Delving into the archives of pop culture history, “Remember When?” is a new series offering a nostalgic look at the celebrity outfits that defined their eras.
Remember when Condoleezza Rice wore a pair of statement knee-high boots, powerfully strutting through Wiesbaden Army Airfield?
The former US secretary of state had traveled to the base in Germany with her then boss, US President George W. Bush, during a tour to tighten America’s ties with its NATO allies in the war against terror. It was February 2005, four years after 9/11, and the First Armored Division — dubbed the Iron Soldiers — had already been to Iraq and back.
“When the Iron Soldiers left for Iraq, Saddam Hussein was sitting in a palace. And by the time you came home, he was sitting in a prison cell,” Bush said to applause.
Yet it is Rice’s outfit, rather than Bush’s words, that captured the imagination. The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic Robin Givhan noted at the time how her long black coat “blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots.”
Givhan also noted the garment’s similarity to the full-length coat worn by Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix,” demonstrating the ability of a simple, black coat to still resonate all those years later. (“The Matrix” had come out in 1999, when Rice was still provost at Stanford University and long before Reeves became the internet’s boyfriend.)
Rice’s coat was affixed by a neat row of gold buttons, from her waist to a tight band collar. As a look, it was conservative, classy and practical — German winters can be bitterly cold.
The heels, however, were something else.
Three-inch stilettos are a relatively rare sight at elite military bases (we’re guessing). After all, they require you to run on your toes and standing still for long periods is a challenge.
Of course, Rice wasn’t setting any new trends. The rest of us had long known the perils — and the perks — of slipping on a pair of knee-high boots. But they make a statement: I’m here, I’m in control, I’ll do what I damn please.
As if to prove the point, former First Lady Laura Bush was also in Wiesbaden that day in a black skirt and snug-fitting jacket. But you don’t remember what she was wearing — or even that she was there — because her calves weren’t encased in black leather.
Rice’s boots were also pointy. Some might suggest too pointy, though when it comes to boots there is very little consensus on what’s right or wrong. At the time, people were wearing embroidered cowboy boots and Ugg boots — outdoors! — so by comparison, smart, pointed black boots were surprisingly uncontroversial.
Until a few years later, that is, when Sarah Palin tried the same thing and was singled out for looking like she was going clubbing. Perhaps it was her choice of patent leather. Michelle Obama pulled off the knee-high boot somewhat more successfully, as did Jill Biden, who wore a pair to Inauguration Day in 2009 to cement her status as a style icon.
Rice was probably not thinking too much about her style status as she packed her bags for Europe. She had just become the first black woman to be promoted to secretary of state, having already made history as the first woman to become national security adviser.
Her predecessor at the State Department, Madeleine Albright, was almost 20 years older and better known for her vast collection of statement brooches. But while Albright’s brooches became the subject of exhibits, Rice’s boots have not become the defining feature of her wardrobe.
If anything, she’s better known for “power pearls,” as noted by feminist author Germaine Greer in a 2008 article for the Guardian.
“Power pearls are pure white and large, anything from 11mm (0.4 inches) in diameter to 16mm (0.6 inches), in a single strand, which must hang within rather than over the neckline,” Greer wrote, while also outing herself as a close observer of Rice’s décolletage. “Though I have kept close watch, I am not sure just how many strings she has,” she admitted.
Greer suggested Rice used her pearls to convey “glamour, bravado and insolence,” citing occasions where she had used them to deflect criticism and project power.
Rice wasn’t wearing a string of pearls when she visited Wiesbaden Army Airfield (which has since been renamed Lucius D. Clay Kaserne) in 2005. If you look very, very closely however, you can see she is nonetheless wearing power pearls. Big ones. On her ears.
It’s hard to accurately measure the combined clout of pearls and black knee-high boots. But as we’re still talking about them 14 years on, it’s safe to say that, as a subtle statement of authority, they were pretty powerful.