ANDIn 2010, a panel moderator asked then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who her favorite clothing designers were. Clinton he replied“Would you ever ask a man that question?”
The former secretary and two-time presidential candidate was right: we spend far too much time looking for the right angle with the latest pants or elastics of Hillary Clinton, Chuck Taylor Kamala Harris or Nancy Pelosi (admittedly chic). red coats and high-heeled shoes. Relatively little time is spent talking about men’s clothing, even though most American politicians – including every president and all but one presidential candidate – are men.
Of course there are exceptions. Take your time for President Obama to show up at a press conference in 2014, at the height of the ISIS-inspired global attacks, wearing a brown suit. In an astonishing leap of logic, Republicans argued that the lawsuit proved that Obama didn’t care about ISIS. Former congressman Peter King even went so far as to say in a lengthy speech about the supposedly inappropriate color of the suit: “If you were the head of Isis, if you were Baghdadi, if you were anyone in Isis, would you walk away from yesterday afraid of the United States?” Would you fear that the United States would use all its strength to crush ISIS? Or do you think this is the person to go out and organize some fundraisers over Labor Day weekend?
A brown suit can live long in the media’s memory. But this is really the exception that proves the rule.
However, what male politicians wear is just as important and conveys as much as what their female counterparts wear. Indeed, those who help dress congressmen have told me during my work in Washington that their male clients are much pickier than their female counterparts.
What men wear on the campaign trail says a lot about their brand: whether they are trying to be “a man of the people” or demonstrating superiority. (Personally, as a political hacker who works in Washington, I take dressing advice from my mom, a former Macy’s men’s employee.)
Your essential “man of the people” wardrobe.
Perhaps the best example of menswear is the one chosen by my friend Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections highlighted many years ago, a brown barn jacket. Everyone from Senator Ted Cruz to Texas Governor Rick Perry wore them. Scott Brown wore it when he ran for old Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. This was to cement his aesthetic of an earthy truck-riding American. It worked and he won.
But a brown barn jacket doesn’t always work out. Perry’s ad, in which he wore a brown barn jacket denouncing the existence of openly gay people in the military, was widely scanned. The jacket was probably meant to give the impression that it “just says what everyone thinks”. It didn’t work.
In addition, the recent defeat of Pennsylvania Senate Dr. Oz posted an ad about himself wearing a brown barn jacket, against the backdrop of Bethlehem, the city of steel. It was probably an effort to look more believable after weeks of mocking his wealth and his use of the word “crudités”. Unfortunately, a brown barn jacket cannot undo any kind of sin. It was too late for the magic to work, and Oz lost.
What about Oz’s opponent, John Fetterman, a man who is also desperate to portray himself as “one of us”? Fetterman made his career wearing Carhartt shirts, hoodies and shorts in public – an aesthetic that perhaps was intended to overshadow his indeed privileged education and the fact that he graduated from Harvard. Nevertheless, the dressed-up appearance enhanced his image as a man who can identify with the working-class white voters the Democrats have lost in recent years. Pennsylvania loved it. Obama even praised Fetterman’s exceptional fashion sense at their rallies together.
Dad’s friendly chic
There is a particular type of wardrobe that GOP members particularly like, and that is “the harmless dad who is definitely not a secret millionaire.” Republican governor Glenn Youngkin won the governorship of Virginia largely on his back game in the suburbs he fears that “critical race theory” will be taught in schools (this is not the case, even if students are taught about racism, but that is a discussion for another day). His signed vest played a role in making him look less like the ex-Carlyle Group executive he is and more like a smiling suburban dad who only cares about his kids’ schools. (He recently punctured the image a bit by joking about brutally assaulting Nancy Pelosi’s husband, for which he later apologized.)
Lauren Rothman, a stylist who consults with politicians on fashion, tells me that men have an advantage over women in that we have a preconceived notion of what they should wear on the campaign trail versus women.
“In terms of what creates success for men on the campaign path, I think it’s knowing your audience, knowing when to dress up and when to dress up,” she says. For Democrat Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, that means wearing a rumpled shirt with the sleeves rolled up, paired perfectly with messy hair and a hoarse voice that suggests days spent working hard for the people. He’s a blue senator in a red state, and he knows that fighting the Democratic stereotype of the “urban elite” is key to his continued success.
