In 2010, a panel moderator asked then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton which her favorite clothing designers were. Clinton responded, “Would you ever ask a man that question?”
The former secretary and two-time presidential candidate had a point: we spend far too much time finding the angle on Hillary Clinton’s latest pantsuit or scrunchies, Kamala Harris’s Chuck Taylors or Nancy Pelosi’s (admittedly chic) red overcoats and stilettos. Comparatively little time is spent talking about the wardrobe choices of men, despite the fact that most American politicians — including every president, and all but one presidential nominee — are male.
There are exceptions, of course. Take the time President Obama turned up to a press conference in 2014, at the height of global Isis-inspired attacks, wearing a tan suit. In a stupendous leap of logic, Republicans claimed that the suit proved Obama didn’t care about Isis. Former congressman Peter King went so far as to say, in a longer rant about the suit’s supposedly inappropriately casual color: ““If you were the head of Isis, if you were Baghdadi, if you were anyone in the Isis, would you come away from yesterday afraid of the United States? Would you be afraid that the United States was going to use all its power to crush Isis? Or would you think here’s a person who’s going to go out and do a few fundraisers over the Labor Day weekend?”
The tan suit may live long in media memory. But it’s really an exception that proves the rule.
Yet, what male politicians wear is just as important and conveys just as much as what their female counterparts wear. Indeed, those who help dress Congressmen have told me during my work in Washington DC that their male clients are much more fussy than their female counterparts.
What men wear on the campaign trail tells you a lot about their brand: whether they are trying to be a ‘man of the people’ or to project superiority. (Personally, as a political hack who works in DC, I take my dressing advice from my mom, a former employee in the men’s section at Macy’s.)
Your essential ‘man of the people’ wardrobe
Perhaps the best example of men’s fashion is the one my friend Nathan Gonzales at Inside Elections highlighted many years ago — the brown barn jacket. Everyone from Senator Ted Cruz to Texas Governor Rick Perry has worn one. Scott Brown wore it when he ran for Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat. It was intended to cement his aesthetic of earthy, truck-driving American dude. It succeeded, and he won.
But the brown barn jacket doesn’t always work. Perry’s ad, in which he sported a brown barn jacket while decrying the existence of openly gay people in the military, was universally panned. The jacket was presumably intended to give the impression that he was ‘just saying what everybody else thinks’. It didn’t work.
In addition, recent Pennsylvania Senate flop Dr Oz ran an ad of himself wearing a brown barn jacket while using Bethlehem, a steel town, as a backdrop. This was probably an effort to make himself look more relatable, following weeks of mockery about his wealth and his use of the word “crudités”. Alas, the brown barn jacket can’t undo any manner of sins. It was too late for it to work its magic, and Oz lost.
What of Oz’s opponent, John Fetterman, a man also desperate to portray himself as ‘one of us’? Fetterman has made a career out of wearing Carhartt shirts, hoodies and shorts in public — an aesthetic perhaps intended to obscure his admittedly privileged background and the fact that he holds a degree from Harvard. Nevertheless, the dressed-down appearance added to the image of him as a man who could relate to the white working-class voters that Democrats have lost in recent years. Pennsylvania liked it. Obama even gave a shout-out to Fetterman’s unique fashion sense during their rallies together.
Friendly dad chic
There’s a particular kind of wardobe choice especially beloved among members of the GOP, and that’s ‘unthreatening dad who definitely isn’t a secret millionaire’. Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin won the governorship in Virginia largely on the back of playing on suburbanites’ fears about “critical race theory” being taught in schools (it isn’t, even when students are taught about racism, but that’s an argument for another day). His signature vest played a role in that, making him look less like the former Carlyle Group executive that he is and more like a smiling suburban dad just concerned about his kids’ schools. (He somewhat punctured that image recently by joking about the violent assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband, for which he later apologized).
Lauren Rothman, a stylist who consults politicians on fashion, tells me that men have an advantage over women in that we have a preconceived notion for what they should wear on the campaign trail compared to women.
“In terms of what creates success for men on the campaign trail, I think it’s recognizing your audience, knowing when to dress up and when to dress down,” she says. For Ohio’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown, that means wearing a rumpled shirt with rolled-up sleeves, paired perfectly with scraggly hair and a hoarse voice that implies days spent out doing hard labor on behalf of the people. He’s a blue Senator in a red state, and he knows that fighting against that “urban elite” stereotype of Democrats is key to his continued success.
