In Netflix’s new political thriller The Diplomat, actor Keri Russell plays a no-nonsense career foreign service officer named Kate Wyler who is dead set on tackling her next challenging assignment in Afghanistan. But when the White House decides Wyler is needed in the United Kingdom following a deadly attack on a British naval vessel, she’s instead expected to swan about London as the new ambassador while wearing haute couture and doing photoshoots for British Vogue.
“I am not Cinderella. I am here for 30 funerals,” Wyler fires at her husband and colleagues when they suggest she don more glamorous attire for an official event. “The only tea-length garment I packed is a burqa. I have a black suit, and I have another black suit. And I’m not getting dressed by someone named Pippa so a women’s magazine can ask who I’m wearing and what advice I have for little girls.”
While the Vogue shoot’s concept of a Cinderella story is more than treacly, Wyler’s initial refusal to don anything that might come close to feminine is a tired trope in pop culture’s representation of women in business and public policy. The caricature of the Washington woman, unsexed by a severe bob and dark pantsuit, has persisted in TV and film since the 1990s. Rather than making a statement, the only opinion her ensemble telegraphs is that she believes fashion is a frivolous hobby that has no place in her busy schedule.
Wyler’s sartorial choices, a wide array of blazers that span black to charcoal, seem to evoke the CIA’s gray man when her position as an ambassador demands that she stand out. In the real world, fashion isn’t an afterthought in diplomacy but an essential tool for building relationships and communicating across cultures.
Perhaps no diplomat made that point as well as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose pins became one of the most famous arrows in her quiver. Albright deployed some as part of her charm offensive and others as a subtle rebuke to adversaries. More than 200 of her pins are now on display in an exhibit at the National Museum of American Diplomacy in Washington, though Albright herself had long grappled over whether she wanted people to remember her for her jewelry after an illustrious career as the first female secretary of state, said Susan Cleary, the museum’s acting director.
“We want to be known for being substantive, serious, brainy … and yet she kept finding that people really were reacting to her pins and the stories behind them,” Cleary said. The exhibit is an opportunity “to really put the fashion and the substance together in a very serious way.”
In her book Read My Pins: Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, Albright explains that her signature look wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Albright was serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under U.S. President Bill Clinton when the U.N. demanded that Saddam’s regime comply with inspections of its weapons programs. Saddam refused, Albright shot back, and the volley continued in the Iraqi press with a poem calling her an “unmatched clamor-maker” and an “unparalleled serpent.” Not long after, Albright met with Iraqi officials and donned a gold pin of a serpent coiled around a tree branch. After a reporter picked up on Albright’s tongue-in-cheek message, the pins became her trademark.
Young professionals in the foreign service are still taking a page out of Albright’s book by using jewelry to express subtle messages in their diplomatic encounters. Erin Clancy, who recently left the foreign service after working in Syria, Jordan, and the U.N., armored herself in a pantsuit, but during on-camera appearances or closed-door negotiations, she would often wear a silver ring or a necklace of yellow citrine that she picked up in Eastern Ghouta, Syria, in the hope that it would serve as a tangible reminder of the Syrian people and their plight amid the country’s civil war.
“This is a real place—this is not theoretical. These are real people,” Clancy said. “So [I would draw] on everything to make an emotional argument, trying to use anything I could … to pull on the heartstrings of the people in the room so they could communicate back to their capitals.”
Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, the U.S. ambassador to Togo, also takes her fashion cues from Albright as well as from former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who was known for his elegant style and who often said dressing well “is a mark of the respect you have for others.”
“For me, fashion and diplomacy are natural bedfellows, because what are we trying to do as diplomats? We’re trying to create relationships with other people, and the quickest way to do that, in my view, is to find areas of commonality and mutual respect,” Fitzsimmons said. “I give a lot of thought to it. I treat it almost as costuming myself. I’m very, very deliberate.”
On her current assignment in the West African country, Fitzsimmons is immersed in the heart of a robust textile trade, and she makes an effort to incorporate African wax fabric into her outfits while taking care not to tread the cultural appropriation line.
“It’s always very well received, particularly for West Africans. They are very proud of this textile history, particularly in Togo, because it was women who started the market trade in these textiles,” Fitzsimmons said. “Seeing a female ambassador wearing it is hugely important.”
She also likes to showcase American designers and has worn dresses by gay designers as icebreakers to talk about LGBTQ rights. “To me, it’s a very non-threatening way to start a conversation with someone,” Fitzsimmons said. “This does not have to be an adversarial conversation. It can be an element that is brought into normal discourse. The more that we ambassadors and others work to normalize and humanize the conversation, any difficult conversation, that’s how you progress as a diplomat.”
Those in the foreign service are quick to point out that unlike Russell’s character, no one at the embassy is picking out ensembles for them.
“I wish I had a second-in-command who brought me outfits and beauty advice, because that’s probably the hardest thing to figure out on your own,” said Rachna Korhonen, the U.S. ambassador to Mali. “The advice can be very contradictory. You’re always taking chances when you wear things.”
At times, Korhonen makes her outfits as bland as possible so they don’t distract from her work. Still, the busy schedule of an ambassador doesn’t always accommodate costume changes, as happened with a recent meeting with Mali’s foreign minister.
“Unfortunately, I had to go straight there from another event, and I was dressed in one of the outfits I had made from one of my mom’s saris,” she said. “Thank God it was black. … I want to have a serious conversation, and so the outfit is not the topic of conversation—the policy stuff is.”
Unlike her white colleagues in the foreign service, Korhonen said her ethnic heritage can sometimes complicate her decision to incorporate local clothing into her wardrobe abroad. The daughter of Indian immigrants, the New Jersey native joined the foreign service because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks; she wanted to show that Americans come from diverse backgrounds. Her assignments have taken her to India, Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, and Mali.
