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Deborah Birx, style icon

A masterclass in coronavirus couture

March 22, 2020

6:15 PM

22 March 2020

6:15 PM

Deborah Birx is a rose between many thorns. The world renowned disease and virus crusader has caught the eye during White House briefing room pressers over the last three weeks, where she can be seen among the president and other coronavirus task force members — including Vice President Mike Pence — in their monkey suits. 

Washingtonian fashion usually has the panache of an office filing cabinet. Walking into a DC metro station resembles the interior of Office Max in its hue, until the warm months hit and the government sends a memo to every male Hilltern requesting they wear gingham shirts. Our male public servants dress like Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club when he’s a cubicle wagey, before he meets Tyler Durden and participates in domestic terrorism. The last time any man brought fashion spectacle to our political theater was when prosecutors accused Paul Manafort of not paying taxes in 2018 and read the receipts, which included a $15,000 ostrich jacket. 

Birx, however, has smarts and style, something many of our empty suits could learn from. In 2015, Birx attended the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in 2015, where she wore a regal gold and red patterned Chinese-inspired blouse with a raised, mandarin collar. She revived the look on March 9, and in recent footage from White House briefings, us peons are reminded that no one’s forcing these people to decide their wardrobe palette from a BIC ballpoint pen color swatch, ranging from jet black to corporate blue.

Bureaucracy bleak, meet coronavirus chic.

This isn’t to say that every public official should be appearing at the podium in a Lady Gaga meat dress, but if you’re trying to convince us our institutions aren’t hollowed out or moribund, at least dress the part. Birx has, since this plague was acknowledged as a serious threat by our government, at least reminded us that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow this year. She’s worn a series of bright colored scarves with lovely designs, which makes you wonder: did this worldly and profoundly knowledgeable woman get it in some far-away place during her lifetime of international health expertise? 

Birx is so well respected in her field, that she had close ties to the Obama administration and now the Trump administration. Perhaps Birx’s proximity to Mike Pence is what’s kept the Handmaid’s Tale LARPer fashion commentators at bay, because they certainly didn’t show such restraint with Democratic congresswomen Kyrsten Sinema or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have been lionized for their style choices, and deservingly so, especially in Sinema’s case. Sinema often looks like a Kate Spade brand ambassador or Fran Fine from the Nineties sitcom The Nanny, unafraid of pink fur, pink purses, or pink glitter, appearing for her first day as a US senator wearing a coat that could have been selected from Barbie’s Winter catalog. 

Refinery29 fawned over AOC’s signature red lipstick in February 2019 — Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso, for those wondering — which sold out repeatedly at Sephora. ‘Call it the AOC effect,’ one of many fashion hagiographies of the New York City congresswoman says. It also describes her switch from red to vibrant berry, which was the ‘mood-lifting beauty inspiration we need in this constantly tumultuous political era’.

Maybe Birx will be Melania’d: when a First Lady is a former career fashion model who routinely dresses in interesting styles but is married to Orange Man and gets snubbed of fashion accolades. Melania won’t find herself on Vogue’s cover anytime soon in her capacity as First Lady, and editor Anna Wintour has said as much, although Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton both had the privilege. 

Since we’re all working from home and have been wearing the same rotation of sweatpants or leggings for the past week or so, it’s relieving to see someone front-and-center not dressed like a DMV employee or middle management at a think tank. When this is all over, and I emerge from my home like a cavewoman after martial law has been lifted, I’ll at least be taking some style pointers from Deborah Birx. 

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