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Not her strong suit

U.S. Senate candidate Katherine Harris seemed dressed more for frivolity than authority when meeting with President Bush last week.

Published May 15, 2006

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Gov. Jeb Bush and Rep. Katherine Harris prepare to greet President Bush at MacDill Air Force Base last week.

Last Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris attended a ceremony with the president of the United States at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa.

It was a critical moment in her campaign for the U.S. Senate, a race her own Republican Party leadership doesn't believe she can win. Her ensemble: a body-hugging, sea foam green suit with lace trim, slit skirt, green open-toed slingback shoes and a multistrand pearl choker.

On Wednesday, state House Speaker Alan Bense declined the GOP's pleas to take Harris on, making her the party's leading Senate candidate. But it seemed people were talking more about that green outfit than any other campaign issue.

They talked about its tightness. Its greenness. Its laciness. And those shoes. They talked about how it might have been a lovely getup for a wedding. Or a garden party. Or perhaps a nice private dinner out.

But she was appearing at an official function at a time one might have thought she was seeking to convey gravitas, not girlishness.
Harris' high-style fashion sense and clothing choices have long been entwined with her image. She is known for wearing form-fitting designer outfits, lots of accessories and high heels. When Harris first ran for office, her consultants suggested that she tone things down, and she did. For a while.

Now that she is facing a tough election fight with shaky party support, it may be time to reconsider that good advice.
Happily for Harris, as our photos below show, she has a strong record of wearing the right thing. That green suit, however, is a wonderful learning moment for her, and for all of us who want our attire to send the right message.

A man on the campaign trail has it relatively easy: dark suit, dark shoes, maybe show a little flair with the shirt and tie. Women have more choices. And more potential pitfalls.

So we went to three Tampa Bay area image consultants and asked for their thoughts on the appropriate attire for meeting the leader of the free world at a military base.

All three said that one of the first things they ask a client is what kind of image she wants to present.Harris' green outfit “sends a message of frivolity. That's what I would tell any client,” said Joann Torretta, director of First Impressions Inc. in Tampa and a member of the Association of Image Consultants International and the New York-based Fashion Group, an organization that promotes professionalism in fashion and related industries.

She said it would have been just as off-key for Gov. Jeb Bush, who was also at the event, to have worn plaid pants, a loud shirt and striped tie instead of his gray suit, pale blue shirt and solid gold tie.“In (Harris') precarious position,” Torretta said, “she should play it on the more conservative side.”

The suit is “very sexy, very alluring, but I don’t think that's the kind of message she wants to send,” said Kelly Machbitz, a member of the Association of Image Consultants International and a monthly makeover contributor to WTVT-Ch. 13's Good Day Tampa Bay.

Her Web site is

“What I tell all my clients is, the message you send with your style is really an important issue. There are still a lot of professions out there that are equated with strong, level-headed decisionmaking capabilities, and I definitely think our politicians should have those qualities.”

The outfit sends a feminine message, said Heather Gero, owner of Modern Appeal in Ozona and member of the Association of Image Consultants International.

“It's a little frou frou. I wouldn't put that on her,” Gero said. “I would find it hard to take her seriously (in it).”

None of the three thought the open-toed shoes were appropriate. And Torretta said that the pearl choker belonged with an evening look.

The color is trendy and fits this time of year, Torretta said. The suit does have a younger, hipper vibe, Gero said.

“I would have her wearing a more authoritative color, like navy,” Gero said. “I'd put her in a navy suit, which might be conveyed as boring a lot of times, but there are ways she could have spiced it up, with a ruffed top underneath or a shell that doesn't expose any cleavage.”

As trendy as the green is, Torretta said, a big part of dressing is being appropriate for the event. In this case — a patriotic-type event with the president at an Air Force base — “navy and white would have been really cool, with a touch of red,” she said. All three consultants agreed that Harris should have worn closed-toed shoes.“Even though we’re really more relaxed in Florida, for politicians there should be closed-toed pumps, medium heel height,” Machbitz said.

There can be advantages to standing out, Machbitz said.

“Then there's the degree you throw people off by being too extreme,” she said. “When we're dealing with the public, we always want to be middle of the road.”

Sharon Fink can be reached at (727) 893-8525 and

[Last modified May 15, 2006, 18:15:46]

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