When state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh learned last Friday that she was invited by the White House to sit with first lady Michelle Obama during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address, one of her first thoughts was about what was she going to wear.
"I thought about it almost immediately," the Baltimore Democrat said. "Until [the day of the speech], I hadn't decided."
The importance of fashion should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Pugh's career. The tall, slender Pugh is known for her signature pearls and her colorful dresses and suits. And it goes beyond that.
It was Pugh who helped found the Baltimore Design School, a public middle-high school in East Baltimore. Last year, Pugh — along with Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt — opened 2 Chic Boutique, a Pigtown-based consignment shop that specializes in designer labels such as Chanel, Gucci and Prada.
For the president's speech, Pugh decided on a form-fitting aquamarine dress with elbow-length sleeves by fashion label La Petite Robe, a garment she purchased last spring at Neiman Marcus Last Call. She wore a double-strand pearl necklace, which was her late mother's. Her Pour La Victoire snakeskin pumps featured the same aquamarine color as her dress, as well as green and orange, which she matched with an orange coat by Charles Gray. She wore the coat earlier in the evening when she entered the White House for a reception hosted by the first lady.
"When I was walking into the White House for the reception, someone told me 'Great color,' " Pugh said.
Pugh is the new majority leader in the state Senate and is also president-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. The White House said it invited her because of her support for an increase in the minimum wage and her views on paid sick leave.
Pugh wasn't the only one turning heads with her evening's wardrobe decision.
Michelle Obama wore a gray tweed origami collar tweed jacket by Michael Kors. The piece — which had also been worn by Julianna Margulies on "The Good Wife" — sold out in the hours after the speech on Neiman Marcus' and Nordstrom's website. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, wore a sleeveless Kelly green dress with black appliques along the bottom. And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also caught the public's eye wearing a blue, Egyptian-inspired collar and indigo post earrings to enhance her required Supreme Court robe.
"I saw it all from where I was sitting," Pugh said. "As a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., it was amazing to see all the red in the crowd. I also knew that was the one color I was not going to wear because everyone wears that. I wanted to stand out."
Pugh said she received a number of compliments about her ensemble that evening. The most memorable came from Jill Biden.
"At the State of the Union, Jill Biden said 'I love your dress,' " she said.
Pugh also had a brief conversation with Michelle Obama during the reception at the White House.
"We got to take pictures with her," Pugh said. "She said to keep up the good fight and that she was really proud of me. I told her she was beautiful. And she is absolutely beautiful."
Even though the first lady did not comment on Pugh's dress, the Baltimorean was confident in her choice for the evening.
"I think she approved," Pugh said with a laugh.
As for the speech itself, Pugh said she "absolutely loved" it.
"It was so on target. It was so on point. He just seemed to flow," she said.
One of her favorite moments was when the president silenced Republicans who cheered after he said he was done running in elections by saying, "I know, because I won both of them."
"He was so optimistic about the future," Pugh said. "That was great."
She said sitting in the first lady's box was like doing a workout because of all the standing ovations.
"I felt like I was doing aerobics," she said.
All of the movement made Pugh appreciate her wardrobe choice.
"One of my other choices was a sleeveless dress," she said. "I didn't wear it because I didn't want to risk my bra strap showing. It's a good thing with as much as I jumped up and down in that seat."
We asked the senator a variety of style-related questions that included her fashion inspirations and her affinity for wearing dresses rather than suits.
Who is your style icon?
My mom. My mother was the epitome of style. [She died in 1988.] She was always wearing a hat. Always wearing gloves. She wore glass beads and pearls. The reason I knew that voting was important was because she and my father would dress like they were going to church when they voted.
Who are your favorite designers?
La Petite Robe and Kate Spade. I was thinking about wearing Kate Spade for the State of the Union, but I decided on La Petite Robe. Ultimately, It's never about just the designer. It's about what looks good on you. Sometimes people get into designers and not what looks good on you.
What was your beauty approach for the State of the Union?
I'm not a makeup girl. I did a little eyeliner and lipstick.
What approach did you take with your hair?
I have the best hairdresser [Claudia McKee at Mane Attraction], but she's only available on Wednesday and Thursday. I just got my hair done the week before. I did call her to get my hair done, but she told me that "Your hair will be fine." She believes in conditioning hair really well. She clipped it and made sure the ends weren't raggedy. All I did was wrap it [the night before] and comb it out [that day]. Her style is very simple. The cut makes it fall the way it should fall.
What is your style mantra?
My mother always said: "You go to work dressed like whatever it is the way you want to be." When I was in high school, I worked in the stockroom at Bonwit Teller & Co. Even though I worked in the stockroom, I would be dressed like the manager of the store. One day, a buyer for the store walked in. She saw me and asked me who I was and said that I was so well dressed. As a result, she made me a floor model. It was one of the best jobs I ever had.
The State of the Union is a huge political gathering with lots of men in suits. As a woman, why did you choose a dress instead of a suit?
I'm a dress girl. There is nothing more beautiful on a woman than a dress that is befitting the occasion. That is why I am a big fan of Kate Spade and La Petite Robe. If I had to chose between a dress or a suit, I'm going with the dress. I just love dresses.
You were sitting with Michelle Obama, who is known for her terrific fashion sense. How did that influence what you wore?
It didn't. All the texts I got told me to make sure they could see me. I knew I wanted to wear vibrant colors so that I couldn't be missed. La Petite Robe is known for that.