Dressed to the Hill Rebellious delegrates let wardrobes show off their special interests

May 02, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — Washington--On one of the nastier days of the unusually frosty winter just past, Eni F. H. Faleomavaega strode onto the House floor to vote dressed in gladiator sandals and bare feet.

"I hate shoes," the three-term delegate from American Samoa explained. "I almost never wear them."

Partly this is a cultural thing. Mr. Faleomavaega, 50, also has been known to show up in the Capitol wearing a lava-lava, the traditional wrap-around skirt worn in his native South Pacific islands.

Mostly, though, his fashion statement is a declaration of independence.

In the stuffy, white-shirted, blue-suited, red-tied world of Congress -- where even the women are under pressure to conform with dress-for-success skirted suits -- Mr. Faleomavaega's bare feet are a testament to his individuality.

"It's been a losing battle for me," says his press aide, J. R. Scanlan. "I tell him, 'I have to wear shoes, why shouldn't you?' "

Similar fashion rebellions are taking place all over Capitol Hill.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a 39-year-old freshman Democrat from Georgia, favors wild prints, flashy jewelry, French braids fastened with a huge bow in back and gold tennis shoes with rhinestones.

Though she is now considered one of the leaders of the 110-member freshman class, Ms. McKinney was warned during her campaign that she could never be elected because she didn't look like a member of Congress.

"The braids were a particular problem because I represent a mix of urban and rural constituents," she recalled. "People worried my white farmers would say, 'What's this little girl in braids going to be able to do for me?'

"Then, we got a consultant who said I should wear a blue suit with a white blouse and a little frill. But it just wasn't me. I figured if I was going to be elected, it would have to be as I am."

Ms. McKinney said she felt vindicated not only by her overwhelming victory but also when she learned recently that a beauty parlor in Augusta is getting requests for the "Cynthia McKinney look."

For Rep. Dan Hamburg of California, the non-negotiable issue is neckwear. To comply with a House rule that requires men to wear ties on the floor, he dons a bolo. Mr. Hamburg accentuates his alternative look by avoiding white shirts, opting instead for dark linen: blue, brown, green or purple.

"I dressed like this during my campaign, and I don't want my constituents to think I sold out," said Mr. Hamburg, 45, TC Democrat who is also completing his first term.

He is not the first to fudge on the House tie rule.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Democrat who served for three terms in the House before moving on to the Senate last year, also wears either a string tie or a scarf held in place with a decorative metal slide. He makes the jewelry himself.

"When I first got to the House, I looked up at a picture of George Washington on the wall of the chamber, and he wasn't wearing a tie in the traditional sense," Mr. Campbell recalled. "It was more like a cravat. I figured that was good enough for me."

Unlike the California cool of Mr. Hamburg, Mr. Campbell, 61, whose father was a northern Cheyenne Indian, affects more of a Western look, including tying his long hair back into a ponytail.

Less grief today

Now that discreet, little ponytails can be seen even in the lobbyists' haunts of K Street, Mr. Campbell doesn't get nearly as much grief for his hairstyle as the carping that greeted his fellow Colorado Democrat, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, when she arrived in Washington wearing a ponytail in the early 1970s.

"There was a time when everyone in Congress looked alike. They had to," said Andrea Camp, an aide to Mrs. Schroeder, 53, now the senior woman in the House. "Remember Bob Forehead," she added, referring to the Village Voice comic strip character who was a parody of the blow-dried lawmaker. "At least they're starting to come out of that a little."

While not exactly slaves to fashion, the majority of legislators still take their dress code quite seriously.

Back in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter's energy conservation policy shut down the air conditioners in the Capitol, Morris K. Udall, then a Democratic representative from Arizona, tried to get his colleagues to opt for open-collar shirts during the summer months. They would hear nothing of it.

Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, who was House Speaker at that time, decreed that members should wear "traditional attire," which meant "coats and ties" for men and "appropriate attire" for women, which was not further defined. His decree was sustained on a vote of approval by the full House.

Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat and college professor given to rumpled corduroys, found the Senate so protective of its sartorial standards when he arrived in 1991 that Majority Whip Wendell K. Ford of Kentucky went out and bought him two new suits.

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