The presidential inauguration platform in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. On January 20, President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in as the nations 44th president.

Is Washington the city that fashion forgot? (Mark Wilson/ Getty Images)

The Founding Fathers wanted to separate the center of government from the center of commerce. So after contentious wrangling they decided to move the capital from New York to a swamp on the Potomac.

And in some senses, it still is a swamp. Purely in terms of fashion, Washington has been a disaster.

We're talking subway cars filled with women in toast-colored hose and shapeless blazers whose main objective seems to be blending in -- often in polyester blends.

We're talking helmet-haired matrons wearing the inevitable eagle-shaped pin now being replaced by glittery Obama ones. And then there are the men, who still wear heavy-soled wingtips and blue blazers with gold buttons.

All the hoopla around the sleek man from Chicago and his innately chic wife has raised expectations that the Obamas will, among other things, rouse a global interest in a cool and unhurried style rooted in individuality rather than designer dictates.

But it is one thing to influence the world and quite another to change Washington.

It has been a city of fashion don'ts for so long that even the periodic infusions of trendy true believers moving in for new administrations have not made it a crossroads of style, culture and government in the manner of Paris, London, Moscow, Buenos Aires or Santiago, Chile.

"Washington women haven't cared about fashion," says Peggy Noonan, a bestselling author and former speechwriter for President Reagan. "They thought if you care about how you looked, it's evidence that you are unserious about policy and power." Noonan, 58, describes women during the era she lived there as, "small men with breasts."

After surviving years of square-shouldered suits and big bows, Noonan moved to fashion-centric New York, landing in "the heart of this fabulous, frivolous thing."

Still, she acknowledges that things are improving in our nation's capital.

"Washington expresses a continuing resolution to keep up with us," says Noonan, who now writes a column for the Wall Street Journal. "They do a much better job than they used to, and God bless them."

It could be said that Washington's case of Mid-Atlantic Blahs Syndrome is letting up.

There aren't sample sales and an H&M or Zara on every corner the way there are in New York or Los Angeles, making of-the-moment fashion accessible to the masses. But there is all that on the Internet, as well as new shops from big names such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Jimmy Choo as well as Italian men's clothiers in posh D.C. suburbs such as Chevy Chase and Bethesda, Md.

"Everybody has access to everything now," says Kate Betts, editor of Time's Style & Design magazine. Unlike New York and Los Angeles, however, Washington has not developed a distinctive image because it doesn't have a fashion or design industry to inspire people, Betts says.

"I'm trying to remember when I went to the White House correspondents' dinner what people wore," Betts says, pausing thoughtfully. "But I can't, because there is no indelible image."

Betts, 44, thinks that, like the late Princess Diana, Michelle Obama will "perk up" women around the world -- and, yes, even in Washington -- because she's not chasing fashion but radiating confidence with her personal style.

"It takes a lot of confidence to wear color and prints and accessorize the way she does," she says.

Betts also thinks that the next first lady will put an end to a D.C. determination to make fashion unimportant. "There's a new energy around fashion because of her."

This new energy is not just about Michelle Obama. The Obamas' inner circle includes a select group of women, many African American, some from Chicago, who are turning heads in the capital.