Posing as President: Political Fashion

Posted by: Lyra Pappin

Can reputations and expectations be built on the right colours and fabrics? Politicians think so, whether they want us to know about it or not. For better or worse, the public loves to gossip about politicians’ wardrobes, forcing candidates to play the game too.

Political style might not seem important, politicians might even scoff at the idea of talking fashion, but it’s impossible to say that fashion doesn’t impact the political process in our visual-centric world. While it may not be openly discussed, it is clear that time and effort is put into creating the right look for each candidate. In this year’s crowded presidential race, each candidate has had their fashion choices either commented on or questioned.

Fashion is a double-edged sword for politicians, as they don’t want too much attention focused on anything taking away from their policies and views, but to deny a connection between what they wear and how voters see them would be a big mistake. Generally, politicians wear conservative suits, often sporting blue or red ties. For women, the game is a little trickier, as there is no tradition to maintain in terms of attire.

The connection between clothing and public perception of the candidates is evident when people like Barack Obama are questioned about his connection to the African-American community. The USA Today reported that Obama was offered a “hip hop” wardrobe for a magazine shoot, but declined. Thankfully, he didn’t see the merit in proving his ties to his heritage by simply donning different duds.

The traditional suit and tie ensure that politicians will be taken seriously and they learn that subtle style is better than anything that is overtly fashionable. Other candidates have learned this lesson the hard way, including Al Gore in 2000. He was the butt of many jokes after it was learned that he had been advised to wear more “earth tones”. More recently, democrat John Edwards was criticized for getting a reported $400 haircut, despite having policies supporting the poor.

Although no one would accuse politicians of being trendsetters, it is evident that their clothing and style choices affect voters. Something that looks overly expensive or bordering on inappropriate alienates too many people, thus, more modest approaches to fashion are taken. This is especially true for women, who are always dressed conservatively, down to their hairstyles and makeup choices. Despite almost always seen wearing a suit, Hillary Clinton was accused of using clothes to draw attention to herself. Apparently she is now sporting a “sexier” colour palette that includes brighter blues, pinks, and greens, opposed to her previous inclination toward black and navy blue.

Although the suit reigns supreme in the political sphere, it is also important for voters to see their politicians in a more casual and warm setting. We get to see that the politicians are “just like us”! Take the example of George Bush with his sleeves rolled up clearing brush from his ranch. Or Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee playing the guitar on stage in casual attire.  Sometimes revealing the more personal side of politicians can create controversy, such as when shirtless photos of Russian president Vladimir Putin appeared all over the media in the summer of 2007.  While some speculated that he was trying to show how tough and manly he is, others claimed that he was merely revealing that he knows how to kick back and enjoy himself.  A similar wave of gossipy intrigue was also created when Barack Obama was seen barechested in People magazine's Beach Babe section.  His attractive torso inspired a great deal of amused chatter in the blogosphere.  Although the commentary was mostly positive, Obama called it "embarrassing" and advised everyone to "stop looking".

Although the next president should never be selected based on approach to fashion, it is interesting and important to note their choices. Simply being aware that you are being lead to view one person under a certain light might open your eyes to something new. Alternatively, we can always take a hint from politicians that subtle style works best when you want to be taken seriously. Evidently, there is an art to conservative taste and it doesn’t hurt to play things down occasionally. After all, it’s not the clothes that make the person!

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Lyra Pappin
Toronto, ON, Canada

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