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Forget celebrity fashion: Here’s how normal guests dressed for correspondents’ dinner

People crowd into the hallways as they head to the White House correspondents’ dinner. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Michelle Obama wore Zac Posen. Supermodel Chrissy Teigen wore Zuhair Murad. Actress Lucy Liu wore Naeem Khan. But ask “Who are you wearing?” of the typical guest mingling at the White House Correspondents’ Association pre-parties — the journalists, flacks, political staffers and spouses who probably don’t have an army of stylists at their disposal —  and you’re likely to get a laugh.

“I’ll have to send you to the back of my dress,” said Susan DiMarco, the wife of Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, inviting us to reach behind her neck to check out the tag on her embellished floral cocktail gown; she couldn’t recall the designer. Others confessed that they borrowed or rented their gowns — the Georgetown branch of Rent the Runway surely did brisk business this week. Though journalists are notoriously schlubby, many of them clean up nicely in black tie. And of course, they’re increasingly rubbing elbows with moneyed non-media guests who score a lot of the tickets these days.

[White House correspondents’ dinner: Now with even more empty calories!]

While the red carpet at the dinner has become a bigger deal lately, it’s hardly the Oscars or Golden Globes, so most celebrities are phoning it in, fashion-wise. But for most Beltway folks, this is as glitzy as it gets. Here’s how they finessed it.

DiMarco’s eye-catching MSGM dress, purchased in Naples, Fla., was actually a repeat: “I wore it for the holidays,” she said. “I’m not one who wears a dress and hangs it up and never wears it again.” She also wore delicate bracelets of her own design; she has a jewelry company named Cinque.

C-SPAN associate producer Kia Hunter bought her red lace BCBG dress just hours before the dinner after it caught her eye en route to a hair appointment. Her colleague, production assistant Nicki Rossoll, got her ethereal lavender gown from Rent the Runway. “I went to pick it up on Thursday and [the store] was full of black garment bags. I was like, everyone must be doing this.”

Teki Akuetteh, a policy analyst for the British Embassy, called herself the “Anthropologie clotheshorse”: she put together a tutu and a jean jacket from the ultra-feminine brand, which made a statement amid all the LBDs and column gowns. Intentional? “Maybe. It’s my first time, and I’m naïve. Should I pop the collar?” Her colleague Carla Coley wore a gown from her ex-roommate’s mom, which she guessed was ’70s vintage. The floor-length floral had straps, but Coley snipped them off. “I was going to wear something else, but it’s so cold,” said Coley. “I have leggings on underneath.”

“What do you think cost more: My tie or her dress?” asked BGR Group chairman Ed Rogers (a contributor to the PostPartisan blog). He pointed to his wife Patti, lovely in a black-striped Cache gown that — surprise! — was less expensive than his studded tie, purchased in London. With a pair of snazzy shoes and a tuxedo custom-made in Birmingham, Ala., Rogers one-upped the penguin-tuxed gents of the room.

In a sea of chiffon and florals, Sandra Uwiringiyimana’s bold black-and-white graphic print by Zero + Maria Cornejo stood out. The human rights activist and survivor of a Congolese massacre was scheduled to meet the president that night as a representative of the non-profit Refuge Point, and her only criteria in choosing her dress that night was “something different than everyone else,” she said. “I’m more into patterns.”

In lace Dolce & Gabbana, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) espoused the virtues of the black gown. “Black is always easy to travel with,” she said. “You can spill, and you never see it.” She accented with a bright red sash, and gold earrings from New York’s Museum of Natural History — “a copy of some queen’s earrings” from a recent exhibition. Surveying the room, she agreed that the event brought out D.C.’s best. Still, “the fashion capital of the world is New York.”

Cristen Scully, Catherine Lammersen and Ellie Stanton — all 14 years old — got their dresses from Ann’s Boutique in Fairfax, Bloomingdale’s, and David’s Bridal, respectively. They scored tickets because Stanton’s mother, Katie Jacobs Stanton, is the vice president of global media at Twitter, and a former Obama appointee. Scully is the daughter of C-SPAN host Steven Scully. They kept their eyes peeled for Idina Menzel and the “Modern Family” cast and debated how much getting ready for this dinner was like going to a school formal. “This is clearly more important than a school dance,” said Scully. But “there are multiple chances to go to this,” said Stanton. “Prom is once in a lifetime.”

“I’m a soul man,” said Adrian Loving, who broke the menswear mold with a quilted jacket, vintage tie, mohawk, and an amethyst gemstone in his pocket, for good luck. “It can be intimidating” to dress for an event like this, he said. “There’s a lot of competition.” Last year the DJ had a gig at the Thomson Reuters party; this year, he was just there to enjoy himself. “When people talk about how Washington has no style, I get offended,” said the D.C. native. “There’s great style here. . . it’s still evolving.”

When she learned that she had a dinner ticket, U.S. News & World Report reporter Gabrielle Levy went straight to Rent the Runway’s website. There, $200 got her a weekend with four designer dresses for several days of related parties. For dinner, she chose a black asymmetrical column gown with a ruffled shoulder. “It was totally stressful,” she said. “At least two other people were asked for opinions. My mother was involved.” But she knew she made the right call: While she noticed duplicates of other RTR dresses, she had yet to spot anyone else in hers.

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WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 25: Hannah Davis poses as people arrive on the red carpet for the 20015 White House Correspondents' Association annual inner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC on Saturday April 25, 2015. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)