Three times fashion was front and center in politics

Scandals, weak policy positions and polarization all greatly influence how people assess politicians. But it would be simple-minded to remove clothes and appearance from the American people’s decisions about their politicians. 

Famously, those who watched the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon believed that Kennedy won. The allure and polish of his appearance entirely trumped that of the disheveled and flat Nixon. While this may not have been a direct result of what JFK wore that night, it highlights the politics of appearance and the social capital of one’s representation of themselves. How politicians choose to represent themselves largely feeds into whether potential supporters relate to the candidate, or understand the candidate. 

Many political scientists use social identity theory to try to discern why people gravitate toward certain politicians. In 2014, psychologist Gazi Islam described social identity theory as the idea “that individuals define their own identities with regard to social groups and that such identifications work to protect and bolster self-identity.” Largely removed from the discussions of social identity theory, however, is how clothing has historically been and still is a tool for self-segregation and identification. The taxonomic, social and cultural capital of clothing within politics is equally a part of campaigning and policy since external pieces of any person, like clothing, often communicate more about a person before they have even spoken a word. 

 

Tan-Gate 

President Obama’s tan suit controversy marks a point of interest in this dialogue as the hysteria that it inspired was linked to nothing other than its color. Obama accompanied the departure from his style’s norm with a crisp dress shirt, tie, and an American flag pin. However, criticism of Obama’s suit came in by the tons from Republicans who criticized him for looking “unpresidential.” The severity of the critiques even went far enough for New York Rep. Peter King to say, “For him to walk out — I’m not trying to be trivial here — in a light suit, a light tan suit…. a week after Jim Foley was beheaded, and he’s trying to act like, you know, real Americans care about the economy, not about ISIS and not about terrorism.” Perhaps Obama’s pale tan suit could have been better tailored, but King’s phrasing of “light suit, a light tan suit” seems to insinuate that people were upset not just because it was Obama (even though that may have really been the problem), but also because the lightness of the suit failed to send a strong enough message during a White House press briefing. However, seeing as how that was Obama’s only personal scandal. Tan Suit: 1 Republicans: 0. 

 

Jacketless Jim Jordan 

Would you wear a jacket to an impeachment hearing? A denim one? A blazer? A Hillary Clinton Nehru jacket? If you said yes to any of those options, then you immediately stand in opposition to Rep. Jim Jordan who chose not to wear a jacket to the continuation of Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings. For some, Jordan’s decision was a show of confidence in the face of House Democrats and a signal of getting to work amidst the formality of the hearings. However, Democrats and Republicans alike deemed it to be a lack of respect for the gravity of the situation and a strategic distraction for the media from Trump’s wrongdoings. Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan referred to Jordan’s style choice as a “sartorial chest pump,” since everyone else in the room, including those in the audience, were wearing jackets. Whether Jordan was attempting to write off the significance of the situation, the political arena’s codes of formality (some of which are literally codified into congressional rules) directly translate into tonality and intention. With this translation comes an opportunity for the average citizen to make decisions about politicians both subconsciously and consciously. 

 

Hillary and Those Jackets 

One of the most intense critiques about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was that she lacked warmth. Close inspection of her wardrobe’s range of color would suggest the opposite, but Clinton’s style of choice of Nehru jackets often came across as militaristic. For decades, Clinton’s style in conjunction with her persona had been the center of controversy, and it seems that her goal with Nehru jackets was to put a lid on any potentially distracting conversations about her being too “sexy” or “feminine.” Perhaps in Clinton’s mind, a more masculine silhouette was necessary to be taken seriously by the electorate. Nevertheless, in her attempt to seem more “strong” or “masculine,” “cold” and “unlikeable” became more closely attached to Clinton and began to decorate a majority of her campaign grievances. Would a plunging skirt suit or sheath dresses with sharp blazers have helped Hillary with the public’s opinion? Maybe. Maybe not, as then she could have fallen prey to being weak or too “feminine” which seemed to be one of her initial fears. For female politicians, dressing seems to be an eternal minefield. In her 2017 manifesto, “Women and Power”, classicist Mary Beard discusses Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton’s meeting each other in identical pantsuits and explains this style choice as an extension of the pressures on women when entering traditionally male-centered spaces, like politics. 

These examples are all isolated and unique to the individuals discussed. But what ought to be taken away from these mistakes is that a bad outfit can harm a politician more than bad policy. Some would say that this is the result of Americans, or people in general, being shallow; however, that would be an ignorant assumption as what is really at hand in the intersection between politics and fashion is social complexity. 

The historical triviality of fashion and the gravity of politics has caused people to think of them as mutually exclusive. In reality, politicians know their campaigns are only as good as the clothes they wear. 

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