Power wear: Women in politics need to strike balance between style, authority, experts say
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U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi gets praise for her fashion sense.
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"After striving my entire career to be judged by my results and my decisions, the coverage of my gender, my appearance and perceptions of my personality would outweigh anything else."
-- Carly Fiorina, former CEO Hewlett-Packard
in her memoir, "Tough Choices"
American women who hold public office know that no matter how much they accomplish, their clothing and hairdos will be described, discussed, dissected and yes, dissed.
"Men can have dandruff dripping down their shoulders, but if a woman has a run in her pantyhose, everyone notices it," said Robin Bernstein, a retired political consultant from Squirrel Hill who always advised female candidates to pack a spare pair of hosiery.
With Nancy Pelosi poised to become U.S. speaker of the house, Hillary Rodham Clinton warming up for the presidential race and Condoleezza Rice serving as U.S. secretary of state, powerful women's profiles are higher than ever. And last month's elections sent a record 16 women to the U.S. Senate.
The challenge for powerful women has always been how to find a balance in their look between feminine and forceful without the negative connotations that come with either of those characteristics, said Mary Anne Marsh, a political analyst for Fox News.
At least two members of this newer generation -- particularly Ms. Pelosi and Ms. Clinton -- are finally striking the right balance, fashion experts say.
Ms. Pelosi, House Democratic leader from California, has been a surprise, says Stan Herman, a renowned designer in New York City. "Her choice of clothing has been very sleek, very smart, beautifully proportioned. She keeps a light touch to the top of her face so she's not all dark. That sort of gives her a nice glow."
Ms. Marsh agrees. Ms. Pelosi manages to look fashionable and "certainly projects an air of authority."
For more than two decades, Americans have watched Ms. Clinton's fashion evolution -- from her much-disparaged hat at President Clinton's first inaugural to her early White House years, when she wore bangs and a headband that lent her a vulnerable, Alice-in-Wonderland look.
In the past two years the overall appearance of the Democratic senator from New York has improved dramatically, Ms. Marsh said.
"She's got a great haircut, great colors, great outfits. She has found her style. Not only does she look the best she's ever looked, it's not so fashionable that middle-class, average Americans are turned off by it."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has come a long way since her much-disparaged hat at her husband's first inaugural.
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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might reconsider some of her fashion choices.
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Mr. Herman also praised Ms. Clinton's evolution. "She's learned the fit of clothes. I think in the very beginning, her jackets didn't really quite fit. The fit was sort of off the rack with dresses.
"That's what Nancy Pelosi seems to understand right away," he said. "Fit in clothing is probably the secret weapon for a good dresser."
The many and changing looks of Ms. Clinton are "a wonderful visual metaphor for Hillary trying to find her place in politics," said Catherine Allgor, a historian at the University of California in Riverside and author of a recent book about Dolley Madison, one of the 18th century's most imaginative fashionistas.
"They went through a period of trying to make her [Ms. Clinton] look as good as possible," she said. "That's not what dressing for politics is necessarily about."
Clothes carry their own vocabulary, but today, "the message is hard to grasp," the historian added. "It has everything to do with our confusion about how we feel about women in power. We are confused about that."
Because American women have not attained the high levels of leadership held by their counterparts in European and Scandinavian countries, the public still struggles with the concept.
"That may be why every description [of a woman in power] is followed by, Armani suit, comma or highlighted hair, comma," Ms. Marsh said. "It almost always comes before party or position."
Blending flair with caution
Other politicians who have found their groove include Sandra Schultz Newman, the first woman elected to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Republican from Montgomery County is stepping down this month after serving for 10 years.
"Sandy Schultz Newman doesn't dress like most women in politics. She has a lot more flair. She didn't bother to appear to be one of the crowd. She dressed the way she dressed," Ms. Bernstein said, comparing Ms. Newman's sartorial style to that of Ann Richards, the late Democratic governor of Texas.
Local politicians also understand the strong, visual language of clothing. Valerie McDonald Roberts, Allegheny County's recorder of deeds, was the first African-American woman elected to Pittsburgh's City Council. When she first ran for public office in 1994, her modest wardrobe consisted of conservative dresses and suits.
Whatever her choice of outfit, Ms. McDonald Roberts said, "there's some thought to it. I love pink and I have a beautiful pink outfit. But I rarely will wear that to high-powered meetings because I don't want the first impression to be 'how sweet' because I'm not there to be sweet. You do have to be careful because colors and styles set the tone for how a person perceives or receives you."
Ms. McDonald Roberts, a Churchill Democrat, does not want her clothes to distract from her message, especially with male colleagues. "To be a colleague, to be an equal, means that I have to make sure that how I appear allows him to treat me as an equal."
Fashion experts have their own views on what works for women in politics.
Think feminine, said Mr. Herman, who is creating a new look for US Airways and Jet Blue employees. "If they start to emulate the male completely, it's a bad scene. They should retain the right to be an exuberant dresser. That will give them their own pedestal to stand on."
"It's not about looking good," Ms. Allgor said. "We don't like women who are too flashy. We like it but they belong in Hollywood on the red carpet. It's really about caution."
Elizabeth Dole, a Republican U.S. senator from North Carolina, has "an appearance of impregnable femininity. There was nothing soft or mushy about her -- that big bouffant sprayed within an inch of its life. She would wear dresses with no bare arms and no cleavage," Ms. Allgor said.
Trivializing the feminine
In America, Ms. Allgor said, "We don't have a model for thinking about women's clothes that doesn't involve making the body or face look prettier or sexier. That's the definition of looking good.
"That's something a woman can't do in politics because first she wants to be taken seriously. We live in a world that feminizes the trivial and trivializes the feminine. You certainly don't want to invite unwanted attention."
That happened to Allyson Schwartz, a former state senator who accessorized so regularly that in 2000, that when she announced her U.S. Senate bid against Rick Santorum a Philadelphia journalist wrote that she was tossing her scarf into the race. Ms. Schwartz, a Philadelphia Democrat, did succeed in getting elected later to the U.S. House of Representatives.
And who can forget the evisceration of Katherine Harris, Florida's former secretary of state who oversaw the vote recount during the 2000 presidential election. Her overdone makeup and 'do were the butt of jokes on nightly talk shows and other media for months. Last month, she lost a bid for the U.S. Senate.
Constance White, a style consultant for eBay, wishes the current U.S. Secretary of State would take more fashion risks.
"I think Condoleezza Rice is a huge disappointment in the style arena. She's youthful. She has a great body with long legs. She works out. All we can see are all these really boxy, predictable sober suits. That's her ace in the hole. She is the person in the public eye that fashion people would love to make over the most. There's so much potential there."
Ms. White already has a plan for the high-ranking Republican.
"First, I'd change her hairstyle. I'd see how she looked with a bob or perhaps a short, feathery finger wave that tapered at the neck. Then I would put her in a dress."
Regardless of the public's increasingly sophisticated fashion sense, Ms. White said, "We have not come very far. It's pretty amazing how women in politics are hemmed in and are pretty conservative."
Ms. Marsh, the Fox political consultant, looks forward to a day of liberation for female politicians, when appearance is not so important.
"All women are looking forward to the day when that is not a staple of the conversation or the coverage."Annie O'Neill/Post-Gazette
Valerie McDonald Roberts, Allegheny County's recorder of deeds, says, "You do have to be careful because colors and styles set the tone for how a person perceives or receives you."
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First Published December 11, 2006 12:00 am