Fashion And Flair On Capitol Hill

Incoming Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida caused a stir during her freshman orientation, when she challenged a ban on the wearing of hats on the floor of Congress. Is it possible to be a fashion diva or a Dapper Dan and a member of Congress? Host Michel Martin puts that question to Pulitzer Prize-winning style writer Robin Givhan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

So after all the hullabaloo about incoming Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and the head-snapping hats that won't be worn, we started thinking, is it possible to be a fashion diva or a Dapper Dan and a member of Congress?

We're turning once again to the diva of all things fashionable and stylish in this town - for that matter, around the country - Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan. In just a few days, she'll be joining Newsweek and The Daily Beast as a style and culture correspondent.

Welcome back, Robin. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy New Year.

Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Fashion Editor, Washington Post): Happy New Year. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I did want to ask about this hat ban. This was not always in existence, was it?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, it goes back for almost a century, really. And it started out that, actually, people on the floor wore their hats. And the idea was that it was sort of to be a bit of an affront to the king. And somewhere around, I believe, in the mid-to-late 1800s, a congressman from New Jersey - finally, after to much pressure - created the hat ban.

MARTIN: Why did he want to ban hats?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I think he felt that it was just more dignified for the gentlemen to be in the chambers without their hat, that it was a sign of respect to remove them, just as it is commonplace now for men to take off their hats when they enter a room. And even when the famous Bella Abzug arrived with her flamboyant hats, she removed her hat when she was in chambers. She did not wear a hat on the floor.

MARTIN: To that end, Frederica Wilson has said that the rule against wearing hats is sexist. It tries to make the male model of decorum normative. I don't know if she used those words, but those are the words that I will use.

Ms. GIVHAN: Right. Right.

MARTIN: And did Bella Abzug make - I will assume that Bella Abzug was not afraid to speak her mind about many things.

Ms. GIVHAN: No.

MARTIN: So did she try to fight the hat ban, too?

Ms. GIVHAN: You know, as far as I know, she did not a particularly big stink about the hat ban. She had once remarked that as a lawyer, it was normal for her to think that she should remove her hat when she, for instance, entered a courtroom. So it was no big deal to take off the hat when she was in chambers.

But, you know, the idea, though, that it's sexist, I think it's a bit of a gray area, because in some ways it's sexist by default, the idea that all the people that are in chambers at the time were, in fact, men. But it wasn't really meant as something that was to benefit men.

MARTIN: There are other wardrobe styles that have changed over the years. For example, it's my understanding that for a very long time, there was a rule against women wearing pants or trousers on the floor of the House or the Senate. Is that your understanding, as well?

Ms. GIVHAN: I was fascinated, actually, when I discovered that. I think it was sometime in the mid-80s when the trouser ban for women was really overturned. And when people talk about the decorum of Washington and what's appropriate and why there's such a sense of conservativeness in dress here, I think that's really a prime explanation for why there is. When you think that in the 1980s, women were not allowed to wear trousers to their place of business, that's really extraordinary. I mean, that's not very long ago at all.

And so then we start talking about things like companies that demand that women wear pantyhose, even in, you know, the dead of summer. Or they can't wear sleeveless dresses, you know, and those things sound so absurd when you put them into context of the greater fashion universe. But you do get a sense of why they resonate in Washington.

MARTIN: Are there any fashion outliers in Washington? People who are in these kinds of professions where there are dress codes, whether they're spoken or unspoken, but are still quite fashionable? Or any role models for people to point to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GIVHAN: You know, Washington, in my experience, has very few outliers in the city business, and by that, I mean government. I mean, most people don't get to these positions by being outliers. They get to these positions by not being, you know, the nail that sticks out. So they understand how to blend in. But I do think there are people who equip themselves well, and I think that there are also categories within that very conservative realm where you can get away with it a little bit more.

I mean, I've always felt that, for instance, African-American congressmen have a bit more leeway, and in part that goes back to the history of their sense of style. And, you know, I'm not talking about being flamboyant, because...

