Clothes make the man -- as well as the woman

Mark Twain’s famous adage “Clothes make the man” often falls short of describing the universe of Washington personalities clad in the same ubiquitous dark suit. Still, a few men — and women — of Congress have taken Twain’s words to heart by developing signature fashion statements that make the people’s business a bit more sartorially splendid.

For men, the distinctive touches can be a slight variation from the norm. In colder months, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) dons woolen sweater vests underneath his jackets, usually in dark tones favored by the late children’s television host Fred Rogers. And when Grassley’s Judiciary Committee cohort John Cornyn (R-Texas) takes a seat at the negotiating table, his pant cuffs peek up to show customized black cowboy boots with his name and the congressional seal.

Female lawmakers have more freedom to break from the pack, exemplified by Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R-Maine) predilection for deconstructed collars and unique textures in her colorful suits. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) favors chunky beaded necklaces in earthy tones that match her outfits, and Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) pairs her intricately detailed suits with the kind of bold high heels that women 20 years her junior tend to covet.

“I feel better if I take the time to look nice,” Davis said, modestly displaying her pink snakeskin Franco Sarto shoes. Davis said she “used to buy snazzy shoes all the time” but gave them up for a while for the sensible dark flats many of her colleagues prefer. “I thought, if I buy those same shoes my feet won’t hurt as much.” As it turned out, Davis found nondescript footwear a lot less fun.

“When I wear flats, I don’t feel as professional,” she said. “When I wear flats, I feel more casual. It’s the same with pantsuits.”

Skirt suits help give proportion to the accomplished horsewoman’s petite figure. Davis was helped back into the fashion forefront by Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.), who “got on my case because I was wearing so much black and drab colors.”

Sure enough, Davis can now be seen striding along in her spikes at a clip that would send lesser women tripping on the marble floors. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is another aficionada of high heels who makes her mark on the congressional aesthetic.

“Color, comfort and flexibility” is the style mantra of Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.). “You look out on the other side, too, and you see suits — black, gray. Ninety-nine percent of the color is the females. … It brightens up the floor and keeps us centered.”

Kilpatrick enjoys pink and red suits in particular, though she is best-known for her intricately plaited hairdo, to which she often adds beads.

She disputed the notion that Washington women are still bound to strict patriarchal dress codes. “I don’t know that women have changed a lot. We do the gamut. We can get away with casual and go into eveningwear.”

And if any member crosses the line, the House has an unofficial fashion policeman: Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the Education and the Workforce Committee chairman who cuts a dashing figure and expects his fellow public servants to do the same. Boehner’s pithy reviews are at times caustic but always delivered in good fun and, he maintained, genuinely helpful to those he critiques.

“Keep it real simple,” he said. “We have these drab suits, and for most of us the only way to brighten it up is with a tie.” Well-cut suits and striking ties, whether geometric or metallic, are Boehner’s trademark.

As for his couture prot�g�s, adventurousness is not recommended. Take, for instance, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his Portuguese suit.

“Hideous,” Boehner said. “The jacket had buttons all the way to the neck. All the way to the neck!”

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) was taking mental notes during the lesson. “Nunes was savaged,” McCotter joked dryly. He remembered Boehner calling the suit “something Devin acquired at Chairman Mao’s estate sale.”

“All he needed was the hat,” Boehner said.

McCotter himself has not escaped Boehner’s notice, but he remains a fashion risk taker by nature. One day, McCotter can be seen in a pale pink sweater vest with boating shoes; the next, he coordinates his tie and kerchief in the same dapper navy-and-white polka-dot pattern. Through it all, he remains self-deprecating.

“I wear whatever’s clean,” McCotter said. “My wife doesn’t mind it.” Boehner’s impromptu makeovers do not faze him either. “It’s a very low bar, but I aim for it. … Boehner does have an edifying effect.”

Nunes defended his choice as a combination of his personal heritage and his personal rule always to wear suits with at least three buttons: “Since I’m Portuguese, it’s OK for me to wear a Portuguese suit.”

He counted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) as another fearless iconoclast and suggested the notorious suit would make another appearance: “Maybe I’ll give one to Boehner for Christmas.”

Across the aisle, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) is keeping his attire low-maintenance while serving in Washington and running for mayor of New York, the world’s fashion capital.

“I do make cat-related decisions,” Weiner said. “Like, if one of the cats has left hair on my clothes, I’ll switch to a different suit.”

Weiner’s fellow New York City lawmakers have their own preferences. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) pins on a daily carnation boutonniere, and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) has his initials monogrammed on the wrist of his jackets.

Weiner himself makes one concession to habit. “A few times a year, I wear a seersucker suit” for the agriculture appropriations bill’s floor consideration, he said. “It’s so my brothers and sisters in the tobacco [region] understand that I get it.”

If Weiner’s Southern flavor lingers into next year, he can always start a House version of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) Seersucker Thursday, an annual event for those in the upper chamber to embrace the joys of the pin-striped, lightweight blue cotton fabric.

“At Junior High School 51,” which Weiner attended in Brooklyn, “I’d probably get beaten up for wearing a seersucker suit. Here, they consider it a homage,” he said.

During the tense days before the Senate’s judicial filibuster crisis, some fashion watchers noticed Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) wearing the same ties day in and day out. The ties, in perky peach or teal hues with whimsical patterns of butterflies and flowers, belied the grave task Nelson faced, but he said they were far from a lucky charm.

“I don’t have a favorite tie, and I’m not superstitious,” the sharp-dressed centrist said. Nelson acknowledged a fondness for the label, called Vineyard Vines, from which he owns several designs. He noted that he is no stranger to tie-related speculation.

“When I was governor, I wore only British regimentals, striped,” Nelson said. “Everyone thought I had only one tie. I said, ‘No, I have 40 ties. They just all look alike.’”

Few on the Hill could ever accuse Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) of choosing predictable clothes. Her deft mingling of jewel tones and trendy accessories, from silver hoop earrings to a subtly bedazzled cross necklace, routinely turns heads in the hearing room.

“I’m a winter, so the colors that work best on me are bright white, black black, bright red,” Sanchez said. “I’m also Latina. We don’t dream in black and white, we dream in Technicolor.” One of her skirt suits, in a light fabric accented by glitter threads, was knitted especially for Sanchez in a color named for her: “Loretta Red.”

“I make sketches and send them over to [Marie] Gray,” the head designer and founder of St. John Knits, the world-renowned fashion label headquartered in Sanchez’s district. She also takes some fellow House fashion plates on a tour of the St. John facility each August recess, when the congresswomen can inspect fabric swatches and dream of the pleated skirts and grommets Sanchez sports. Reps. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) and Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) have all personally funded style excursions with Sanchez.

Sanchez’s one maxim for any new arrival to the Capitol: Choose shoes with a leather upper and sole, never manmade. “If you buy good shoes, your feet won’t hurt,” she said.

But perhaps the best counsel for Congress’s prospective style icons is to remember the second half of Mark Twain’s saying: “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”