Betsy Fisher came to Washington to study diplomacy, intending to help people in developing countries.
Instead she wound up catering to a deprived segment of her own society: Washington women who want to dress with a bit of flair.
Her diplomatic ambitions faded after a bad grade in political philosophy, Fisher said. Retail aspirations took their place when she graduated from Georgetown University in 1986 and found “there was no place I wanted to shop.”
Two years later, Fisher opened a boutique on Connecticut Avenue and stocked it with stylish clothes and accessories that were moderately priced and could not be found in local department stores.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Rents were hideously high (and then came the recession), but we developed a really steady clientele. We have gone from zero to hopefully a million dollars in sales this year.”
Stylish is not a word that generally comes to mind when people think of the nation’s capital.
Asked to describe the Washington look, local women offered the following adjectives: classic, understated, careful, simple, preppy, uniform, bland, nice, predictable and conservative.
Some might even say that many Washington women look like Secretary of State Warren Christopher talks.
“People who are involved in political life do not wish to be noticed, particularly when they walk into a room,” said Val Cook, vice president of Saks Jandel, an upscale local boutique. “Simply being careful is the operative mode.”
“The pulse of this town does not allow for a lot of freedom of expression in your wardrobe,” agreed Chi Chi Labarraque, regional public relations and fashion director for Saks Fifth Avenue.
“You have only so many opportunities to make a first impression. Clothing that is too revealing, for example, could leave people with the wrong impression that you’re not serious.”
To be considered “not serious” in Washington is akin to committing political suicide.
Nancy Reagan was harshly criticized for being preoccupied with clothing. Barbara Bush was admired in part because she was so untrendy. Nobody would ever accuse Hillary Rodham Clinton of not being serious.
This is still a town of mostly suits and white shirts for both men and women, a workaholic haven for lawmakers and law enforcers without the artistic leavening of a New York or Los Angeles.
Leslie Wolf, a New York-based video producer with short red hair and a self-described “Eurotrash” look, said people at the Labor Department, where she has done some work, “almost fall down the stairs when I would walk by.”
Rep. Jolene Unsoeld (D-Wash.) was actually remarked about for having the temerity to appear on the House floor without pantyhose during Washington’s sweltering summers, a Capitol Hill staffer said.
“Compared to Los Angeles, we are less up to date and a little less bold,” said Barbara Brown, a partner in the Washington office of the L.A. law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “But I don’t think people here are more frumpy. Women lawyers in general are wearing much brighter colors and are more stylish. As women are getting more senior, they’re getting more confident.”
Judith Katz, another attorney, agreed.
“The Washington style used to be what women thought would get them and keep them in a powerful position--the Talbot’s look. But women are becoming more willing to spread out a little in their style. They’re more confident that they can reach and maintain a powerful position without looking like men.”
Women make up 50% of the Washington work force of 300,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The problem, Fisher said, is not the women but the stores.
“Washington women are highly educated and sophisticated, and they have a strong sense of style. But D.C. is uniquely underboutiqued. What we mostly have is chain stores.
“Washington women are starved for this,” she said, gesturing at her racks of flowing dresses and tailored but feminine separates and suits, with price tags ranging from $100 to $700.
Most of the colors are muted, according to the season’s fashion, with soft yellows, beiges, grays and greens dominating. Many of the clothes recall the 1930s and ‘40s, but with a twist: a boxy saffron-yellow linen jacket, for example, is coupled with an abbreviated apron skirt. Fisher’s skirts are either very short or very long, and there are tons of pants.
Her customers, Fisher said, are working women from the late 20s through the 40s who care about fashion but not about labels.
“They want something so versatile that they can wear it to work, wear it on weekends and if they can wear it to a party as well, they’re thrilled,” she said.
Fisher is not the only one to have tapped into a growing interest in standing out ever so slightly from the norm.
The typical Washington professional woman’s hairdo is a sort of power helmet--a chin-length bouffant style lightly lacquered to survive a busy day without much attention.
L.A. hairdresser Christophe, who achieved notoriety for his on-the-Tarmac haircut of President Clinton last year, said he was elated at the success of his Washington salon, which opened in November.
“By December, I was in the black,” he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he still spends three weeks out of four.
“What I’m most surprised about is how open the Washington women are for change. We’ve received a lot of calls from women who say, ‘I’m a professional woman but I don’t want to look like that.’ ”
Around town, there appears to be an incremental loosening up, with more younger women opting for pants instead of the predominant knee-length skirt or dress.
Nancy Markowitz’s law firm (Anderson, Kill, Olick & Oshinsky, a New York-based outfit that also has a Palo Alto office) recently instituted a “casual day” on Fridays, still a rarity in Washington.
“When we first started it a couple of months ago, everyone looked like they were going on a cruise,” she said. “The men wore Dockers-type pants.”
Markowitz said she wears linen slacks on casual days and once wore black jeans. Blue jeans and tennis shoes are not allowed.
The rest of the week, she wears Calvin Klein suits that she buys on sale at the local Neiman Marcus.
The mother of three small children in addition to being a lawyer, “I just don’t have time to shop,” she said. “So I’ve picked one store and one designer.”
“The work ethic in Washington in general is staggering,” Brown agreed. “We just don’t have the time that people in California make for fashion.”
Brown, like many suburbanites in this spread-out metropolitan area, shops at a mall in Maryland that has a Nordstrom.
“I suspect that most people in my office shop at (discount stores) Loehmann’s or Syms but they won’t admit it,” she said. Filene’s, another discount chain, just opened in Washington and has been a big hit.
Frugality is an important factor for the mostly middle-class women who staff the government and private offices around town, Lisa Williams said.
A buyer for Jackie Chalkley, a boutique that offers arty, comfortable clothing, Williams said Washington women are “looking for a lot for their money and for things that will work with their wardrobe.”
Of course, the capital has always had a small wealthy elite that could shop when and where it pleased.
Not so long ago, that meant regular excursions to New York.
“The change in Washington style is that there is one,” said Saks Jandel’s Cook. “When I came here 20 years ago, there were no stores. Now between Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Claire Dratch (a Bethesda, Md., boutique) and us, we pretty much cover the waterfront.”
The chain stores tailor their merchandise to the Washington market.
Saks Fifth Avenue’s Labarraque said only about 60% of the clothes in the Chevy Chase, Md., store were the same as those at the New York flagship.
“It’s different but not less interesting,” she said. “There are some lines we have here that we don’t have in New York--for example, Romeo Gigli and John Galliano. We carry Armani black-label only in New York, Bal Harbour and Washington--not in Beverly Hills.”
Among the “ladies who lunch” who can afford such clothes--an Armani black-label jacket goes for nearly $2,000--the Armani suit is now the signature of the Washington elite, Labarraque said. In Jacqueline Kennedy’s day, it was Chanel.
For Washington, that’s progress.