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DRESS DEFYING

The Baltimore Sun

When Wendy Vitter, wife of U.S. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, stood by her man at a news conference this week as he apologized and acknowledged his link to an escort service, she didn't wear the traditional "supportive woman" armor of power suit and tidy pearls.

Instead, she appeared in a Victoria Beckham-esque haircut and animal-print dress with a fitted waist.

The outfit has political experts and other observers discussing her choice of attire, which, to some, seemed like more of a real statement than Vitter's actual "I forgave David. I made the decision to love him and to commit to our marriage" statement.

"She was not thinking of saving her husband; she was thinking of how to save her reputation as a sexy woman," says Sandy Dumont, an image consultant from Norfolk, Va. "She came across as 'I don't want anybody to think that he had to go get a prostitute because I'm not a woman. I've got a great figure, and I'm sexy.'"

The "I-Have-Sinned-and-She-Will-Forgive" media appearances, such as Tuesday's news conference, have become all too familiar recently with political couples whose marriages have come under public scrutiny.

Former President Bill Clinton. Ex-New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevy. Former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, a 1988 presidential candidate. Ex-U.S. Rep. Gary A. Condit. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Mayor Gavin Newsome of San Francisco. Political figures seem to have quite the knack for acing the prostrate philanderers' news conference.

And the wives don't usually do too bad themselves at these events. Even if observers take issue with their statements of devotion and forgiveness, it's hard to find fault with the outfits they don to play the supportive role.

When then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared on the Today show in 1998, declaring her "love" and "belief" in her husband after his affair with Monica Lewinsky, she wore a brown pant-suit and pearls.

Hart's wife, Lee, spoke out in support of her husband in 1987 (after his affair with Donna Rice), often wearing full, flowing tops with unstructured jackets - save for the shoulder pads.

And before eventually filing for divorce, McGreevy's wife, Dina, stood by her husband's side in 2004 as he publicly announced his affair with a man. She wore a feminine-looking powder blue skirt suit - and, of course, pearls.

Which brings us back to Wendy Vitter's outfit. People wondered what was she thinking.

Experts and observers say it's clear Vitter wanted to make sure the viewing public knew her husband's cheating ways were no fault of her own.

Last week, Senator Vitter, 46, a Republican, acknowledged that he had committed adultery after his Washington telephone number was found among those called several years ago by an escort service prosecutors say was a prostitution ring.

Considering the lady-of-the-night angle, some observers are questioning whether Wendy Vitter's daytime news conference ensemble was appropriate.

"She's usually very traditional, this very Southern political wife," says Susan Semeleer, a former Republican political consultant who now works for a D.C. think tank. "This was something out of Samantha Jones' closet, out of Sex and the City."

On MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Tuesday, guest host Alison Stewart took on Vitter's dress in a segment titled "Fashion Ho-Pas."

Stewart called the dress "slinky" and "skin-tight," while a political and media blogger on the show questioned whether Vitter's choice of attire was a good one.

"To go to a conference where you are addressing your husband's infidelity with prostitutes," Jeff Bercovici of radar online.com told Stewart, "and you, yourself are looking like - apologies for this - but she is looking a little like a prostitute."

Other political analysts took a less aggressive stance, saying Vitter seemed only to be trying to divert any speculation that she had done anything to bring on her husband's bad behavior.

"I think when there's an affair in a marriage, people tend to look at the wife. 'Did she let herself go?' 'Is she responsible for this?'" says Mary Ellen Balchunis, a professor of political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "She wanted to protect the image. 'This had nothing to do with me. This was about him and his insecurities.'"

Still, Balchunis says, she was "a little shocked to see her in that animal print. And I wondered if this [was] the right choice."

Image consultant Dumont says it always matters what a prominent woman wears, especially at events colored by controversy.

"I think she sent the wrong message," she says. "She should have looked confident and powerful, like a businesswoman."

Dumont would have preferred to see Vitter, a lawyer, in "something that you would wear to the boardroom." A power suit, for example, in a navy blue or similar deep color.

Vitter should not have looked quite so "sexy or severe," she says. "She should have looked like 'I'm in control of this. I'm a strong woman, and it's none of anybody else's business.'"

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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