03 March 2010

The Sacrificial Ma'am

The Washington Post
Desiree Rogers may have improved Washington's look. Washington may not have noticed.

The fashion industry did not create the public persona of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. And it did not deal the decisive card that caused her to trade in Washington for Chicago and a return to the private sector. But fashion's mythmakers certainly did their part in shaping the outsize reputation that left Rogers open to criticism within the Beltway.

Indeed, as news of Rogers's exit reached the American fashion establishment, which was convened in Milan for the fall 2010 collections, some editors began to ask: Did we cause this?

They did not, of course. Still, in the end, Seventh Avenue did Rogers no favors, although she may have aided the fashion industry -- and women in general -- immensely.

Rogers's departure has the fashion industry practically in mourning. No one has expressed a whiff of excitement over her replacement, Julianna Smoot. Instead, there's concern that Washington might end up in cultural retreat.

"I think it would be sad if we all decided to bury Washington fashion now that Desirée's left town and to conclude that every ambitious woman inside the Beltway should just pull on her pantsuit and her sensible shoes from here on out," says Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive. "I'd like to think that we're a little past that and that we realize that the average person is capable of caring about what she wears to work and still doing a good job when she gets there."

When the Obamas announced that the New Orleans native with the platinum résumé and the knack for glamorous style would be the White House's first African American social secretary, the fashion industry practically swooned. The nation's capital, dominated for 20 years by administrations that, at best, endured fashion, now had a first lady who chose her designer wardrobe like a savvy insider. She and her husband hired a host of attractive young staffers who didn't mind posing for the occasional fashion spread -- Birkin bag in hand, feet shod in trendy platform heels -- and a social secretary who knew the difference between Nina Ricci and Lanvin and regularly wore both. The industry could not believe its good fortune! At long last, it had a diverse array of intelligent and respected women in federal Washington who, by their appearance alone, served as powerful advocates for an often-maligned business.

Of all the bounty the Obama administration offered, Rogers was the most enticing. She was high-ranking, she had the dazzling task of overseeing the social life of the White House, and she was more accessible than the first lady.

Rogers used fashion both literally and metaphorically in her position. In pursuit of inspiration and ideas to expand the artistic repertoire of the White House, Rogers went to New York during Fashion Week. In February 2009, she sat alongside the Vogue team at Donna Karan's runway show, where she attracted a swarm of media. (Eric Lewis, the jazz pianist who serenaded the audience at Karan's presentation, later performed at the White House.) During her first year in the East Wing, Rogers posed for flattering photo shoots in Vogue and WSJ and in the accompanying articles discussed her job and what would distinguish her office. Clearly, style would. Fashion features and blogs mused about her looks. And she cut a striking figure in her new position with her refusal to transform into that most enduring Washington stereotype: the dowdy political appointee.
Along the way, Rogers shocked and offended Washington traditionalists, but she was also Seventh Avenue's mythic power woman made real. She combined fashion -- honest-to-goodness, straight-from-the-runway fashion, even avant-garde Japanese designs, for heaven's sake -- with a substantial résumé and an influential White House job.

But in navy-suit-and-red-tie Washington, style is appreciated but fashion is not. Designers and their schmancy clothes, glossy magazines and their highfalutin editors stir suspicion. Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of Vogue, wondered aloud if perhaps Washington was flummoxed and intimidated by a "good-looking and stylish woman" in such a high-profile position who was not shy about her enjoyment of clothes, who didn't walk around dressed for the chorus but rather center stage.

One could argue that Rogers, more than any other woman, should have been the epitome of stylish and fashionable. "Wasn't her entire job about standing for good taste at the White House?" Leive asks rhetorically. "Isn't she supposed to care about appearances? Do we want the person in charge of the nation's most important events to be marching around in a burlap sack?"

Women in other urban centers regularly use fashion savvy as a form of cultural currency. That knowledge -- of designers and trends and the best place to have a jacket tailored or a pair of heels rebuilt -- allows a woman to silently swagger, to exude confidence. Other women read those signals. They quietly parse her look and quickly note whether she is an aficionado or a victim. Whether she is proudly expressing her creativity or blindly following the dictates of some domineering designer.

In the same way that some men use sports as a metaphor for another man's character, some women use fashion as a way of understanding another woman's sense of self. After all, if it's possible to extract deep meaning from questions like "Does he hog the ball?" then surely it's reasonable to dissect the difference between a woman who carries a Kelly bag and one who chooses a monogram bag from Louis Vuitton.

Fashion serves as an insider's language that, to the uninitiated, can be as mystifying and aggravating as some of the political patois that passes for conversation in Washington. Was Rogers engaging in what one magazine editor described as "an arrogance of style" -- using her clothes for competitive one-upmanship rather than to exude personal creativity, self-confidence or self-respect?

Or could a city of wonks and political animals simply not grasp what Rogers was saying?

In federal Washington, after all, a modest Armani suit still can get one a best-dressed award. For that crowd, taking the measure of Rogers, a special assistant to the president, dressed in Prada and Jil Sander, would have been a bit like someone trying to make sense of an NFL team's strategy diagram based on their knowledge of Foosball.

Rogers pushed hard against the federal city's cultural stereotypes. And in her person, she became an emblem of a particular kind of change that was afoot. Fashion does not need to be something that fades into the background or that is worn with great trepidation. It doesn't negate the impressiveness of a résumé; it merely means that one is fluent in another cultural language.

Rogers may not reap the benefits of her own brashness. But other women of influence surely will. "She's left a great legacy for women in the future to dress with style and great personal flair," notes Harper's Bazaar Editor in Chief Glenda Bailey.

In the future, women might not be pulling frocks by conceptual designers out of their closet, but at minimum, maybe at the next State of the Union address, the audience gathered in the Capitol won't look like a scattering of red and yellow square pegs wedged into a thicket of charcoal gray.

As for Rogers, away from Washington and all its stereotypes, she can wear whatever she likes. And do so without comment.

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