Pink Shoes, White House: My Style Evolution as an Obama Stenographer
I struggled to make my colorful style fit the job’s low profile
Every morning, long before arriving in the Oval Office, President Obama addressed the first problem of the day. He acted swiftly, with a leader’s resolve and a lawyer’s eye for discrepancy. Without authorization from Congress or approval from his fellow Americans, the president of the United States stood in front of his closet and got dressed. To protect his time, energy, and sanity, the leader of the free world streamlined his work wear. He wore black, navy, or gray suits (let’s try to forget about the audacity of taupe). He donned white or light blue button-down shirts. He selected understated ties before lacing up innocuous, well-shined shoes. The president didn’t need flash or flare, because his agenda was the ultimate statement piece.
I, on the other hand, lived on the opposite end of the color spectrum.
I bought my first pair of hot-pink flats at a thrift shop for a dollar. “Please don’t,” my sister said, so of course I did. I was a recent college graduate, enjoying my first real job as a high school English teacher. Young and energetic, I tried to keep my lesson plans as eye-opening as possible, but there was nothing like hot-pink flats to wake up sleepy ninth-graders at the start of first period. Between my cobalt skirt, sun-yellow top, kelly green cardigan, and blinding pink flats, I resembled a box of Crayola crayons and hoped my bright outfits reflected my enthusiasm for educating my freshman students. Little did I know that in just a few years’ time, walking through the West Wing in the exact same outfits would make me feel like a freshman myself.
I was 26 when I applied to a random job posting on Craigslist, which miraculously landed me in the White House as one of five presidential stenographers. Hired to sit on the margins of history, it was my job to keep my mouth shut and my recorder running. Quickly, I learned the West Wing lingo. I adjusted to the forever-blinking BlackBerry glued to my hand. I embraced the stress, speed, and unrelenting pressure of serving the president and the country. But even as I succeeded in my job, I failed to blend in because of my Technicolor teacher clothes.
The eve of my first overnight trip on Air Force One, I didn’t sleep. Not because I was nervous, which I was, but because I had no idea what to pack. I needed outfits for the workday, but also pajamas and workout clothes, and what about something more comfortable for the flights? My closet was less prepared for this trip than I was. I threw half my bureau into an old red duffel bag from my club soccer days and hoped that when I opened it, it would reveal someone else’s more stylish wardrobe.
The following morning, while dragging my overstuffed duffel down the corridor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, I heard my fellow stenographer, Lisa, call my name. “Wait up!” she called out. As we emerged onto the West Exec parking lot, she took a look at my bag. “You’re bringing that?”
Cheeks now redder than my bull’s-eye duffle, I pounded my bag into submission in the back of a white van before getting in. As I moved ungracefully to the back row, I tried to say hi to the other staffers, but no one looked up from their phones. Lisa had explained it was an unspoken rule that senior staff got the first few rows, so I took note of them as they click-clacked away on their BlackBerries. A woman with curly red hair sat in the first row, tapping away on her phone. She had gold bangles up to her elbow, and they jangled along with her typing. Just as I passed her, she whispered something to Pete Souza, the chief official White House photographer, who was playing Words with Friends on his phone. Pete’s cameras sat next to him like well-traveled lapdogs as he and the redheaded woman burst out laughing, her bangles clanking along with her body. I smiled, but then felt like an idiot because I didn’t know what they were laughing about, and maybe I’d tucked my dress into my underwear again.
After a silent ride to Joint Base Andrews, we arrived on the tarmac, and the suited professionals boarded Air Force One with sporty bags and light-looking briefcases. Every piece of luggage was black — except my red duffel. The woman with the sleeve of bangles clutched a sleek Tumi carry-on, and as we stood in line at the bottom of the air stairs, she shot me a look that said I’d never be able to afford a bag like hers.
A blurry 24 hours later, I returned home and inventoried my closet. I wanted to be taken seriously, I wanted to fit in, and I wanted everyone to like me, especially the woman with the bangles and her friends, the Vagiants — a self-given title for some of the most powerful women on staff. “Neutrals,” my sister had said with a sigh when she’d examined my closet, “You need more neutrals.” Prioritizing my most professional pieces, I banished most of my rainbow-colored wardrobe to the back of the closet and threw my bright-pink flats under the bed. In the weeks to come, I purchased charcoal-black blazers and muted taupe tops from Ann Taylor Loft. I invested in so many cloudy gray pencil skirts from Banana Republic that I applied for the store’s credit card. Desperate to fit in, I bought into the neutral color scheme — even if my new clothes made me feel like a walking dentist chair.
On my next trip, decked out in beige-on-beige, I prepared to embrace my role in the White House hierarchy. I packed light, headed straight to my seat in the back of the staff van, and blended in. On the flight, I kept my head down and typed with vigor. When we landed in Michigan, the president delivered a speech to thunderous applause, and I finally took a break from typing to go to the bathroom. But as I checked my reflection in the mirror, I gasped in horror: Staring back at me was the lovechild of waiting-room wallpaper and a cardboard box.
The morning of the following trip, I decided to take a risk and plucked a bright-orange blazer from my closet before heading to the White House. Hours later, as I typed a transcript on Air Force One, my eyes wandered over to the Vagiants, the women who wore every shade from the J.Crew catalog. I smiled at the rainbow of purple pencil skirts and lemon-yellow cardigans and mentally applauded the women who’d climbed the hierarchical mountain.
