Tuesday night's State of the Union address provided visual proof that fashion rules among the elite are shifting.

To the left stood Vice President Cheney, sprucing up his classic dark suit with a pink tie. To the right, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wore a celery-green skirt suit.

President Bush stood centerstage, dressed in a dark suit - and a sky-blue tie. Could it be that pastels are becoming our nation's new power colors?

It's tough to tell, as politicians and businessmen - conservative sartorially by nature, no matter what the politics - are always last to roll with the times. But if the ensembles donned in the Capitol chamber Tuesday night are any indication, lighter shades are definitely trendier than their primary cousins.

Pops of muted colors were everywhere. Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) wore a shiny, ice-blue tie. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.) paired a soft-pink shell with a charcoal gray suit. Lynne Cheney wore winter-white. And Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio) sported a mint-green tie with his black suit.

If it's true that politicians use every means at their disposal to make a point, the adoption of lighter colors could signify a desire to connect with a disenchanted public, experts say.

"When people wear soft, pastel colors, the message is one of approachability," said Leatrice Eiseman, author of Color, Messages and Meanings (Handbook Press, $39.99) and spokeswoman for the Seattle-based Pantone Color Institute.

"It's a completely different message from the red, power tie. . . . They are saying, 'I'm really one with you.' The pastel colors are not so much in your face."

Still, for every fuchsia suit and sunshine-yellow tie, there were a fair share of classic red and black pairings.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attended the speech in a conservative black suit and old-school pearls. Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D., Mich.) was very see-me-now in her red skirt suit and braided bun, a look echoed by Laura Bush (sans bun).

But these ensembles stuck out amid the lighter tones, dating the wearers with '80s sensibilities - a fashion don't, even in conservative Washington.

"People in positions of leadership should follow what's going on in the world around them," said Mary Sheehan Warren, author of It's So You! Fitting Fashion Into Your Life (Spence Publishing Co., $28.95). "It's a disconnect if they [politicians] are stuffy while the world around them has relaxed."

Bush is not known as a fashion trendsetter, and his friendlier color scheme was almost certainly aimed at softening his State of the Union message. Despite an approval rating of less than 50 percent, Bush stood by his plan to send more troops to Iraq.

"Politicos rarely follow fashion trends," said David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group. "But in this case, I think he knew that he would give the message as not being didactic or narrow-minded."

Technology may also have dictated some of Tuesday's fashion choices, as it was the first time that the State of the Union and the rebuttal, given by Sen. James Webb (D., Va.), would be seen on high-definition television.

High definition makes colors look sharper on screen, Eiseman said.

Webb was so concerned about his appearance that he took a consultant's advice that he wear makeup, said his spokeswoman, Jessica Smith. Originally, Webb chose a red and white striped tie, but he later switched to a softer red tie with a faint blue stripe.

So what is the takeaway message for local power brokers (or those who want to look like them)?

Earth-tone or softer muted shades have become important in ties and shirts, explained Michael Cutone, a menswear buyer at Boyd's. Wines and golds are being replaced by lavenders and tangerines, with prices of $140 and up.

"People who are spending this kind of money on ties are definitely power players," Cutone said. "I just think times are changing."

Judee von Seldeneck, chairwoman and chief executive officer of Diversified Search in Center City, wore red all through the 1980s. It was a power color, and it looked good on her, she said. Now she's tired of the same old shades and wants something new.

"I like strong lavenders and rose," von Seldeneck said. "I've got a couple of orange suits that are tailored. I think they say I'm a person with a lot of energy. That I'm happy and that I'm on the move."

While it's great that softer colors are more acceptable on the powerful (remember Donald Trump's pink tie last year?), Warren cautions that those on their way up shouldn't fill their wardrobes with soft blues and lavenders yet.

Reds and blues have been powerful shades for a long time, and their connotations aren't going to completely fade away.

A man trying to make a strong impression shouldn't wear a soft blue seersucker suit into a business meeting. And a black suit should still trump a soft pink one if a woman is on an interview.

"Remember Bush already has a letter of power," Warren said. "And he's been accused of being out of touch and rigid in his approach on both foreign and domestic issues. He needs to point out that he's not rigid, that he's approachable.

"The test of whether or not it's a powerful color is if he makes this a habit."

Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704. To read her recent stories, log on to http://go.philly.com/ elizabethwellington.