I think the right clothes can project power.”

Over the years, Vogue has had Washington correspondents who were charged with keeping an eye out for up-and-coming women who could be readily profiled.

And the magazine has turned its kind gaze toward former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, among many others. The magazine highlighted then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) before she became Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) vice-presidential running mate. And this year, for the first time, the magazine has endorsed a candidate for president: Hillary Clinton — a former Vogue cover girl.

The stories do not aim to be hard-hitting or investigative. And in the case of a 2011 profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Asaad, the magazine painted a glossy portrait that most considered wildly inaccurate.

Women in Washington are depicted less as dutiful public servants and more as glamorous ones. Laugh lines, under-eye circles, stress pimples are all airbrushed away. The photos are stylized — the women are portrayed as more visually dynamic versions of themselves. They are superheroes — in Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan.

“Our goal is not to have the magazine look like two different worlds: the fashion world and the serious world,” Leive says. “Ten years ago, if a woman is a politician or a CEO, the thinking was, ‘Oh we’ll put her in a suit.’ But that’s not how they dress, particularly younger ones.”

In a Glamour contest for college students that dates to the late-1950s and has celebrated future leaders, Leive has noticed a recent shift in how the young women dress. “They used to dress in a very serious style,” she says of them, some of whom have started nongovernmental organizations from their dorm rooms or worked to get legislation passed. “I’ve noticed this increasing aesthetic freedom year after year in the women we select.”

Younger women are not wholly upending their style sensibility to meet the traditions that come from generations of men being in charge.

“Women supporting other women is part of it,” suggests Weber-Cleary. “We’ve arrived at a place — not where we need to be in terms of earning power — but women have gained a lot of female support.”

Elle magazine, for instance, has been honoring Washington women such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and journalist Dana Bash. The occasion is marked by a celebratory dinner in the nation’s capital that has no greater agenda than to simply bring women together under the magazine’s banner. During the dinner, which is co-hosted by Hugo Boss, each woman is introduced with a sleek video that puts a fashion gloss on her Washington grit. And the women revel in it.

Today, fashion sees power as sexy. And women in Washington have clout. But while magazines are limited in what they might be able to persuade a congresswoman to wear in their pages, they are not similarly hamstrung when models stand in for female politicians, lobbyists or others with a seat at the table. Fashion fantasizes about dynamos in blouses that are cut far lower than most real women would countenance, heels that would bring a woman to tears if she had to walk on marble floors in them and pencil skirts that are hobbling.

Fashion is fashion, after all. The women “are always getting off a helicopter and looking fabulous,” laughs Weber-Cleary, whose new website Apprécier caters to the style needs of women — regardless of age.

Instead of relying on Donna Karan, Clinton for instance, favors Ralph Lauren.

Consider the latest iteration of an ad campaign that depicts a female president. This one is from designer Elie Tahari. In his version, the commander in chief is played by model Shlomit Malka, a 20-something from Tel Aviv. As she leans on a desk in the make-believe Oval Office, her dark, glossy hair is blown by some mysterious breeze. She wears a form-fitting red sheath with lace insets at the shoulders. A small white, fluffy dog is stretched out on the desk.

Elie Tahari "Madam President" fall campaign featuring the model as President in the Oval Office. (Courtesy of Elie Tahari ) Elie Tahari “Madam President” fall campaign featuring model Shlomit Malka as president in the Oval Office. (Courtesy of Elie Tahari )
 Elie Tahari "Madam President" fall campaign featuring the model as President in the Oval Office. (Courtesy of Elie Tahari ) Elie Tahari “Madam President” fall campaign featuring the model as President in the Oval Office. (Courtesy of Elie Tahari )

“It shows that a young, good-looking, well-dressed, fashionable girl can be in the White House,” Tahari says in an interview. “Young men, since they are teenagers have inspiration to be president, but young girls don’t think that way. And they should.”

Tahari’s fashion fantasy has been pushed even further because the old one — the Karan version — now looks a lot like real life. But there’s something else here. Instead of just selling a brand with a hypothetical notion, Tahari is also casting his vote. “I’m doing this as a fashion company, but also for political reasons,” Tahari says. “I support Hillary.”

Tahari is not arguing that a woman could be president; he’s saying that a woman should be.

 

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Even as women in TV and film have shattered glass ceiling after glass ceiling in D.C., they have to contend with problems male characters avoid. (Sarah Parnass,Dani Johnson/The Washington Post)