When Kerry Washington first caught our eye, playing Ray Charles's wife Della in the transcendent 2004 Ray, we were struck by the 27-year-old's elegance and charm—and reminded of another poised-beyond-her-years actress, the young Diahann Carroll. In 1962, at age 26, Carroll won a Tony Award for her role as a fashion model in the Broadway musical and interracial love story No Strings.
Carroll, a legend at 75, is still on the front lines of pop culture, with memorable roles on Grey's Anatomy and White Collar, while Washington, now 34, has won acclaim for her performances in The Last King of Scotland and For Colored Girls. Last year the women got the chance to work together, costarring in the forthcoming comedy We the Peeples. But it turns out that they have more in common than stellar acting chops: Bucking the trend of "anything goes" celebrity fashion, both are always flawlessly dressed. "Kerry reminds me a lot of myself at her age," Carroll says. "She has a trained eye for detail and what suits her figure. And she has an innate self-confidence, a coolness about how lovely she is."
Washington, like Carroll, was largely indifferent to clothes before she got into show business. "My fashion life exists mainly through work, so I dress to be event appropriate," she says. "I see clothes as a performance." Carroll is similarly committed to creating an effect—hence her grin-and-bear-it approach to stilettos ("I will suffer while I'm being photographed, then change into another pair of shoes"), and her total devotion to shapewear ("You have to remember that a body is going into that pretty dress!").
Both women know what works for them: Yes to solids, says Carroll, especially black and navy. No to prints and froufrou. "I always want a long line and a neat, clean look—the simpler the better," she says. Washington works a modern mix of designer and affordable labels to flatter her petite figure. "I inhabit a lot of different worlds," she says, "and I'm always trying to find balance." One night she might be posing for a red-carpet premiere in a short, sexy dress, the next day switching to business attire as a member of President Obama's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Whatever realm she's moving in, her sophisticated style comes through. Which is an achievement that Carroll—Broadway star, Hollywood icon—knows a thing or two about herself.
On Carroll: Tank, Coldwater Creek, $40. Ring, Diane von Furstenberg for H.Stern. On Washington: Top, Christian Cota.