MARTIN: No purple suits.

Ms. GIVHAN: No purple suits. No suit jackets with five or six buttons. No giant pinstripes. But little details, like the French cuffs and the pockets square, or a tie that's just a bit more interesting than your basic stripes.

MARTIN: You know, there are a couple of Republicans who are known, kind of, for being fashionable. I'm thinking about Orrin Hatch...

Ms. GIVHAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...for example, of Utah, is somebody who comes to mind who has always got the French cuffs and, but what do you think?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I think you're using fashionable very loosely.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. GIVHAN: Very generously.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. GIVHAN: No, no, no.

MARTIN: Now on the female side, are women under even more pressure to tow the line?

Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I mean, I think they are under more pressure. I don't know so much, though, that it's the tow the line, because unlike men, there isn't this really defined uniform of what they're supposed to wear. So they have this range. I mean, they can wear a skirt or a dress, or they now can wear trousers. And a lot of them do. I mean, I'm thinking Nancy Pelosi, for instance, is well known for her beautiful and very stylish Armani pantsuits.

But I think what happens with them is they want to make sure that their clothing is not a distraction, and I always think that's sort of the operative word in Washington: Don't let your clothes be a distraction.

MARTIN: We're talking to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Robin Givhan. She chronicles style and fashion in the nation's capital and around the world. It's day one of the 112th Congress, and we're talking about fashion in the halls of Congress. We're hoping it's not an oxymoron.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you wrote about the fact that even people who sort of clean up nicely don't necessarily do that in Washington. And you wrote about how Kirsten Gillibrand, the junior senator from New York, who was photographed in Vogue magazine. She looked fabulous.

Ms. GIVHAN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: She did not wear anything crazy, I mean, just sort of some classic styles. But when you saw her actually doing official business she didn't wear anything like that. What's up with that?

Ms. GIVHAN: Yeah. It seems to be that there's this kind of disconnect between the idea that fashion always has to mean flamboyant, outrageous, edgy, you know, all those things that people think of when they think of a runway show. And it doesn't sort of dawn on them that a designer like a Michael Kors or a Ralph Lauren - I mean, these are, you know, people who have fashion shows. But their clothes are really fundamentally cut for an American woman's body.

MARTIN: Okay. But there's also the cost question. I think isn't part of the calculation here is that constituents don't want to wander into your office and see you wearing something that would cost as much as your house payment?

Ms. GIVHAN: I think that's true, depending on where you're coming from. But we also have to take note that Kirsten Gillibrand is the senator from New York, and the fashion industry is based in New York. So I think it would serve her well to pull some things from her constituent's lines, and she could very well justify that. But, no. I don't think that they want to look like they've spent $10,000 on a single ensemble. But I also think that most people want their representative to represent them in a way that is very polished, that they walk into Congress with a certain amount of respect and perhaps even a little bit of awe. And a lot of that comes through in what they choose to wear.

MARTIN: So what's your best advice to the new members? I mean, we've been featuring freshman today on today's program. What's your best advice for people coming in, particularly those who ran on a platform of I'm challenging the conventional wisdom here? I'm here to up end the status quo. I'm not here to be part of it?

Ms. GIVHAN: If you believe that up-ending the status quo means that you should show up for your first day wearing a pair of jeans and a work shirt, then, you know, show up that way. But the reality is that I think what a lot of them were saying to their constituents is we take the business of governing seriously, and we want you to vote for us because we're going to go up there and we're going to take care of business. We're going to be very serious about this. And whatever side of the aisle you're on, the way that you show that is you show up like you take this very seriously. So look in the mirror and be polished. Don't look like you just rolled out of bed and grabbed a rumpled suit.

MARTIN: Robin Givhan, special correspondents for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, starting Monday.

Robin, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. GIVHAN: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And thank all of you for listening to our special broadcast from Capitol Hill on this opening day of the 112th Congress.

I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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