U. S. District Judge and Pennsylvania first lady Marjorie O. Rendell will usher in the red-carpet season today at Gov. Rendell's Inaugural Ball wearing a new, silk velvet, navy-blue gown by Manayunk designer Paula Hian.
What's the big deal, you ask? Doesn't the first lady always model a new frock when her husband takes the oath for the state's highest office?
Four years ago, Marjorie Rendell eschewed a new designer gown, opting instead for a navy-blue dress by New York designer Chris Kole that she bought off the rack at Saks and had already worn to the opening of the Kimmel Center.
"There is no reason to buy a new dress for every occasion," she said at the time.
This year, however, Rendell decided she wanted her fashions for the Inaugural events to stand apart from the rest of her wardrobe.
"I felt a little more comfortable this time admitting the dress was important," she said.
"The last time Ed was elected, I was a judge and I thought, 'Here I am becoming first lady. . . . It's not about me. Why should I buy a dress when I already had a wonderful one?' "
Rendell - who already owns two Hian evening dresses - asked the designer last spring if she would make the Inaugural gown, should her husband cinch a second term as governor. Hian is also dressing Rendell in a black-matte lisse column evening gown with matching cream shrug for the Academy Ball on Jan. 27.
Hian, who lives in Wayne, has been designing professionally for 15 years; she opened her Manayunk boutique in 2000. Until 2004, she regularly showed her spring and fall collections in New York during Fashion Week. Now Hian previews her collections in Paris hotel rooms.
Hian's clothing is slim cut and colorful. Her pantsuits, dresses and swinging coats boast strong geometric themes, giving her pieces a mod feel. Her spring 2007 collection, for example, features bubble dresses and micro-pleated gowns with circular cutouts.
Neither Hian nor Rendell would comment on the price of the Inaugural gown, but generally, Hian's one-of-a-kind evening gowns command between $2,000 and $5,000.
Hian said she started working on Rendell's dress in November. Rendell penciled several ideas for Hian, who interpreted those ideas and came up with sketches of her own.
"I had a necklace that Ed gave me several years ago that was sapphire and silver. I'd never worn it," Rendell explained. "I wanted to design a dress that complemented it."
Hian described Rendell, who stands 5-foot-7 and hovers around a size 8, as the "perfect fit model" for the fitted navy-blue velvet gown with capped, off-the-shoulder sleeves.
A panel of scalloped Swiss lace embroidered with silver threading runs along the front center of the dress. That lace continues down the fitted bodice, which flares into a trumpet skirt.
"I really liked the idea of a sparkly embroidery design," Hian said. "She's sort of very feminine and pretty. This dress is outstanding, but at the same time it's understated."
Rendell adds: "I'm a blue-eyed blonde. What other colors do we wear? Black? Dark blue? And this year, navy blue and silver are the colors of the Inaugural."
The dress that Rendell and Hian have dreamed up is more evidence that fashion, especially in the evening-wear realm, is growing up.
Four years ago, evening gowns were slinky and ostentatious. Designers were basing their evening wear on trends set by Badgley Mischka, the wildly successful duo who adorned their gowns with Swarovski crystals.
Now designers are turning to goddess pleats and more body-flattering and malleable fabrics.
This fashion sea change is a boon for women in politics, who understand that fashion is essential to their public image and not frivolous. With more sophisticated silhouettes, first ladies, judges, - even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi - are able to experiment with new styles.
"Now that the trend is changing toward more classic dressing, it is simply more flattering to women of a certain age [who] have reached a certain level of prominence," said Celia Frank, associate professor of the fashion design program at Philadelphia University.
"It's not appropriate for women to be wearing tight Lycra and beads, so these trends are much more representative of how they want to be perceived."
Rendell will enjoy the judicial privilege of swearing in her husband again, and for that occasion will wear a classic tweed skirt and jacket suit in light aqua. Just as she did four years ago, Rendell will go without the judge's robe.
The off-the-rack, once-worn gown that Rendell wore to the past Inauguration was donated to the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg last month. It will be exhibited with five gowns of other Pennsylvania first ladies.
Even if Rendell chooses to donate her Hian gown, she can always remember and revel in the fact that the dress was made just for her husband's Inauguration.
"There is just more tradition to it," Rendell said.
But, she said, that doesn't mean she won't wear it again.
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or email@example.com.
To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/