Many in the Obama administration could claim to be the brains of health-care reform, but the face is unquestionably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s—and the outfit is a lavender-colored Armani suit, with lavender pumps and Tahitian pearls.
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The image of Pelosi marching through Washington on Sunday, with her giant gavel and a lock-step herd of Democrats at her back, is the one that will illustrate history textbooks and haunt Rush Limbaugh’s dreams. It looked as if America’s grandmother ducked out of her Easter brunch, between Bellinis, to dramatically recast the government’s approach to national health and welfare.
Closeups show her manicure was perfect. Her hair, as always, was neatly coiffed, with five carefully applied blond highlights emanating, just so, from the center of her scalp. Her accessories were lovely, her shoes dyed to match.
The look was remarkably on trend, if inadvertently so. For their fall collections, many top designers showed versions of the traditional power suit, deconstructing and reimagining that old career-gal standard into something with a little more personality. Alexander Wang cut up and re-stitched pinstripes. Dries van Noten experimented with tailoring. Zac Posen went with—yes, lavender.
It’s a historic moment for the working woman, the one who hustles night and day to wrangle 219 votes for a sweeping legislative victory and also those who struggle toward marginally less stratospheric goals. With her subtle, maternal sense of style, Pelosi is helping to create a new archetype of sophisticated femininity, in Washington and around the country. Come September, all the most fashionable ladies will look a little like the speaker of the House.
Pelosi’s aesthetic has barely changed over her tenure in public office. That lavender suit has made dozens of appearances. Pelosi doesn’t have a stylist, according to a source close to her. She’s useless with a blow dryer and allots 20 minutes a session with an expert at a salon, coming and going with clockwork precision and spending the whole time studying notes. For the most part, her husband, Paul, picks out her clothes.
Gary Croteau of Salon Mario Russo in Boston does Pelosi’s hair from time to time, as well as a number of other high-powered women’s, including Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s. “Anna is basically the Nancy Pelosi of fashion,” he says. Pelosi, for her fearsome authority and consistent style, could likewise be called the Anna Wintour of Congress.
The speaker has been going for a softer look lately, Croteau said. “She’s told me before that the temptation people have when they do her hair is to make it look very helmet-like just because of who she is. She wants it to look good all day, but doesn’t want it to look hard.”
A helmet might have been useful at some stages of the debate, but Pelosi managed to emerge looking like a warrior. Every day she turned up power-suited for battle. She invariably adds a feminine touch, a strategy often employed by women in positions of power. Madeleine Albright had her pins; Nancy has her pearls.
Purple, the color of bipartisanship, has been Pelosi’s go-to wardrobe shade at major moments throughout her term as speaker. She wore the same lavender suit and pearls to President Obama’s first State of the Union address, on Jan. 27. (Like first lady Michelle Obama, Pelosi is not afraid to repeat a look.) She wore eggplant for a March 2 press conference to discuss the state of health-care reform negotiations outside her congressional office in Washington. She went with more of a cranberry hue for a Jan. 14 speech at the House Democratic Caucus retreat, and back in November, she rolled out the lavender number again for a joint session of Congress.
She’s useless with a blow dryer and allots 20 minutes a session with an expert at a salon, coming and going with clockwork precision and spending the whole time studying notes.
“It’s the color of suffragettes,” she recently told a friend.
It isn’t easy for path-breaking female public figures—or first female anythings—to balance a feminine aesthetic with the need to act tough in a room full of men. Hillary Clinton took constant drubbing for her fashion choices throughout her husband’s campaign and presidency, including during their own go at health-care reform. Pelosi has caught flak for her taut skin, remarkably smooth and lineless for a 70-year-old grandmother. On the other side of the aisle, right-wing clotheshorse Sarah Palin has grappled with a whole host of sartorial issues, from her spendy campaign days to her ever-changing hair.
Pelosi has long built her public image around an understated elegance, wearing tasteful silk scarves in visits with foreign dignitaries and a full complement of jewel-toned suits. The look is grownup and feminine, not mannish in the least. Here is a mother of five, who obviously has spent plenty of time taking temperatures and feeding spoonfuls of cough medicine to sick kids—certainly more time than she’s spent at Barneys—agonizing over what to wear. It was comforting to see the woman in lavender leading the pack for health-care reform.
And, all things considered, it was good she also brought the gavel.
Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.