Hill wardrobes

Rummaging through a bin of camisoles at the local department store’s semi-annual sale seems so uncongressional. It’s the kind of shopping one imagines would be more common among low-level Hill aides than dignified lawmakers.

But Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) isn’t above such plebeian mall activity.

“I’m a bottom feeder when it comes to clothes shopping,” she says, describing her strategy as going for “markdown, markdown, markdown, and then 80 percent off of that.”

She’s not alone when it comes to bargain hunting for Hill wardrobes. Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.), Resident Commissioner Luis Fortuño (R-Puerto Rico) and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) also hit outlet malls, clip Macy’s coupons out of newspapers and scour sidewalk sales to find their work attire.

We’re told they put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us, and now we know many of our country’s highest-ranking lawmakers shop like us, too. Even with their hyper-scheduled lives, they hit the malls on Saturdays, take fashion advice from their teenage daughters, struggle with the imperfect fit of off-the-rack items and search for ways to update their looks.

Many members of Congress consider clothes shopping a necessary evil but manage to buy new suits, skirts and button-down shirts just often enough to maintain a put-together work image. Several lawmakers who spoke with The Hill say they don’t have much time to fuss over their closets but find free moments in their calendars and enlist willing family members and friends to shop for the clothes of Congress.

“My teenage daughter drags me to the mall,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “If she knows I’m with her, she gets stuff.”

McCaskill says she has a rule: For every clothing item she buys for her 16-year-old daughter, she buys a clothing item for herself. But whereas her daughter goes directly to the stores “where it looks like they’re wearing lingerie at 10 in the morning,” McCaskill heads to the “old ladies’ department,” often focusing on finding comfortable shoes.

She typically looks for black shoes, and when she finds a pair she likes, she’ll normally buy several since she goes through one set about every six months.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), when she is in her district, also enlists her daughter. She calls her 22-year-old “a good resource” for their Saturday mall trips.

“I go on targeted trips,” she says, adding that she finds it difficult to carve out time in her schedule to shop. Capito remembers she had a hard time shopping for her son’s wedding a couple of years ago.

Sometimes Congress members’ friends and family members take matters into their own hands. Take Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.).

When asked about her shopping strategy, she rises from a bench in the Speaker’s Lobby, points to her outfit — a lavender blazer and black pants she bought from Express — and says: “Look at me. Do I look like I spend much time? A fashion plate I am not.”

Ros-Lehtinen admits that she never shops for herself.

“My mother or my friends shop for me when they say they’ve had enough of the way I look,” she says. “People vote for me in spite of my bad fashion … I need a makeover — extreme.”   

On the flip side, some personal shoppers who work with Capitol Hill employees say those in politics are in dire need of fashion help.  

“A lot of them could really use some fashion pointers,” says Pam Burns, owner of the local business Pam Shops 4 You. She sympathizes with busy lawmakers, especially women, who often suffer under the assumption that it’s their nature to love shopping.

“What I’ve found [is] most women that are extremely busy and have very demanding jobs do not like to shop because they don’t have time,” she says.  

Rachel Rosenthal, a former Hill staffer, has worked with four members of Congress and several lobbyists and congressional aides in her personal organizing and shopping business.

“Basically, the whole thing with people on Capitol Hill is that they have no time, and they want to be dressed well,” says Rosenthal, a former aide to the late Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.). “A lot of people use me because it’s very convenient. I come to their office, I come to their house.”

Rosenthal provides them with tips: Don’t buy a lot of clothes, because she says most people wear 20 percent of their wardrobe 80 percent of the time; mix and match different pieces; and use different accessories to change a common look.  

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has shopping tips of her own.

“I buy things that’ll last a very long time,” she says. “This is maybe eight years old,” she says, pointing to a wine-colored, woven skirt suit. “Some are 15 years old.”

Feinstein says she “very rarely” goes to the mall, unlike her colleagues Mikulski, Carper, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).

Mikulski says she’s a classic “go to the mall about four times a year” kind of shopper. She can be seen hitting the outlet stores on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but don’t expect to see anybody helping her shop.

“When you have my geometry, you pick your own clothes,” says the senator, who has described her size — she stands at 4-foot-11 — as Lilliputian.

Gutierrez also prefers outlet stores. After opening his olive-and-black-checked sport coat and flipping his light blue tie to reveal Brooks Brothers labels, he says he and his wife shop together, usually once a year, and she picks out most of his work clothes.

Gutierrez’s shopping trick is to take his Brooks Brothers outlet purchases to the regular Brooks Brothers store on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue to get them tailored.

For those lawmakers who don’t shop often, like Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who says he’ll buy a couple of suits “and then years pass,” here’s a heads-up: Memorial Day sales are just around the corner.