Lobbyists Lena Moffitt and Dalal Aboulhosn worked the racks last Friday at a temporary boutique set up by Rent the Runway, a New York-based fashion-rental firm. Their mission: Find inaugural ball gowns that defied Washington's button-down standard.
Sipping complimentary wine, they perused strappy, spangly and sexy. They considered super-short, a risk recommended by their office's sole fashionista. The two women, who work for the Sierra Club, an environmental group, wound up in solid-color, floor-sweeping gowns-in other words, stolid political assets that gave away nothing.
After all, sighed Ms. Moffitt, D.C. style is "less skin…more blazers."
In tonight's Washington, strong men weep unabashedly in the streets. Iron-jawed matriarchs of Congress clutch at bewildered passersby, their eyes brimming with unspoken questions. "It isn't fair," they cry. "That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed! That's not fair!"
Many in Washington, the epicenter of political power, see high fashion as not only irrelevant, but downright suspect. Workaholics take a certain pride in looking like they slept in their clothes. A rakish fedora and cape, by contrast, recalls Jack Abramoff, the disgraced lobbyist. A daring dress means D.C. Madam.
Yet every four years it's Inauguration Day, when posh receptions and black-tie balls set the city's gray suits at war with themselves. Do stripes convey sufficient solidity? To sequin or not to sequin? Is hair gel only for the shallow?
"Has it really been four years," the men whisper hollowly to themselves. "Only four. Where has the time gone?"
"I thought we just had an Inauguration Ball," Patrick Leahy chokes before jumping to his death off the Francis Scott Key Bridge. "I can't put on another fanciful ascot. I can't. I can't."
Here, "There's an age-old need, or burden, to dress in a way that's not going to raise eyebrows," says Tara McCredie, manager and buyer at Proper Topper, a boutique in Dupont Circle. So when it comes to dressy affairs, "We try to bring women along slowly, give them a little bit more edge…like this dress," she said, holding up a plain black sleeveless sheath with discreet white checks. "It has a pocket."
The Pocket Riots of 2013, now in its third day of uninterrupted frenzy, has resulted in at least fourteen deaths, sixty-seven arrests, and countless amounts of property damage. As of this reporting, over 10,000 women in demure cocktail dresses have barricaded themselves inside of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, demanding elbow-length opera gloves and gowns with "clean, architectural lines for every goddamn woman over 50 in this christforsaken city or we will burn it clean to the ground. Pockets. What are we supposed to do with pockets."
"We already have handbags," a spokeswoman for the terrified, mud-streaked mob told a member of the press. "What are we supposed to do with a dress with a pocket in it?"
The trouble began, most observers agree, during Brooks Brothers' "Bow-Tie Primer" cocktail party last week. Two Beltway insiders came to blows during a discussion of the merits of the Land's End No-Iron Chino Pants. The violence quickly spread and threatens to engulf even the White House just two days before President Obama is scheduled to take his second oath of office.
White House officials so far refuse to confirm reports that the Lincoln Bedroom has become an "abattoir of textured blue-and-gray fabrics," or that women who venture north of East Capitol Street without tan pantyhose are kidnapped and tortured by the Patternmakers, a vicious gang of tailors and administrative assistants.
April Jones Firoozabadi, who goes by April Yvonne at work, turned heads at her former government job by "going against the tan pantyhose, navy blue skirts and gray blazers," she says. When invited to certain official meetings, Ms. Firoozabadi, 33, would "do astute," diplo-speak for grooming conformity, with a twist, she says. Her black pants were high-waisted and bell-bottomed with men's suspenders and she wore a white shirt with a colorful man's tie along with bright red pumps.
April Jones Firoozabadi has reportedly annexed the numbered avenues and declared herself Washington's Painted Lord of Misrule. Her challenge to First Lady Michelle Obama to meet her in single combat has so far gone unanswered.
Ayman Hakki, a cosmetic surgeon who has lived in Washington since the Kennedy administration, runs a Georgetown walk-in clinic that he says is jammed with inaugural ball attendees seeking last-minute Botox. For most of its history, the capital has attracted "an older, more homogenous crowd that took pride in a certain kind of haggard look," he said. Not this week.
"Yesterday five people showed up at the same time," he said. "They all left with a big smile on their faces…without a frown."
Hakki's next haggard, decrepit Washington client laughs in a wheezing, dusty sort of way at the joke, before his withered and ancient jaw flops uselessly onto the floor. Only hours remain.