October 25, 1993 12:00 PM

Okay, so she’s no Jackie Kennedy. But the truth is she doesn’t want to be. In her debut year as First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, 46, has made her message clear: She is more concerned about health care than haute couture, more interested in making history than making best-dressed lists. But whether she likes it or not, the public focuses on her fashions as much as they once did on Jackie’s and Nancy’s and even Mamie’s. Washingtonians applauded Hillary’s smashing violet Inaugural ball gown by New York City designer Sarah Phillips but panned the blue suit and yellow blouse she donned for last month’s PLO-Israel peace accord ceremony at the White House. (“Airline hostess,” pronounced The Washington Post.) Still, counters writer Sally Quinn, longtime capital insider, “the way she looks now, she looks like a First Lady for the ’90s.”

As well as a new role, the first modern-day professional woman to become First Lady is forging a new fashion mark—albeit by trial and error. She started slowly and has taken a few style hits during the year. But of late her wardrobe has more winners than sinners. Back in Arkansas, she wore turtlenecks and tweeds. In Washington, she has served up a clean, lawyerly but colorful look. “She’s a no-nonsense lady, and that’s what she looks like,” says Hollywood designer Nolan (Dynasty) Miller. Notes Patrick McCarthy, an editorial director of Women’s Wear Daily: “She doesn’t want her clothes to distract from the business she has to do.” Adds Oleg Cassini, who designed for Jackie in the early ’60s: “Frankly, I think that Hillary makes a big effort to avoid being considered well-dressed.”

Clearly, though, she’s sensitive to how she looks—and what the public thinks—or she wouldn’t have changed her hairstyle half a dozen times or more in 10 months. Along with her husband, she has been advised by Designing Women and Hearts Afire costume designer Cliff Chally (supplied by First Friends, producers Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and husband Harry Thomason) and uses the clothes of many different designers. “She seemed confused about her clothes and her hair throughout the campaign, the transition and even the first few months of the Administration,” says Quinn, noting that Hillary was attempting “to portray herself in a way that wasn’t really her.” Even in the midst of the changes, though, Clinton clearly understood the power of her style. “If we ever want to get Bosnia off the front page,” she once complained, “all I have to do is change my hair.”

Fashion has never been the main course on the First Lady’s plate. She didn’t buy a wedding dress until the night before the 1975 ceremony, and she couldn’t be bothered to choose an Inaugural gown until friend Susan Thomases pointed out that it would eventually be displayed in the Smithsonian. Says Michelle Revere, a former buyer at one of Clinton’s favorite Little Rock shops, Barbara/Jean Ltd., who followed her highest-profile customer to Washington and is now with the tony Saks Jandel store: “(Hillary] wears things over and over. I recognize things I sold her in Arkansas.”

Hillary, who buys off-the-rack clothes, rarely wears her price tag on her sleeve, sticking largely to the “bridge” range—$400 to $600 per suit. Though she likes Donna Karan, Manhattan-based Dana Buchman and St. John, she also boosts young American designers, including New Yorker Randy Kemper. “She looks great in suits and evening wear,” says Kemper, who sends size-8 outfits to the White House. “She could use some advice on details, such as what color stockings she should wear.”

Naturally attractive and seemingly unaware of it, Hillary wants to look like the best of the rest of us, and she’s coming closer all the time. The trim green suit she chose for her appearance before Congress last month was a knockout—and an appropriate one. “If you didn’t like the September 1992 Hillary Rodham Clinton,” said celebrated New York City ad man and restaurateur Jerry Delia Femina, “you’ll love the September 1993.” Indeed, and as the First Lady continues to create her own sense of style, designer Todd Oldham offers her, some good advice: “Don’t listen to your detractors—wear what you want.”

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