Mayoral fashion, from hair to heels

With a new mayor at the city's helm, everyone is supposed to be paying attention to her speeches, not her suits, and looking at her actions, not her accessories. But it's safe to say that Baltimore is interested in everything about Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, from her policy down to her platform pumps.

It's just the way it is. The city was all a-twitter about Mayor Martin O'Malley's muscle shirts. People are still talking about William Donald Schaefer's aquarium swim in old-time bathing trunks. And fashion played a recurring role in the interrupted tenure of Rawlings-Blake's predecessor, Sheila Dixon.

Who could forget the furs? The $570 Jimmy Choo sandals? The Chicago shopping spree, underwritten by her developer boyfriend, ringing up big bills at Coach and Giorgio Armani?

Just weeks into her new job, Rawlings-Blake has showed that fashion matters to her.

She chose a scarlet skirt suit with trendy details for her inauguration. She's often seen dressing up staid pant suits with ruffled tops and even black platform pumps with a, truth be told, rather sexy high heel.

And if the new mayor wants to hear it, experts from the worlds of fashion and politics have all kinds of advice about what she should wear as her term progresses:

More than suits

(Ray Mitchener, owner of Baltimore's Ruth Shaw boutique, thinks Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake should take some fashion inspiration from first lady Michelle Obama, mixing dresses with cardigans. -- Getty Images)

Ray Mitchener, owner of Baltimore's Ruth Shaw boutique, compliments Rawlings-Blake on her "beautiful face" and "modern" haircut, but he can't quite think of anything to say about the clothes. They're "not offensive enough to notice," he concludes.

Mitchener subscribes to the theory that a politician's clothes should not distract from her message.

He doesn't understand why people in the spotlight, newscasters and politicians, gravitate toward overly bold primary colors. He calls them "ugly bright" and asks, "Who can take someone seriously, talking about Haiti, when they're wearing a turquoise jacket?"

He's equally down on pastels.

Rather, the mayor should look for simple, tailored things, Mitchener says. Black, navy and taupe should be her base colors, accented with, perhaps, a pop of color.

And he wishes she wouldn't limit herself to suits.

He'd like to see her borrow a look from Michelle Obama, who he says "finally breathed some life into this country," and try a dress topped with a cardigan or a lightweight wrap sweater.

Focus on the fit

(Discussing new looks for the new mayor, stylist Rachel C. Weingarten advises a sophisticated palette of blues, grays and purples like this aubergine-colored outfit worn by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. -- AP photo)

Rachel C. Weingarten, a New York stylist and personal brand consultant, thinks Rawlings-Blake needs to be "a bit more polished."

For instance, Weingarten loved Rawlings-Blake's bold, red inauguration suit, calling it "a fabulous power color."

She liked the bracelet-length sleeves, the shape of the collar and the unusual buttons, but faulted the fit.

"I feel like she's trying so hard to be serious and she's choosing clothes that she thinks look serious, but she ends up looking a little matronly," says Weingarten, author of "Career and Corporate Cool."

She'd like to see the mayor in fitted skirts, unstructured jackets and jackets with a higher collar and a bit of a military cut.

Her colors should be from "a more sophisticated palette," purples, grays and blues.

Also, Weingarten thinks Rawlings-Blake is a natural for statement accessories.

'Serious-minded yet stylish'

(Professor Mary Ellen Balchunis says suits should be a staple for female politicians, but they can liven up their looks with accessories like this flower pin worn by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. -- AP photo)

LaSalle University political science professor Mary Ellen Balchunis believes a female mayor should dress better than her employees to stand out. She also knows it's a sad reality that female politicians' looks are scrutinized much more than those of male politicians. "You don't hear reporters saying, ‘Oh, he's going bald and his pants can't make it over his big stomach," she says, "but people talk about Hillary Clinton's big calves."

Balchunis, who teaches a course called "Women in Politics," thinks business suits are a must, but there's no reason a mayor can't make them stylish and personal with scarves, pins and belts.

She praises Rawlings-Blake's suit choices as "very professional" and thinks she comes across as "serious-minded yet stylish."

"She doesn't want to go over the top because she's a professional and wants to be seen that way," Balchunis says. "I think she's in line."

Clothes as the messenger

(Ann Corbett, a former mayor, cautions that — fair or not — a female politician's clothes attract a disproportionate amount of attention, something Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knows all too well. -- AP photo)

"I was the first woman mayor elected in 100 years," says Ann Corbett, the former mayor of Floral Park, N.Y. "People did look at me and how I was dressed — I was very conscious of that."

Corbett, who steered toward a more conservative look, advises Rawlings-Blake to follow her example, staying away from anything too revealing that would distract from her work and anything too expensive that might send the wrong message. She should also look for outfits that will fit in at the many, disparate places she'll be making appearances on any given day.

Corbett recalls a morning after 9/11 when she had to go to a funeral, then a parade and then another funeral. After the first memorial service, she changed in her car from her black suit into a red one — and then back again after the parade.

"Your clothes can really telegraph a message," Corbett says. A female mayor "needs to look more like she's in public service, less like an actress."

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