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Unabashedly Albright

The secretary of state ignores the conventional D.C. dress code and extends her leadership role to an unlikely arena--fashion. It's no state secret that, both professionally and personally, she's breaking new ground.

June 11, 1998|KYLE RODERICK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has been making history since last year when she became the first woman appointed to the office. While the 61-year-old Albright is the first in her role to direct diplomats at home and abroad to integrate women's rights into foreign policy, the hallmarks of her style include tough-talking directness and an unapologetically feminine persona. In fact, Albright's diplomatic expertise, combined with her elegant apparel and abundance of de luxe jewelry, are redefining international conceptions of female power, female intellect and style.

On one hand, Albright effectively employs her characteristic raw power and steely self-confidence to advance her diplomatic mission.

"Both sides need to cool it," she stated flatly in a recent White House press conference regarding the arms race between India and Pakistan. And when Croatia's foreign minister, Mate Granic, gave her flowers on her 60th birthday, Albright tersely acknowledged the bouquet and then excoriated Granic and his government for harboring indicted war criminals.

"Whatever gender one is, that is not the point of it," Albright said, through a State Department spokeswoman. "The point is to have the opportunity of representing the United States."

Yet Albright has cultivated a less traditional persona--for instance, praising, on the record, the practical value of cosmetics.

"I've kidded that the advantage to being a woman secretary of state is makeup," she told Harper's Bazaar last year. "When you're absolutely exhausted, you can go paint on a different face and be OK."

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Some political players observe the secretary that is a very feminine presence in the world of "gray suits."

"Albright is never provocative," says Kate Boland, a Los Angeles writer who formerly co-chaired Sen. Dianne Feinstein's (D-Calif.) Southern California cabinet. "She calculatedly uses her femininity to further her strategic, political advantages."

Boland, who also advised Feinstein on wardrobe and accessory choices, notes that Albright's status as an appointed, international official "gives her the freedom to break out of the conservative and somewhat provincial fashion mold of U.S. female politicians who are accountable to voters."

Boland praised Albright's style.

"Secretary Albright obviously knows how and when to flirt effectively," she said.

Indeed, Albright has been photographed holding hands with U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and kissing French former Foreign Minister Herve de Charette, who also gave her flowers.

Five-foot-two, with the opposite of an easy-to-dress body type, Albright is invariably turned out in impeccable suits or tailored dresses. The petite secretary wears high heels every day, whether she's in Burundi or Beijing.

"Ms. Albright has a cosmopolitan sense of artistry about fashion," says Maggie Murray, gallery curator at the Los Angeles Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. "She looks very dignified and stylish because she knows how to make the most of her physical characteristics."

Another point in Albright's favor is her high energy and self-assuredness. Despite the inordinate amount of time she spends on airplanes and undoubtedly combating jet lag, Murray says, "the perception that comes across in the media is that of always looking ready for the occasion, appropriately dressed and never self-conscious."

Because an assistant is charged with carrying the secretary of state's purse, Albright's arms are as free as those of the men she meets with. And although she exudes executive power, the secretary of state's ruling-class image is often glamorized by rings in noble metals and an armload of real gold bangle bracelets, which look disarmingly similar to those worn by such Hollywood leading ladies as Goldie Hawn. Because Albright is also frequently adorned with iconic brooches that variously depict cherubs, eagles, doves or Uncle Sam's red, white and blue top hat, she positively glitters on television and in print.

Says Sue Walitsky, director of media outreach at the State Department's press office, "We were told that this collection was developed to distinguish herself from the 'gray suits.' Her most favorite brooch is the American Eagle."

"Madeleine Albright's stack of bracelets and vivid brooches are some of the most striking elements of her persona as a world leader," says Susan Mele, a Los Angeles- and Milan-based fashion stylist who works for couturier Gianfranco Ferre, among other designers. "Her brooches symbolically reinforce the reality of her power, just like Wonder Woman's bracelets and belt buckle amplify her super-heroine strength."

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Mele is one of many trend mavens who marvel over Albright's unprecedented fashion influence among the pols.

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