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Dressed to the Hill Rebellious delegrates let wardrobes show off their special interests

WASHINGTON — Washington--On one of the nastier days of the unusually frosty winter just past, Eni F. H. Faleomavaega strode onto the House floor to vote dressed in gladiator sandals and bare feet.

"I hate shoes," the three-term delegate from American Samoa explained. "I almost never wear them."

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Partly this is a cultural thing. Mr. Faleomavaega, 50, also has been known to show up in the Capitol wearing a lava-lava, the traditional wrap-around skirt worn in his native South Pacific islands.

Mostly, though, his fashion statement is a declaration of independence.

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In the stuffy, white-shirted, blue-suited, red-tied world of Congress -- where even the women are under pressure to conform with dress-for-success skirted suits -- Mr. Faleomavaega's bare feet are a testament to his individuality.

"It's been a losing battle for me," says his press aide, J. R. Scanlan. "I tell him, 'I have to wear shoes, why shouldn't you?' "

Similar fashion rebellions are taking place all over Capitol Hill.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a 39-year-old freshman Democrat from Georgia, favors wild prints, flashy jewelry, French braids fastened with a huge bow in back and gold tennis shoes with rhinestones.

Though she is now considered one of the leaders of the 110-member freshman class, Ms. McKinney was warned during her campaign that she could never be elected because she didn't look like a member of Congress.

"The braids were a particular problem because I represent a mix of urban and rural constituents," she recalled. "People worried my white farmers would say, 'What's this little girl in braids going to be able to do for me?'

"Then, we got a consultant who said I should wear a blue suit with a white blouse and a little frill. But it just wasn't me. I figured if I was going to be elected, it would have to be as I am."

Ms. McKinney said she felt vindicated not only by her overwhelming victory but also when she learned recently that a beauty parlor in Augusta is getting requests for the "Cynthia McKinney look."

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For Rep. Dan Hamburg of California, the non-negotiable issue is neckwear. To comply with a House rule that requires men to wear ties on the floor, he dons a bolo. Mr. Hamburg accentuates his alternative look by avoiding white shirts, opting instead for dark linen: blue, brown, green or purple.

"I dressed like this during my campaign, and I don't want my constituents to think I sold out," said Mr. Hamburg, 45, TC Democrat who is also completing his first term.

He is not the first to fudge on the House tie rule.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Colorado Democrat who served for three terms in the House before moving on to the Senate last year, also wears either a string tie or a scarf held in place with a decorative metal slide. He makes the jewelry himself.

"When I first got to the House, I looked up at a picture of George Washington on the wall of the chamber, and he wasn't wearing a tie in the traditional sense," Mr. Campbell recalled. "It was more like a cravat. I figured that was good enough for me."

Unlike the California cool of Mr. Hamburg, Mr. Campbell, 61, whose father was a northern Cheyenne Indian, affects more of a Western look, including tying his long hair back into a ponytail.

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Less grief today

Now that discreet, little ponytails can be seen even in the lobbyists' haunts of K Street, Mr. Campbell doesn't get nearly as much grief for his hairstyle as the carping that greeted his fellow Colorado Democrat, Rep. Patricia Schroeder, when she arrived in Washington wearing a ponytail in the early 1970s.

"There was a time when everyone in Congress looked alike. They had to," said Andrea Camp, an aide to Mrs. Schroeder, 53, now the senior woman in the House. "Remember Bob Forehead," she added, referring to the Village Voice comic strip character who was a parody of the blow-dried lawmaker. "At least they're starting to come out of that a little."

While not exactly slaves to fashion, the majority of legislators still take their dress code quite seriously.

Back in the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter's energy conservation policy shut down the air conditioners in the Capitol, Morris K. Udall, then a Democratic representative from Arizona, tried to get his colleagues to opt for open-collar shirts during the summer months. They would hear nothing of it.

Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, who was House Speaker at that time, decreed that members should wear "traditional attire," which meant "coats and ties" for men and "appropriate attire" for women, which was not further defined. His decree was sustained on a vote of approval by the full House.

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Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat and college professor given to rumpled corduroys, found the Senate so protective of its sartorial standards when he arrived in 1991 that Majority Whip Wendell K. Ford of Kentucky went out and bought him two new suits.

"Senator Ford was home in Kentucky, and he went to Corbin Suit Factory in an outlet mall to get two suits for Mr. Wellstone," recalled Mr. Ford's spokesman, Mark Day. "He just felt that as a college professor, Mr. Wellstone didn't have many business suits. Neither one cost more than $100 and Mr. Wellstone reimbursed him."

The pressure to conform can be fierce, said Rep. Gary Ackerman, 51, a New York Democrat who defies the norm by wearing a white carnation on his lapel every day.

He says it reminds him of the poetic dictum to stop occasionally and smell the flowers, and he's been wearing a boutonniere daily for 20 years.

Didn't look serious

"When I got here, my friends all tried to talk me out of it," the representative recalled of his 1983 arrival. "They said it made me look like I wasn't serious."

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Jim Wright of Texas, who was then House Majority Leader, greeted Mr. Ackerman with the query: "What's the posy for, boy?"

But he tried to do without the flower for a few hours and didn't feel right, Mr. Ackerman said. Then one day he ran into Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who always wears a bow tie.

Mr. Simon urged the New Yorker not to abandon his trademark, because "it's important to show your individuality."

Many of the fashion rebellions in Congress are subtle.

Senate President Pro Tem Robert C. Byrd, of West Virginia, who guards Senate propriety in all matters of taste and decorum, usually wears three-piece suits. But during the winter months, his signature accessory is a vest of bright red wool.

Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski broke the trouser barrier in the late 1980s when she became the first female senator to wear slacks on the Senate floor.

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These days, she often chooses a silky black pair that are particularly flattering.

Lawmakers from the Southwest tend to favor cowboy boots, especially the delegation from Oklahoma.

"Most of us grew up with nothing but a pair of boots, jeans and a T-shirt," said Rep. Mike Synar, a Democrat, who noted that Oklahoma has more horses than any other state but California.

"I don't even own a pair of shoes," he added. "I wear boots even with a tux, shiny black ones."

At least they're warmer in the winter than Mr. Faleomavaega's gladiator sandals.



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