“If I dress in local clothing, then I look like the local population,” Korhonen said. “I have to very clearly think about it. Can I go ahead and actually wear a boubou here?” she said, referring to the robe-like garment worn by both men and women in West and North Africa.
Like Fitzsimmons, Korhonen will still pour over the colorful fabrics on offer in Mali to add a splash of local color to her ensembles. She warns, though, that cultural knowledge is key: On a recent shopping trip, she discovered that a specific fabric pattern indicates that one is looking for a husband.
Indeed, the wrong pattern or color may not only send a message about one’s personal life but could accidentally indicate sympathy toward a particular political party, ethnic group, or social movement. From 2004 to 2007, Martin McDowell served as chief of the political economic section in Moldova; he recalled conversations taking place at the embassy at the time about the optics of wearing orange to official meetings during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.
“We have to be conscious of, if you’re in an official function, carrying out official duties, and you choose to wear these colors, you’re basically sending a message,” said McDowell, who now serves as director of the State Department’s Office of South Central European Affairs and who was dressed in a bright blue three-piece suit for his Zoom interview with Foreign Policy. During a second tour in Moldova from 2018 to 2021, his bold fashion choices caught the eye of influencers on Russian-language Telegram, who dubbed him a “dapper darling.”
Like Albright, McDowell’s clothing made him more accessible and opened up conversations. “Some people would come up and approach me in the street in Moldova and outside of the capital and want to talk to me because they recognize me,” McDowell said. “If that’s helping us raise the profile and encouraging people to engage with us, that is so important because just talking to the leaders in the capital, you only get one view. So we try to spend as much time outside of that.”
Depending on the occasion, it can be not only appropriate for diplomats to dress in a playful or interesting way but also necessary to communicate a specific visual message.
Former Ambassador Piper Campbell, who now teaches at American University’s School of International Service, spent three decades in the foreign service. She recalled how her choice to wear a beautiful Cambodian skirt for a trip to the opening of Cambodian school was meant to balance the optics of her being flanked by the U.S. military.
“It’s a perfect example of how you use dress to communicate messages—in this case, respect for Cambodian culture, also a softer look so that for the children, it wasn’t too intimidating to be in a space with other people who were in U.S. military uniform,” Campbell said. “It is very common for foreign service officers, especially women, when they reach the rank of ambassador, to very consciously think about what messages they can communicate through their dress. That can be severity, or it can be cultural connections, or it can be a little bit of frivolity and fun.”
In another context, diplomats might choose to emphasize their home country’s military power rather than downplay it for their audience. Campbell pointed to when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited U.S. troops at Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany dressed in a sharp black coat trimmed with gold buttons and a striking pair of knee-high black boots with a slim high heel. Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan described the look as one of “sexual frisson” that mixed military might and feminine power.
“She did not cloak her power in photogenic hues, a feminine brooch and a non-threatening aesthetic,” Givhan wrote. “Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame ‘Matrix’ jump kick if necessary. Who wouldn’t give her ensemble a double take—all the while hoping not to rub her the wrong way?”
When an embassy event calls for diplomats to wear their native country’s traditional dress, some may lean into American classics. Campbell wore a red, white, and blue star-emblazoned sweater while riding horses through Mongolia, whereas Korhonen said she will often sport a New York Giants shirt or Derek Jeter cap for more casual events.
In fact, the choice to play up U.S. stereotypes to engender goodwill abroad was a tactic used by one of the country’s earliest and most famous diplomats, Benjamin Franklin.
An intellectual who operated in elite circles, Franklin was plucked for a role as an early ambassador for the American colonies in 1767. When he first arrived in Paris, he had a solid command of the French language, a skill that was de rigueur for people of his status at the time, and he adopted a polished look—complete with a powdered wig—that blended in with upper-class French society.
But when he returned to France a decade later, in 1776, Franklin dressed like what a French person might imagine an American to look like, said Joanna Gohmann, a provenance researcher and object historian at the National Museum of Asian Art. He eschewed a wig and let his hair go natural, wore spectacles at all times, and abandoned the fine French silk he wore previously in favor of a basic brown homespun jacket. The most iconic part of his ensemble was a floppy beaver cap that conjured images of rugged pioneers in the American West. He even sparked a trend among French women, who fashioned their powdered hair like his hat, “à la Franklin.”
Unlike future Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who styled himself as the ultimate Francophile, Franklin’s decision to set himself apart was a strategic move as he traveled to Paris to drum up French support for the nascent republic.
“This was to really reflect the American project, working from the roots up, to express democracy and to make him stand out and to emphasize that there’s this idea that society’s social structures are changing,” Gohmann said. “It was a way to stand out amongst a sea of powdered wigs and glossy silk. And he attracted a lot of attention. He got appointments with people who might not have welcomed him in. People who were not necessarily interested in the American project gravitated to him because he looked so eccentric.”
The decision to play up one’s eccentricities and stand out, rather than blend into a sea of suits, can still serve diplomats well today.
“If you’re donning that sartorial signal,” Gohmann said, “there is some more inclination to listen and actually believe what the person is saying. It’s definitely an ongoing trope that we’ve seen people and politicians really smartly taking advantage of, especially when photographs have to speak for them.”
It’s a lesson that, by the end of the first episode of The Diplomat, Russell’s Wyler seems to have accepted—albeit begrudgingly. In one of the last scenes, Wyler, elegantly coiffed and clad in a chic $1,600 dress that she laments “doesn’t even have pockets,” waves gracefully as she’s swept off in a horse-drawn carriage to attend another function. A member of her household staff says dreamily, “Look at her. Just like a princess.”