Olivia Pope Be Damned: This Is What Women In Politics Really Wear

Photographed by Jim Darling.
As a Washington, D.C.-based public-relations executive and beauty blogger, Colour Me Glam’s Manoucheka Attime is permitted to have a decent amount of fun with her wardrobe. That means brightly colored blazers, statement necklaces, and bold lipstick colors. But when Attime, 34, was working as an aide on Capitol Hill, she relied on dark suits and button-ups. “You’re not supposed to be the one standing out,” she says. “It’s not about you.”

That sentiment is a far cry from television shows set in the nation’s capital, like Scandal, House of Cards, and Madame Secretary, where power players are decked out in Armani suits and perfectly tailored Roland Mouret shift dresses. That’s because even in the age of Olivia Pope and Claire Underwood, real-life Capitol Hill style is still evolving.

The District’s fashion gets a bum rap, and not entirely without reason. Where the apparel industry fuels New York City’s obsession with underground labels and off-the-runway looks, and Hollywood’s casual M.O. has pinned it as the poster child for athleisure, D.C. intellects have long rejected anything other than a nondescript uniform. “People are more concerned with looking smart than pretty, or looking more senior at a meeting than snazzy at an event,” said one insider.

But why can’t they be both? There are a few things at play behind the explanation. Maybe most important, Washington is a company town whose business is world affairs. Glamour is downplayed. For many who run in the city’s high-powered circles, it’s still considered frivolous to appear too concerned with appearances. It’s certainly important to look well-kempt, but the idea is to blend in, not to stand out. Another point, less often addressed, is that fashion, for many of these executives, is not something they care to think about. It’s not just that they don’t want to look like they care, it’s that they simply don’t.

For those who work in fashion, it’s tough to imagine that there are smart, compelling women out there who are ambivalent about their wardrobes. Especially ones with jobs that require them to make dynamite first impressions that convey a self-image of confidence, authority, and power. Hollywood, too, seems to want to project a love of fashion onto the women of Washington. Television’s current style stars play characters who live in, work in, and literally rule this country. There’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus as sheath-loving president Selina Meyer on HBO’s Veep, Kerry Washington as softly suited fixer on ABC’s Scandal, and Robin Wright’s tailored-to-a-tee first lady on Netflix’s House of Cards.

Each of these women manages to look powerful, sexy, and chic at once. But are they really influencing D.C. fashion?

The answer depends on whom you ask. At an April conference where United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power and Wright sat on a panel together, Power suggested that she wouldn’t mind dressing up like Wright’s Armani-clad alter ego, the ambitious Underwood. “I think I would be more effective if I had [Claire’s] wardrobe,” Power half-joked. Wright then presented the ambassador with one of her character’s beloved dove-gray power dresses. And Power isn’t the only stateswoman openly considering a fashion upgrade. Hillary Clinton, whose style — from headbands to a rainbow of pantsuits — has been ridiculed time and again over her decades-long political career, seems to be taking clothes more seriously as she begins her second presidential campaign. The former Secretary of State kicked things off on New York City’s Roosevelt Island in early June wearing a cobalt pantsuit from Ralph Lauren’s main collection. While it wasn’t a departure — she’s favored boldly colored separates for years — it was was tailored perfectly and paired with a matching shell. It looked modern and confident without distracting from the job at hand, which is exactly the message Clinton needs to be conveying.
Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
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Maybe Clinton has taken a few cues from Selina Meyer. Maybe not. Politicians, of course, don’t typically live in Washington — they flutter in and out of town, and represent only a small sliver of the fashion one sees on the Hill. However, for those who reside and work around the city’s superstars, there’s no denying that it’s nice to see D.C. fashion portrayed so compellingly on TV. “I think it’s been a good thing,” says Attime, who shops at nationwide favorites like J.Crew, H&M and Zara for separates in cheery colors and just-bold-enough prints not unlike those seen on Meyer or on Scandal’s first lady, Mellie Grant. Where those on the Hill might still stick primarily with black and gray, Attime sees more women taking chances on colorful dresses and shirting, even if they’re still primarily shopping at workwear chains like The Limited — which launched a Scandal-themed capsule collection last year — and Ann Taylor.

The penchant for color, though, is also indicative of the city’s eternal connection with both the South and preppy culture. Lilly Pulitzer, a favorite brand of Southern belles and New England boarding-school ladies alike, is big in the District, and has been for years. However, Michelle Obama’s kaleidoscopic wardrobe has likely had more of an influence on the way real women dress than any trend or TV show. Obama has made it acceptable, even welcome, to show an interest in fashion, wearing a wide range of designers, from Indian-American Bibhu Mohapatra to Tunisian-born, Paris-based Azzedine Alaïa.

In the beginning, Obama worked quietly with powerful Chicago store owner Ikram Goldman to purchase clothes. In 2011, that role was taken over by White House aide Meredith Koop, a former employee of Goldman’s. In the fall of 2014, Obama even invited a group of notable American designers — including Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, along with Prabal Gurung and Mario Cornejo — to the White House for a fashion education workshop, where they talked to high school students who aspired to work in the industry.

Although fashion may be a less taboo topic in Washington than it was before Michelle Obama’s arrival in 2009, there are certain looks she pulls off that just wouldn’t work in a large number of D.C.’s corporate offices. “There are many, many workplaces where bare arms are not okay, and will never be okay,” says Kat Griffin, editor-in-chief of Corporette, a fashion and lifestyle blog for professional women. She directed me to an April 2015 post on the site where dozens of commenters weighed in on whether or not one reader should go sleeveless at work. “I don’t think it is professional (for anyone of any arm size, shape, etc.) to be sleeveless in a business professional environment,” wrote one commenter. “You notice how Claire Underwood never went sleeveless unless it was an evening/gala event? Exactly.”

Therein lies the reason House of Cards’ fictional first lady possesses the most coveted wardrobe in all of television. Though she wears plenty of Armani and Ralph Lauren Black Label, Underwood spends much of her professional life in Banana Republic button-ups and Brooks Brothers pencil skirts, both staples on the real-life Hill. Olivia Pope’s all-winter-white, pricey-designer ensembles, on the other hand, are less attainable or practical. However, her Prada Saffiano tote is highly coveted among Washington’s elite. “We don’t cover a lot of high-end bags, but the Saffiano is an exception,” Griffin says.
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
So what does a modern D.C. woman’s wardrobe really look like? “The power suit hasn’t really been a thing since the ’80s and ’90s,” says Janet Kelly, editor of My Little Bird, a fashion and lifestyle website devised for D.C. women. (A former style writer at the Washington Post, Kelly also edits the newspaper’s monthly magazine, Fashion Washington.) Kelly cites the increase in mono-brand boutiques, including Rag & Bone and Alice + Olivia, as evidence that the city is ready to take fashion more seriously. Maybe they’re not in head-to-toe Prada à la Olivia Pope, but they are mixing blazers and dresses from these fashion-y spots with tried-and-true pieces from Theory and Vince. CityCenter, a Penn Quarter shopping mall that debuted in 2014, is home to Alexis Bittar, Hermes, Zadig & Voltaire, and others, with Dior and Carolina Herrera opening soon.

Today, the Washington wardrobe might not be the most fashion conscious, but it is considered. The new power ensemble draws from the looks we love from Olivia and Selina and Claire, but with a big dollop of practicality that is requisite in our nation’s capital. Because, after all, being sensible never goes out of style. At least not in D.C.
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