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Inside the State Department’s weird, charming international fashion show

Guests included diplomats, Mrs. District of Columbia, and me.

The Harry S. Truman building in Washington, DC.
The Harry S. Truman building.
Greg Mathieson/Mai/Mai/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

There are few places less equipped to host a fashion show than the Harry S. Truman Building, a squat, brutalist-lite rectangle that houses the US Department of State. It’s a building whose appearance only makes sense upon discovering that it was originally designed for the Department of War — it was built at the beginning of a very big one, in 1941. Haste, one would imagine, was a matter of importance.

This is a very rude way of saying that when Vox received an invitation to a fashion show taking place at the Harry S. Truman Building (for which I would have to submit my driver’s license and date of birth in order to attend), it was a surprise. The event, hosted by the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide, was called “Glamour & Diplomacy,” and would “celebrate contemporary designers from around the world.” Twenty-two countries from all six populated continents would be represented in the form of a single garment. In short: the UN, but make it fashion.

To be fair to the Harry S. Truman Building, some of the biggest fashion shows over the past few years have happened at places like law school libraries or in largely abandoned navy yards. I’ve attended shows in high school gyms and at warehouses on the Hudson River, and if “ugly locale” is a marker of a show’s prestige, then the US State Department, with its hideous starved classicist architecture and beige toilets, may actually be the most capital-F fashion place in the world.

The finale of the Glamour & Diplomacy show at the State Department.
Rebecca Jennings

But it is not, and that’s because it’s located in Washington, DC. Washington is famously not a fashion city, and there are reasons for this — as Cintra Wilson wrote for the Atlantic in 2015, the city’s “excruciatingly narrow margin for acceptable female dress” is partly the result of a “permaclass of wealthy Georgetown-establishment socialites ... the Mean Girls who make or break political aspirations, who get to wear big hats at polo matches, make disparaging comments about social climbers, and police the actions and/or styles of younger, more fertile women.”

For men, it isn’t much better; as one Capitol Hill bigwig told the Washingtonian of his standard gray suit, “The most important thing is to respect the institution and the people we serve.” Thus the inescapability of pencil skirts, bro-prep khakis, and jewel-toned cardigans.

I arrived at the time listed on the invitation, which Vox’s foreign editor Jenn Williams later told me was a rookie mistake: Diplomats go to almost comical lengths to show up last to meetings as a power move. Which meant I wandered around a government building for about an hour and a half before any fashion was shown, and Jenn, powerfully, arrived right before the opening remarks.

What does one wear to a fashion show at the State Department held on an unseasonably hot and humid Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning? This is a question no one has ever asked in the history of the universe, but was the one faced by me and my fellow Glamour & Diplomacy attendees.

It didn’t matter, though — unlike seemingly everyone else there, I didn’t know anyone, and mostly faded into the background of the preshow reception, quietly eating spring rolls meant to represent Vietnam and antipasti skewers for Italy. This was because “Glamour & Diplomacy” was not a hollow title of a gimmicky show, but quite literally a description of what was happening. Nearly everyone in attendance had ties to the Foreign Service, and there were even a handful of actual diplomats in the audience, which is a big deal — Jenn explains they’re equivalent to DC royalty.

It also wouldn’t have mattered because many of the other guests were dressed so spectacularly that it was difficult to notice anyone who wasn’t, whether in the garments of their respective countries or the kind of ostentatious clothing that you can only get away with if you’re very cute and very old.

I saw a tiny silver-haired woman in a hot pink pantsuit and another in a tuxedo and flower-adorned bowler hat, as well as a man in a shiny mustard brocade blazer. There was an ambassador in a gorgeous lime green dress and matching hijab, a woman wearing an impossibly stylish puff-sleeve floor-length sundress, and a woman in a chic white robe with black pants.

In one of the speeches prior to the runway show, the speaker, a fabulously dressed public relations veteran, used the phrase “grand dame of DC” to honor one guest who was sitting next to Mrs. District of Columbia America, who was wearing a tiara.

None of this answers the underlying question, however, which is why such an event exists. Fashion is often looked upon as frivolous and inconsequential despite the fact that everyone on Earth participates in it, and not least because it’s a culture industry primarily associated with women.

Glamour & Diplomacy, one of the department’s cultural affairs officials explained in her opening remarks, stressed that fashion was a crucial part of diplomacy, and that when Ben Franklin was working in France, he would wear a white hat with a feather, and that eventually it became a fashion trend there. More fashion shows should begin with speeches about Ben Franklin.

A model in a dress from Ljubljana, Slovenia, the best place in the world!
Rebecca Jennings

Then it was time for the opera singer. I can’t really explain why there was an opera singer at a fashion show, but there was. And then, the dresses. Models — most of whom were the wives of the ambassadors of their respective countries and therefore pretty much looked like actual models — walked out in a creation from a brand from their country while the jovial Czech ambassador, who is, I am not lying, officially referred to as “His Excellency,” gave color commentary.

“If you haven’t gone to Malta,” he said during the Malta dress, “You should go to Malta.” He also informed us that Ljubljana, Slovenia, is the best place to travel in the entire world. I believe him!

His Excellency’s wife was also a model in the show, wearing a sparkly white cocktail dress that His Excellency assured us cost many thousands of dollars. A few of the labels I recognized — the fuchsia jumpsuit from Hungary was by the very cool brand Nanushka; Italy’s was Roberto Cavalli. (The brand chosen to represent America was Lilly Pulitzer, which enjoys high popularity among SEC school sororities and those currently residing on Nantucket.)

There was a mod minidress from Uzbekistan, a tiered high-low dress from Botswana, a bridal ball gown and a silvery white-blue dress from a designer who grew up in the Yukon Territory, whom His Excellency said was inspired by the color of snow. Presumably because the designer was from Canada, the DJ set the model’s walk to Drake, which was very hilarious.

The looks were all beautiful, but they were not really what Glamour & Diplomacy was about. Glamour & Diplomacy was about legitimizing an oft-overlooked and undervalued part of politics — clothes! they matter! — about celebrating international entrepreneurs, and admiring the accomplishments of ambassadors and their spouses. It was also about dressing up and mingling and taking pictures with Mrs. District of Columbia inside the nerve center of American foreign politics. This event was not for me, a fashion journalist; it was for fabulous, wealthy women who live the kind of lives where they can attend fashion shows at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning.

“I’ve seen so many beautiful clothes,” I overheard one lady remark.

Me too, I thought, before giving my name tag that blared “ESCORT REQUIRED” back to the security guards of the Harry S. Truman Building, thinking about His Excellency and imagining how nice it would be to go to Malta.

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