The Fashion of Politics

On Jan. 20, promptly at noon, a new era began. The inauguration of George W. Bush signaled a turn to conservative traditions and heartland values. And while the changes are primarily political, fashion is seeing its own transition.

First Lady Laura Bush first quashed any notion of her as a mousy librarian by publicly disagreeing with her husband on Roe v. Wade. She made an even louder statement, however, when she appeared at the inaugural balls wearing a curve-hugging, siren-red dress. Her neck and ears flashed with diamond and ruby jewelry by Dallas jeweler Sue Gragg.

The bold silhouette stood in sharp contrast to memories of Hillary Rodham Clinton adorned in mild violet at her husband’s first inauguration.

Along with the new First Lady’s choice of a bright-blue fitted wool tunic, skirt, and coat with camel hair trim for the inauguration itself, her inaugural ball outfit was a sharp reminder of the fashion of politics. Not since Nancy Reagan lived in the White House has the color red been so boldly and daringly flaunted by a First Lady.

The style combines formalwear glamour with a touch of decadence—again, a sharp contrast to Clinton’s Yale-ishly traditional tastes. It’s a style that says, “I’m not ashamed of my position and influence.” And, like ’80s fashion on the runways, it hasn’t been seen since the jewelry-intensive era of Reaganomics.

“With the Reagans, you certainly saw more formalwear and jewelry,” says Cliff Limon, of Robert Limon Jewelers in Bethesda, Md. “You haven’t seen anything like that since.”

The Bushes’ style also attests to their Texas roots. The fashion media are already reporting that, among Washingtonians and the politically adept, Laura Bush’s traditional femininity (dresses) will replace Hillary Clinton’s modern feminist styles (chic black pantsuits). That will mean diamonds worn with pride, lots of traditional yellow-gold jewelry, and other wealth-flaunting accessories. One 30-year-old Washingtonian was shocked by the suddenness of the change in style, which took place between the pre-inaugural and inaugural events—a matter of days.

“Everyone everywhere was wearing diamonds dripping off their ears,” she says. “And I’ve never seen so much fur in my life, and women with so much makeup … and the cowboy hats!”

Speaking of cowboy hats, the president seems anything but ready to shed his cowboy image. In his pre-inaugural interview with Barbara Walters, he and Laura chose their barn as a backdrop, and public appearances often find him dressed in jeans, boots, and—of course—an oversized belt buckle. Whether Bush’s near-constant media exposure has been the cause or the effect, there has been a noted increase in Western-inspired fashions. As Women’s Wear Daily recently declared, “Cowboy Chic Goes Glam.”

Meanwhile, in fine jewelry, items like lariats and materials like turquoise are making more frequent appearances in new collections. In accessories, leather belts are important and, according to Lional McKinney of Sunburst Jewelry, Albuquerque, N.M., sterling silver buckles have been increasingly in demand in recent months.

While the fashions of the President and First Lady may not be hot material for the celebrity pages of consumer magazines, they undoubtedly do set a tone for the country. As Ronald Reagan’s social secretary told the Washington Post, “Every First Lady wants to have it right. It sets a tone for herself and for the country and for what the country can expect.” Already, beauticians in Washington, D.C., report that they’re ready for an onslaught of big hair and makeup—a look that’s been absent for at least eight years.

What, if anything, will this mean for the jewelry industry? The jury is still out. While she may not be the next Jacqueline Kennedy, judging from Mrs. Bush’s inaugural eveningwear and her documented choice of bold jewelry (as well as daughter Barbara’s noted penchant for fashion), she may not shy away from making fashion statements that reverberate through the masses.

Some, however, expect the status quo, skeptical that the Bushes will affect fashion any more than they affect other aspects of everyday life. Many echo the sentiments of Jerry Root of Root Jewelers in Arlington, Va.: “I don’t think that politics really rule fashion.”