Men and fashion in the Capitol: It’s not the oxymoron you thought it was

Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) may not know whether an alleged land-swap deal will hurt him on the Hill, but he knows good fashion humor when he sees it.

At a recent luncheon to honor a group that helps abused children, B-listers such as Kathie Lee Gifford and Cheryl Ladd mingled with the founder of St. John Knits, Marie Gray. Ads for the upscale line of women’s wear feature a sultry Angelina Jolie — in the fancy Senate banquet hall, the clothing looked somewhat more sober.

 “This is not a St. John’s suit,” Renzi said, contrasting himself with the women in the room who had donned the company’s signature pastel ensembles for the event.

Men’s fashion long has provided politicians with easy material for self-deprecating jokes. What, male lobbyists and lawmakers have fashion sense?

Men in many lines of work — but particularly those who toil in the scotch-soaked, cigar-smoke-shrouded power structure that is Capitol Hill — tend to radiate idiocy when it comes to dress, as if caring about cuffs and collars would put into question their masculinity. Such men discuss attire with one another only in jest. They often say their spouses dress them:
They have neither the time nor the interest to shop.

 Last year, the president of Fox News, Roger Ailes, spoke of his lack of fashion sense during a gathering at Charlie Palmer Steak, admitting that his wife, Elizabeth Tilson, buys all his clothes.

There are a few stylish exceptions on Capitol Hill.

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Reps. John Linder (R-Ga.) and David Dreier (R-Calif.) are dapper dressers. And times are changing, however slightly. There are former runway models in congressional offices. There are designers in our midst. In recent years, Washington has welcomed the launches of glossy magazines like D.C. Modern Luxury, D.C. Style and Capitol File. More than ever, men in politics are stepping out and straying from the tired uniform of blue blazer, khaki pants, blue oxford and red tie.

Presidential hopeful Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) was spotted last week striding through the basement of Longworth in an Al-Gore-esque beige suit, white shirt and power-red tie. The ensemble suited him and his mood followed suit — he was happy and relaxed in beige.

The press secretary for Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and a newcomer to the Hill, Fred Piccolo, however, recently showed up to lunch at Banana Cafe in the uniform. He said he was embarrassed to be wearing it, but that he had no choice. He hadn’t done his laundry.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) sympathized with the young aide, although he isn’t one to live in navy and khaki. “The only [criterion] should be whether it’s clean,” he said. His own outfit seemed to defy spring — a brown tweed jacket with a bubblegum-pink bow tie.

Michael Fulton, an intern to Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), only has been on Capitol Hill for three weeks but already he’s acquainted with the uniform. His take on men’s fashion in the Capitol: “It’s not GQ; it’s very uniform — gray and blue suits and red and blue ties.”

GQ it may not be. But there are glimmers of high-end haberdashery and elevated taste in our midst. Mustafa Santiago Ali, an aide to Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a lawmaker known for his snappy dressing, is a former runway model.

In the Rayburn Cafeteria he stuck out not only because of his dreadlocks but also for his smooth style. “It’s a very conservative climate,” he said, explaining that he was born in São Paolo, Brazil, and raised in Jamaica, Brooklyn and West Virginia.

Though he is beautifully dressed, he isn’t snobby about it. “I think everyone has their own style — an expression of who you are,” he said. “I’m very eclectic. Definitely color is very important.

“Sometimes I’ll wear a blazer and some jeans. In session, you’re meeting with constituents so you want them to know you’re a professional.”

He was wearing a three-piece black pinstripe suit by Bob Mackey, a white shirt, a red-patterned tie and black Perry Ellis shoes. It was a version of the politician’s uniform, and yet it shone.

“You can’t go wrong with an Italian cut,” he said.

Ali said he modeled to pay for school. “I always thought it was funny someone would actually pay me to walk down a runway,” he said.

His sense of style is strongly influenced by his mother and grandmother, who taught him self-awareness and self-confidence. “They also blessed us with positive energy,” he said. “There’s no need to judge others.”

His relatively new acquaintance, Curtis Johnson, an aide to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) joined us in the Rayburn Cafeteria.

Unlike many male aides, Johnson walked in wearing a stylish chocolate-brown Ruffini corduroy blazer over a brown mock turtleneck and dark jeans. Johnson’s shoes are often Kenneth Cole. “There’s a presentation aspect to what we do,” he said.

Ali understood instantly: “As young men of color it’s important to present ourselves well. Let’s keep it real. There are so many stereotypes we have to dispel before we even open our mouths.”

Clearly the I-don’t-care philosophy does not apply to these young men. While studying at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Johnson was required to take a course in which students were physically inspected. If your hair wasn’t trimmed and your suit wasn’t pressed, you were kicked out. No excuses.

Ali wondered aloud what it would be like if the late Rep. Adam Clayton Powell (D-N.Y.) or Martin Luther King Jr. returned to Washington and could see them. “We owe it to ourselves [to dress] in a professional manner,” he said. “Respect where you are and respect the institution.”

Not everyone thinks so deeply about it. Asked whether men on the Hill have decent fashion sense, McCotter stuck with his original point, saying, “I think you have to get past the first hurdle of making sure your clothes don’t smell.”

There’s also still the matter of rumpled lawmakers with soup-stained ties that barely hit their belly buttons.

Therein lies the problem with political men and fashion: They’re too busy running the world to pay much attention to their attire.

To joke about clothing comes easier. Last year, a group of GOP lawmakers played a practical joke on Boehner, a self-appointed fashion critic. They wore their worst ties to work just to annoy him. Though it hasn’t happened yet, the plan was to have the wife of Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa), one of the pranksters, sew a pillow for Boehner made of all the bad ties.

There are men in the Capitol who are sick of bad taste. Last week a senior aide to a Democratic senator said with all the money some higher-level aides earn, their fashion sense ought to match their bank accounts. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“We sadly lack it,” he said of fashion sense. “Too many suits are being purchased at big-box stores [rather] than Hugo Boss or Barney’s.”

He added hopefully, “We’re getting better. There are some good tailors and some good clothiers and people should [take advantage].”

What’s at the heart of all this thoughtless dressing?

“There is some geekiness going on here,” he said. “You don’t have to look like a geek to be one. I love policy but I love a
good suit, too.”

The aide himself likes to mix things up, wearing an off-the-rack suit from Nordstrom’s that cost $600–$700 with a preppy tie from J. Crew.

Brian Kaveney, spokesman for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), said men in the Capitol ought to wear more colors, but then he thought twice. “I’m thinking of the guy who is in the office with no windows studying healthcare,” he said. “He doesn’t care what he looks like.”

Some males are even harsher about what they consider to be the bleak reality of Capitol Hill fashion for men.

“What passes for acceptable sartorial taste is an affront to anyone who has it,” said a longtime political reporter who has his suits custom-made. “The influence of cookie-cutter men’s clothing chains is pretty self evident. The blue blazer-chinos [ensemble] is pretty sad. It’s the prep school look.”

One GOP lawmaker who wished to remain nameless said he detests the more casual look worn by lawmakers such as Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.). Nothing against Taylor personally, he said, but “Dockers and a blazer is too casual for what was intended here.”

Ironically, this lawmaker confesses that he once showed up to vote on the House floor in khaki shorts and a blazer. It’s against the rules of the House, but it was necessary — he had been traveling and was rushing to a vote.

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