But my reverie was cut short by a clatter of bangles. It was the woman with the red hair. Instinctively, I focused on my screen, but the clank of metal on metal got louder and louder. The next thing I knew, she had me. I looked up as she pinched my blazer between two fingers. “Love this,” she hissed, not bothering to look at me before continuing to slither down the hall. A compliment had never felt so much like an indictment.
Gripping my orange blazer without looking me in the eye was her way of telling me to stick to neutrals, to the strategy of a chameleon blending into its surroundings. In one quick pinch, she’d let me know where I stand, which was far, far below her. Bright colors were for senior stars, not stenographers. I closed my eyes and tried to disappear. Why couldn’t I just blend in, be normal, follow protocol? If even the president stuck to a uniform of blues and blacks, why did I feel the need to dress like Ms. Frizzle caught in a color war?
When I returned home, I shimmied out of yet another navy skirt and hung the offending orange blazer back where it belonged. Defeated, I prepared to fling myself onto my bed, when I saw a flash of color peeking out from under a pile of dishwater cardigans — my hot-pink flats. They seemed to be calling me: Remember us? You liked us before you got all fake-professional in your ill-fitting Banana Republic clown costume.
I took them out and tried them on, and suddenly, there was a spark, a hint, a flare, a sure-fire sign of life. I hedged. For the kelp of the White House food chain, it was safer to blend in among the big fish, but looking down at my shoes, I caught myself smiling. Perhaps there was still a person trapped underneath the layers of camouflage. Perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing to have clothes that would, in fact, differentiate me from cement.
“Those shoes sure are loud,” a Secret Service agent said as I marched through security. “No, really, I could see you from a mile away.” I grinned. Even if I was paid not to speak, these pink flats vocalized who I was — a weirdo, an outsider, a loudmouth, a lucky duck from Craigslist.
Despite the unspoken rules, color snuck back into my wardrobe and provided me with an identity when my job description was to have none. “Follow the pink shoes!” reporters called out on trips as we chased the president down darkened stairwells, poorly lit hallways, and empty, ink-black streets after midnight. I ran past the woman with the bangles, and when she shook her head, I just kept running.
In a hotel in Burma, I bumped into Terry the speechwriter, who stopped dead in his tracks and covered his hands with his eyes, pretending to be momentarily blinded by my pink flats. I laughed. As Terry and I started to pass each other, he stopped. “You’re so much cooler than the rest of us, Beck,” he said. Before I could process this, he continued. “As people get older, they get rigid in their ways, afraid to stand out, which is why it’s good we have you with us. It’s a very good thing you’re here.”
After that, I fully embraced the rainbow, until my $1 flats from the thrift shop finally — and literally — bottomed out on a tarmac in Cincinnati. I could have opted for a neutral wedge that went with everything, but instead I invested in my first full-priced purchase from J.Crew: the “neon pink” Cece flat, made with Italian leather — the whipped butter of women’s footwear. As I stepped out of the store and into the sunlight, I realized there is something intrinsically empowering about purchasing a “statement” piece. I don’t think Van Morrison was wrong when he noticed, “All the girls walk by, dressed up for each other.” But it is more than that.
As my months in the Obama White House turned into years, I came to appreciate that my colleagues used fashion as a way to challenge the status quo and get things done. From the stenographers to the staff secretaries, the speechwriters to the senior advisers, we gave ourselves fully to the work. Days at the White House were long and tough, but we were more than the walls that surrounded us. We were a colorful bunch. And the truth was, we could only give all of ourselves to the team if we remembered who we were as individuals first.
A magenta high heel with gold woven through the toe made Susan Rice two inches taller when she entered the Situation Room. A bold haircut framed Lisa Monaco’s blue eyes to sparkle even more like sapphires as she worked on crisis after crisis. A sophisticated green dress complemented Samantha Power’s elevated thinking as she represented U.S. interests at the United Nations. Jen Palmieri’s navy halter jumpsuit, complete with wedges, conveyed her badass, never-settle-for-less attitude as communications director.
As I rushed toward the West Wing one morning, I was so captivated by a woman’s black blazer with pink trim that for a moment I didn’t notice the woman was Hillary Clinton, and she was holding the door open for me. But a year later, it was impossible not to notice the Twitter war when first lady Michelle Obama chose to leave her head uncovered in Saudi Arabia. The longer I stayed at the White House, the more I appreciated the emboldened women who dared to question convention and dressed accordingly for their roles as trailblazers.
When President Obama left office, I retired my signature shoes. But just the other day I passed a young woman wearing those very same neon-pink Italian leather Cece flats in which I’d traveled the world. Since J.Crew doesn’t make that color anymore, I couldn’t help but wonder if she had found them in a thrift store. As I smiled at those familiar shoes, my old friends, a swarm of intense emotions momentarily blinded me: How bright! How loud! How unnecessary! Who does she think she is?
…But really, who is she?
I didn’t say anything to the girl as she passed by — she was bopping along to the music blasting through her earbuds. But a block later, I glanced back at her. She looked fun. She seemed cool. Whether she meant to or not, she stood out from a mile away. And as the distance between us grew bigger, I couldn’t help but think that right now, in 2018, it’s a very good thing for a young woman to stand out and assert her presence. Indeed, it’s a very good thing she’s here.