At the other end of the spectrum is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a man uninterested in succumbing to the right but very interested in building an image of a virtuous leftist. Sanders’ more wrinkled, often disheveled appearance is probably a sign that he doesn’t believe that image should matter in politics. “I call it dressing up when you don’t recognize the strength of your audience and what you want to wear. So I think that’s where the mistakes come in, when you don’t look at the opportunity from a style perspective and you don’t show respect, so to speak,” says Rothman.
The most discussed wardrobe choice for Sanders would be the elaborate gloves he wore to Biden’s 2021 inauguration. The gloves were made by a local elementary school teacher in Vermont and were no doubt intended to emphasize Sanders’ dedication to his constituents. These days, a Vermont company works with a teacher to sell “Bernie-style gloves” year-round, and you can buy anything from lawn ornaments to Christmas tree ornaments depicting a senator sitting cross-legged in his gloved state.
These kinds of politicians stand in contrast to their more refined, better-mannered counterparts, Rothman adds.
A dress of necessity
Of course, some guys can have it harder simply because of their build. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker he occasionally bought suits which were clearly too big, but that’s probably because he’s a former Stanford player. Similarly, Republic of Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker often wears large suits, but this may be because he is a former University of Georgia runner and Heisman Trophy winner and needs suits that fit his body shape.
Former presidential candidate and now Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg often, somewhat controversially, avoids the jacket. During the Fox Smith campaign He saidWall Street Journal, “When you’re running a nationwide campaign, wearing a suit or even a blazer 24/7 just isn’t comfortable or convenient. So, to the extent that the mayor has an election uniform, he was born out of practicality.
Other times, a candidate’s choice of dress becomes a problem for too many people in the room. Clare Considine worked as a campaign manager for a Democrat in Tennessee’s first district. She recalls how they planned a 400-kilometre bike tour around the neighborhood and had to order T-shirts for it. She was sure white shirts were the only way – “you can’t see the sweat” – but the candidate’s wife was in the room at the time of the decision and tried to insist on blue.
“We chose moisture-wicking fabric, but she was adamant that he wanted a blue shirt for riding. I vetoed it,” says Considine.
Rothman said she has a simple rule about men’s suits: “For me, when I work with clients, it’s about the middle. I don’t need to know and I shouldn’t know if your suit was made to measure or if it came from your closet. Ideally, I don’t know much about him other than that he really suits you.
He notes that Donald Trump’s presidential style – consisting mostly of ill-fitting suits and far too long ties – was an interesting stylistic break from selling himself as a New York magnate and having his own ties that he paired with expensive Brioni suits. But to be fair to Trump, he did wear several different ones fits on the campaign trail.
Best Dressed in Washington
When it comes to Washington’s best-dressed elected officials today, an honorable mention goes to President Joe Biden, who is not only known for his aviator sunglasses that have inspired countless headlines in Onion but and his elegant suits. Similarly, while Senator Mitt Romney somewhat lamented wearing mom jeans when he ran for president, the former Republican presidential candidate seems fine to spend the money he raised from Bain Capital to polish his image as an elderly statesman trying to save conservatism from itself. He looks sharp when he does it.
But no one wears suits better than Raphael Warnock from Georgia. Anyone who has heard the term “best Sunday” should not be surprised that Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once preached, has been removed. Although he once told my roommate and fellow reporter Pablo Manriquez that he was taking his suits off the rack, he’s a man who always looks like he’s seen a good tailor.
One of the standout photos from Warnock’s fashion triumphs is the combination of the wide-brimmed hat and coat he wore on the day he was sworn in to the Senate. Whether that will be enough to save him in the second round next month is another question.
Ultimately, though, Rothman says there’s no reason to despair as long as you don’t have a mountain of cash to remake your wardrobe, while also living your DC dreams. “I think there is a certain discrepancy that we find in men’s fashion. And the dirty little secret I like to tell my clients is that you don’t need a lot of money to look good. But to help, you need to invest in a consultant,” he says.
Maybe there’s still hope for me.