Scandal, House of Cards, VEEPWashington D.C.'s elite showed off its finest formal wear at President Obama's state dinner for France's President François Hollande this week. Obama himself clung to tradition in a black tuxedo, while the First Lady opted for a custom-made Carolina Herrera gown. Vice President Joe Biden ditched his usual oversized navy-blue-suit look in favor of a slim-cut tux, and even Representative Paul Ryan found a midnight-blue number that showed off his enviable physique.
But any New Yorker who has taken the Amtrak to the nation's capital knows that Tuesday's display was little more than an anomaly, fashion-wise. Generally speaking, America's political class dresses to underwhelm. Take, for instance, last month's State of the Union. House Speaker John Boehner's mint green, leprechaun-esque tie was almost as offensive as his blatant nose-blowing. Michele Bachmann's clingy black dress, with what looked like leather accents and cheap silver jewelry, was borderline inappropriate. And even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's brown tweed skirt suit was more mannish than it needed to be.
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How is it that some of the most powerful people in the world don't understand the importance of image? Perhaps because they realize that their minds should be on more important things (even if they're not). "Do we really want an uber self-conscious leader in office?" asks Scandal costume designer Lyn Paolo, who is known for making Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope one of the most stylish women on television, and who previously worked on The West Wing. "America is quite a large country, and I think it is very difficult to be fashion forward in D.C. You would get a lot of flack for spending money on costumes. Remember Sarah Palin when she tried to change her look?"
House of Cards' season-one costume designer Tom Broecker agrees, "Everyone wants to be a part of a group. How could you have a reputation for spending $5,000 on a suit, and fight for the needs of others? At the end of the day, these people are public servants." Broecker makes this clear early on in season one, when Frank Underwood trades in the Gieves & Hawkes suits that he wears on the Hill for Banana Republic khakis and a Nautica homespun shirt when dressing for his constituents. Likewise, on HBO's VEEP, Julia Louis-Dreyfus's Selina Meyer flatters her conservative constituents by sticking to approachable earth-tone pieces-even if they are made by Prada and Elie Tahari.
The British don't seem to share our need to dress down for success. Think Prince Charles, Prime Minister David Cameron-known most notably for his expensive Savile Row suits-and his wife, Samantha, who can turn heads in an Emilia Wickstead gown or a Marks & Spencer dress. "England is a much smaller country," Paolo explains. "The fashion that's hitting the stores in London is seen all over the country, plus the country as a whole is much more conscious of style."
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Broecker actually used Samantha Cameron as the touchstone for Robin Wright's House of Cards character, Claire Underwood, television's modern Lady Macbeth. "She has amazing style that bridges the gap between politics and fashion," he says of Cameron. "Of course, Michelle Obama looks great all the time, but there is something effortless about Samantha. She isn't trying too hard." Similarly, Wright's Claire wears her Prada, L'Wren Scott, and Theory looks with a New York effortlessness. "Robin's character is supposed to weave this beautiful web, and we are supposed to be sucked into that, so it's important that marble exterior be solid and can't be penetrated," says Broecker.
Olivia's fashion on Scandal, which includes Armani, Max Mara, and Christian Dior, project a slightly different kind of authority, explains Paolo. "In her own way, she has this Sheryl Sandberg-Lean In element, so the lighter tones she wears are supposed to be symbolic of being amazingly powerful, but also exude femininity. She is going to stand out in this world."
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But D.C. on television still has to be realistic, and that's probably most clear with Bellamy Young's Mellie Grant, who, like many leaders of this country, is fond of primary colors. "What people don't realize is that Mellie and Olivia are the same woman-they're two sides of a coin-but Mellie is confined in a way that Olivia is not," says Paolo. "It's a red, white, and blue world for her, just like it is in D.C."
However, it would seem that the real world of political fashion will need a good tailor if it ever hopes to mirror its on-screen counterparts. "Word on the street is that Boehner spends a lot of money on his clothes, and so does Nancy Pelosi," says Broecker, "but again it's not about the money, it's always about the fit."
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