Suited for Politics

As Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female speaker of the House, she's already winning votes for her fashion sense

January 04, 2007|By Tanika White | Tanika White,sun reporter

Amid strawberries and sparkling water, coffee and petit fours, powerful women from all walks of life mingled yesterday at Mellon Auditorium in Washington, awaiting the arrival of Nancy Pelosi, the soon-to-be first female speaker of the House of Representatives, who was being honored at a Women's Tea.

Speakers introducing Pelosi, who will be officially sworn in as speaker today, spoke in celebratory, grand language: Because of her, glass ceilings had been shattered. The agenda of politics was being transformed. We are women - and we have made it!

But there were also quieter side conversations, appreciating Pelosi for a smaller, but not insignificant achievement: her impeccable taste.

"I think she's very stylish," says Cookie Whamond, a former classmate of Pelosi's at Trinity University. "We were at Mass today and I noticed her clothes. She had on these beautiful high heels. She had on a gorgeous suit with this lovely, flowing skirt. She looked wonderful."

When it comes to Pelosi, a Baltimore native, syndicated columnist Lisa Daily is reminded of what designer Coco Chanel famously said: "Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably and they remember the woman."

Some have gone so far as to describe Pelosi as "chic," a compliment usually reserved for socialites and glossy fashion magazine editors - and rarely, if ever, for Washington politicians.

"Even though women have been getting elected in larger numbers since the 1990s, they're still very much a minority in the world of politics," says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. "They have more limits on how they can dress."

To be classified as chic or especially stylish requires the wearer to possess a certain flair for fashion that often crosses those implied boundaries. Wearing an unexpected color or pattern, perhaps. Or adding a scarf to a business suit, or a bold piece of jewelry.

Pelosi has, at some point, done all these things, and then some, with success.

During a televised interview with NBC's Tim Russert last summer, Pelosi's jacket was an unconventional pale green. She paired a gray suit with an of-the-moment, multistrand of black pearls on election night. And once, at a forum to discuss health care during the Democratic National Convention, Pelosi's bold yellow pantsuit was accentuated with a scarf, neatly wrapped and tucked at her neckline.

The effect isn't fabulous, so much as it is solidly feminine - a trait many of her female counterparts hesitate to project, or worse, are unable to do without appearing frilly and out-of-place.

Most play it safe

Too often, says Kirsten Osolind, CEO of Re:Invention Inc., a marketing agency that helps corporations sell more of their products and services to working women, female politicians are excoriated for fashion choices that are too feminine or fierce. That may be why, to be safe, many female politicians stay within the established fashion parameters set by their male peers: black, navy blue, gray. Stiff, boxy, angular. And few accoutrements.

But Pelosi confidently bucks that trend. She uses color in a manner few of her peers seem comfortable doing.

Red is a Pelosi favorite, showing up quite often since her Democratic caucus election to be speaker - most notably, in the form of a collarless suit, with a single button closure at the neckline, which she wore to a news conference last month.

But she also has been seen in such decidedly non-Washingtonian colors as sea foam and pale pink. She's been photographed leaving meetings in a stunning suit of all-white.

Her use of jewelry and accessories often gets noticed.

At the Women's Tea yesterday, Pelosi wore her signature multi-colored, South Sea Tahitian pearls, with a gray suit and black shirt, adding instant life to the traditional outfit. Those pearls, according to a Los Angeles Times article, garnered so much attention after Pelosi first appeared in them on television, dozens of women called a pearl wholesaler demanding necklaces just like it for themselves. Indeed, she seems to have already started a bit of a fashion trend: Many of the invitees at the tea - young and old - wore similar strands of large baubles.

"I love her look and her hair," says image consultant Sandy Dumont, who calls herself The Image Architect, "and I use her as a good example for all my female executives. She has the epitome of the understated, `old money' look. Old money doesn't shout ... old money is discreet and classy, never flashy."

Republicans have attempted to brand Pelosi as "too liberal," but her fashion-sense - except, perhaps, for her comfort with color - is anything but. She is conservative in the way a woman in her position should be, experts say, well put-together, but not boring.

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