Dress Code In Washington diplomatic circles, foreign dignitaries sometimes use native dress to help communicate where they're coming from

November 30, 1998|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF WASHINGTON LTC

WASHINGTON -- Sandra Matisone feels every inch at home in the fusty elegance of the Washington Club, amid a sea of little black dresses and business suits. But at this diplomatic soiree, standing by the buffet of baby chops and lingonberry sauce, she stands out just a bit. After all, Matisone is swathed head to toe in thousand-year-old Latvian style (discreetly excludingthe pagan fertility symbols her countrywomen once considered de rigueur).

Matisone showed off the elaborate costume of her native Latvia at a recent embassy party. The 24-year-old Latvian attache bought the woolen vest and skirt -- which typically comes with thunder, sun and fertility symbols sewn into the pattern -- to express her ethnic pride.

Although increasingly rare, foreign ceremonial garb still makes persistent appearances at events in the capital city, even when the rest of the diplomatic corps insist on wearing the best of Bloomingdales. Sometimes, the choice is more about politics than style.

"The dress is so important when I am abroad," Matisone, sweltering in thick layers and a heavy woolen shawl without complaint. "I am proud. I want to remind people where I am from."

At the annual State of the Union addresses, embassy parties, charity balls, black-tie affairs and inaugural celebrations, a handful are decidedly not dressed in off-the-rack ensembles. Consulting with seamstresses in far-flung corners of the world, they emerge at these bashes in clothes with daggers, headpieces, veils, epaulets and other heavy-duty historical accessories.

The Latvian ambassador, Ojars Eriks Kalnins, recently applauded his wife for ditching her usual tailored suit for a long, colorful folk outfit at a party for Latvia's 80th anniversary. In his speech, he used her outfit as proof that Latvia's ability to "combine the old and the new" traditions was reason enough to earn it a long-sought spot in the European Union.

So maybe that's stretching things a bit. But those who wear traditional garb can make an entrance that is as much policy as fashion statement.

"I believe very strongly as a small country with an ongoing political problem we must keep our traditions and project our traditions to the world," said Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis, ambassador of Cyprus, who wore her Cypriot costume to a recent party at her embassy.

It was a highly symbolic move, given that Turkish troops have occupied the northern half of the Mediterranean island since 1974. Cypriots living on the southern end of the island are more closely allied with Greece. Recognizing this, Kozakou-Marcoullis notified her country's foreign minister, hoping not to stir an international episode by stepping out in a homespun outfit recognized by Greek Cypriots as an expression of national pride.

"The Cypriots, of course, were very proud I dared to do it," Kozakou-Marcoullis said of her decision to wear the dress, tailor-made for her in the region where legend says Aphrodite was created from the foam of the sea. The minister said, " 'Are you sure you want to do this?' I said 'Yes.' It is not customary here in Washington, but I was determined to wear it."

For weeks, Greek Cypriots called the embassy, thanking her for the gesture.

Socializing in Washington clad in an unusual outfit is nothing new. Diplomats from Africa, India and the Middle East regularly appear in traditional dress. The Spanish, Italians and other Europeans even created ceremonial diplomatic uniforms, some burnished with gold.

But a small subgroup remains devoted to the folkloric fashions of the homeland, even when the homeland no longer obeys them. These devotees of national dress come in many forms:

A Norwegian press aide regularly comes to black-tie galas in a national outfit from the region of Telemark, carrying the ceremonial knife his grandfather once used as a tool in the forest. A Silver Spring entrepreneur has a side business solely dedicated to helping women climb into elaborate, delicately layered Panamanian dresses and adorn their hair with unwieldy head ornaments. A Swiss diplomat's wife wears a Heidi-style outfit even though the only others joining her in this traditional style are professional yodelers.

National dress is, indeed, a complicated fashion prospect.

Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan's former protocol chief, remembers Peter Helemisi Mtetwa, the Swaziland ambassador, coming to the White House barefoot on a brisk day in November 1983, wearing only what looked like a loincloth.

The get-up shocked the protocol staff, who prayed that the dignitary would resist the urge to bend in a deep bow for Reagan, lest the cloth fly open. Secret Service agents, meanwhile, were busy trying to confiscate the ambassador's ceremonial spear.

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