On the other end of the spectrum is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a man uninterested in pandering to the right but very much concerned with projecting the image of a virtuous leftie. Sanders’ more wrinkled, often disheveled look is perhaps intended as a signal that he doesn’t believe image should matter in politics. “I call it entitlement dressing, where you are not recognizing the power of your audience and what you want to be wearing. And so I think that’s where we see the mistakes happen, is when you don’t read the occasion from a style perspective and you don’t give the respect, so to speak,” Rothman says.
Sanders’ most-discussed wardrobe choice would have to be the elaborate mittens he wore to Biden’s inauguration ceremony in 2021. The mittens were made by a local Vermont elementary school teacher and no doubt intended to underline Sanders’ commitment to his constituents. These days, a Vermont-based business has paired with the teacher to sell “Bernie-style mittens” year-round, and you can buy everything from lawn ornaments to Christmas tree decorations depicting the Senator sitting cross-legged in his mitten-ensconced state.
These kinds of politicians stand in opposition to their fussier, more well-put-together counterparts, Rothman adds — “there’s ‘I come from money’, the well-groomed, well-tailored, appreciates-the-art-of-the-detail that you’re going to see with some of these better-dressed candidates.”
Some guys, of course, might have a tougher time simply by virtue of their build. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker occasionally bought suits that were clearly too big, but that’s likely because he’s a former Stanford tight end. Similarly, Georgia Republican Senate nominee Herschel Walker often wears large suits, but that might be because he is a former University of Georgia running back and Heisman Trophy winner and needs suits that fit his frame.
Former presidential candidate and now Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg often, somewhat controversially, eschews a blazer. During the campaign, Lis Smith toldThe Wall Street Journal, “When you’re out running a national campaign, it’s just not comfortable or convenient to be wearing a suit or even a suit jacket 24-7. So, to the extent that the Mayor has a campaign uniform, it was born out of practicality.”
Other times, a candidate’s dress choice becomes an issue 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’d planned a 400-mile bicycle tour around the district and she had to order shirts for it. She was sure that white shirts were the only way — “it doesn’t show sweat” — but the candidate’s wife was in the room during decision time, and tried insisting on blue.
“We went with moisture-wicking fabric but she was pretty adamant that he wanted a blue shirt to ride in. I vetoed this,” Considine says.
Rothman said she has a simple rule for men’s suits: “For me, when I’m working with clients, it’s about the middle ground. I don’t need to know, and I shouldn’t be able to tell, if your dress suit was custom-made or off the rack. Ideally, I shouldn’t know much about it other than it fits you really well.”
She notes that Donald Trump’s presidential style — comprised mostly of ill-fitting suits with ties that were far too long — was an interesting stylistic break from when he sold himself as a New York mogul and had his own signature ties that he paired with expensive Brioni suits. But, to be fair to Trump, he did wear a few different suits on the campaign trail.
The best-dressed in Washington
When it comes to the best-dressed elected officials in Washington right now, an honorary mention goes out to President Joe Biden, who is known not just for his aviator sunglasses that inspired countless headlines in The Onion but also his sleek suits. Similarly, while Senator Mitt Romney took some grief for wearing mom jeans when he sought the presidency, the former Republican presidential nominee seems to be okay spending the money he accrued from Bain Capital to burnish his image as an elder statesman trying to save conservatism from itself. He’s looking sharp as he does it.
But nobody wears suits better than Georgia’s Raphael Warnock. Anyone who has heard the term ‘Sunday best’ should not be surprised that Warnock, the senior pastor at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King once preached, is dripped out. Even though he once told my flatmate and fellow reporter Pablo Manriquez that he gets his suits off the rack, he’s a man who always looks like he’s seen some good tailoring.
One standout image from Warnock’s fashion triumphs is the combination of broad-brimmed hat and overcoat that he wore on the day he was sworn into the Senate. Whether that will be enough to salvage him in the runoff next month is another question.
Ultimately, though, Rothman says there is no need to despair if you don’t have a mountain of cash to redo your wardrobe yet harbor DC dreams. “I think there’s this discrepancy that we find in men’s fashion. And the dirty little secret I like to tell my clients is: you don’t need a lot of money to look well dressed. You do have to invest in a consultant, though, to help,” she says.
Maybe there is hope for me yet.