The inside-the-Beltway uniform fashion code

If there is one place where fashion statements are definitely on the record, it is Washington, D.C.

Rising stars in politics and business want to be seen at the right events wearing the just-right thing. In our little town, a dubious fashion choice can have dramatic consequences.

War protestor Cindy Sheehan’s recent fashion faux pas played out in the House Gallery just minutes before President Bush’s State of the Union address. When she removed her jacket, she revealed a black shirt bearing an anti-war slogan in bold, white letters.

Instead of drawing just television cameras, Sheehan drew the attention of a Capitol Police officer, who hustled her from her seat and handcuffed her.

Granted, there was no fashion-code violation per se. Sheehan was arrested because of restrictions on demonstrations in the Capitol. But you might think Washington’s ad hoc fashion police did have powers to detain.

The phrase “‘playing it safe’ usually sums up the politics of fashion in D.C.,” says Liberty Jones, a fashion consultant at Alex Boutique, which sells retail and consignment men’s and ladies’ fashions.

Who could forget Vice President Cheney’s risk-taking winter-fashion foray that nearly sparked an international incident when he chose to wear a parka with fur-trimmed hood, a ski cap and hiking boots to the ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz? One fashion writer remarked Cheney “was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower.”

It may seem reasonable to choose warmth over conservative style, but it is clear that different rules apply for inside-the-Beltway operators.

“D.C. is a unique place for fashion,” Jones says. “A lot of fashion is driven by politics and profession. If you are a lawyer or lobbyist, you have to dress conservatively.”

“Both conservatives and liberals are wearing classic [suit] lines such as Brooks Brothers, Burberry, now there’s Saks Men’s and on the higher end, Oxford.”

Some say the only distinguishing fashion trait between the two sides are their choice of neckties. “I have noticed most conservative men tend to stick with their classic striped ties — nothing too bold. The liberals’ ties are usually a little funkier, but I wish they all would be even more so,” Jones says.

Men’s custom clothiers are doing a brisk business on Capitol Hill, and some wish their clients would take a few more fashion risks.

“In his or her own way, each clothier is trying to move our customers fashion forward — while still being conservative — by suggesting more expressive shirt-tie combinations,” says Matt Landsberg, president of Eric Finn, a by-appointment-only men’s custom clothier.

“In terms of trends, ties are a little narrower now — just slightly at the base — and paisley is very popular. On the Hill, the power color for ties right now is red — or burgundy. The European-cut suit is more in demand. It gives a more tapered look, as opposed to the fuller-cut American tailoring. Pin-striped suits are in and probably always will be,” Landsberg says.

“The most popular suit colors are navy and charcoal gray,” he adds, “although we are seeing men choose more multi-toned, striped fabrics. But no one is straying too far from the uniform.”

Washington’s women “tend to dress very conservatively, and they usually stick with the classics,” Jones says. “Ready-to-wear gowns by Badgley Mischka are among the most popular, and St. John has a line of gowns and knitwear separates. I will give Washington women more fashion-boldness credit [than Washington men] because they will at least experiment with colors, but not with cuts. Women here are now free to wear red because of the Red Dress campaign.”

That refers to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Heart Truth campaign, which launched the red dress as the national symbol for women and heart disease. The campaign is intended to raise awareness that heart disease is the number-one killer of American women.

The Heart Truth’s First Ladies Red Dress Collection, which features donated red gowns and red suits worn by every first lady from Lady Bird Johnson to Laura Bush, is an attractive component of The Heart Truth Road Show 2006 — sponsored in partnership with the American College of Cardiology and touring the country this spring.

As the network-pool television camera panned the House Gallery at the President’s State of the Union Address, a commentator remarked that the only reason so many women wore red dresses was to catch our eyes — and possibly a camera or two.

As it turns out, that was the same week The Heart Truth launched its 2006 Red Dress campaign. I, for one, am willing to give the ladies the benefit of the doubt. So any uncharacteristic panache displayed by some of the women wearing red dresses that night may have been inadvertent and purely incidental.

For more information on the Red Dress campaign, go to www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/hearttruth. For Alex Boutique visit www.alexboutiquedc.com, and for Eric Finn www.ericfinn.com.