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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION | A CRITICAL
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Delegates Show They're Not All Cut From the Same Cloth

August 16, 2000|Valli Herman-Cohen | senior fashion writer

When the Democratic Party issues an invitation, the implicit dress code is "Come as you are."

On the floor of the Democratic National Convention, thousands of dyed-in-the-wool, -cotton and -polyester party faithful converged into a multicolored mass of suits, T-shirts and everyday wear, occasionally accented by an exaggerated Uncle Sam hat. This is a party that not only prides itself on diversity but wears it too.

"I was going to come in business attire," said Jennifer Merrifield, 20, the youngest member of the West Virginia delegation. "But then I thought I should probably represent my generation. This is what I'd wear to dress up." Wearing a long paisley skirt, thick platform sandals, a black camisole and silver rings on every other finger, Merrifield looked slightly out of place among the many older delegates, were it not for one stunning feature: She's a dead ringer for Chelsea Clinton.

Unless she earns a TV close-up, few Americans will be able to appreciate her decision to dress uniquely. Camera crews chased the silly hats and the banner wavers, but not so many ordinary citizens. Not to worry: Lots are wise to the game and dressed the part.

"Everyone is an individual and [the party] wants us to show our individuality," said Lenora Sorola Pohlman, a Houston delegate bedecked in homemade convention regalia. The 45-year-old insurance administrative assistant handcrafted her "Delegate 2000" shirt with political-themed fabrics, glitter puff paint and donkey tie tacks.

The do-it-yourself approach to clothing derives from equal parts statement and necessity.

"We're working people. We can't afford to buy a lot of things," said Pohlman.

Texas colleague Alison Cameron, a 39-year-old paralegal, said, "We have to pay our own way here." Pointing out that nearly 1 in 4 Republican delegates in Philadelphia was a millionaire, Cameron described her fellow delegates as "basically middle-class working people."

There's Nevada's Ed Zimmer with his suspenders printed with "Ironworkers Local #433 Los Angeles" over his "Ironworkers for Gore" T-shirt. And Hawaii's Joy Kobashigawa-Lewis, a secretary, with a slightly wilted orchid lei over her casual dress. Patriotic down to her red, white and blue socks, Wisconsin state employee Mary Goulding not only has a flag-themed stovepipe hat, but an entire patriotic--and politically correct--convention wardrobe.

"The hard part was finding the clothes made in the USA--and union-made," she said, slightly embarrassed that her Casual Corner red blazer can't call itself a natural-born citizen.

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American symbolism so pervades the convention atmosphere, it's a pity that those high-fashion peddlers of Old Glory--Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren--aren't delegates. Tommy and Ralph have long capitalized on the red, white and blue and the message of diversity, but no one would mistake the convention floor for a fashion show audience. Maybe it's those cheddar-colored foam "cheese heads" bobbling over in Wisconsin. So many funny hats, made of everything from tinsel to toy trains, punctuate the crowd, that the convention has the festive air of a New Year's Eve celebration--or the Mad Hatter's tea party.

"I've become known as the Hat Lady," confessed Georgia delegate Maxine Goldstein, who obliged swarms of camera crews fascinated by the toy "Gore for President" train that toots atop her gilded boater. A goofy-hat veteran of seven conventions, she's her group's media magnet. "So far the Georgia delegation hasn't thrown me away," joked the 73-year-old. "I know they get awful tired of this."

Not to worry, Mrs. Goldstein! Your colleagues near and far love you fashionable iconoclasts. "It certainly adds to the party atmosphere of the convention," said San Diego delegate Ed Lehman, 44.

For all the talk of bold individualism on the floor, a striking sameness masks the differences among top tiers of political parties, year 2000 Democrats included. Lost luggage should never pose a problem among high-powered politicos who could imperceptibly swap their dark suits, white or light-blue shirts and red or navy ties. Women, too, can trade their pearl strands and red, coral or neutral blue suits without losing a bit of identity or personality. How odd that the higher up the political power ladder politicians climb, the less individual and representative they look.

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