When Richard Nixon praised his wife’s “respectable Republican cloth coat” in his 1952 Checkers speech, her clothes were not really the point. Rather, Nixon was attempting to illustrate the values he asserted of frugality, integrity and public service in order to counter accusations of financial impropriety. HUH!!!! is possibly what history has shown we can say to that. Some 20 plus years later when newly elected President Jimmy Carter took office he was heard to utter, whilst casting his eye around the Federal Judiciary, “Don’t you all look like me?” Which of course, at that time, they very much did.
The world has moved on in many ways since then and yet, here we are, election time in the US in the 21st century and the narrative identity, (the story we tell ourselves and others through the clothes we choose to wear) is not perhaps as different as we might like to think.
For many, and particularly public figures, clothing is a contrived outward manifestation of their story which reveals, or perhaps more accurately seeks to depict, the person they want to be; the version of themselves they want the world to see and the voters to vote for. For politicians, clothing is a way to project truthfulness or consistency with an ideal type. Perceptions of authenticity gives voters confidence in candidates’ integrity, persuading them that candidates will fulfill campaign promises once elected. This non-verbal information board is not restricted to politicians alone. We are recipients of these influences in all manner of everyday ways, absorbing subliminal messages and for those who understand that power, exuding our own, through the clothes we wear.
Most political challengers find it easy to project legitimacy through their dress. They can tailor their wardrobe to highlight themes from their campaigns and personal histories. The aim is to guide voters’ understanding of who the candidate is and what they stand for. So, if they are for example standing on an environmental platform, then carefully selected, ethically sourced, semi relaxed clothes will meet voters’ expectations, reassuring them that this person is everything that their rhetoric suggests.
On this, the challengers to office most definitely have the advantage. Unfettered as they are by those sartorial constraints of office that restrict the opposing incumbents, a gubernatorial candidate (yes, I had to google it too) can afford a dressed down ‘man of the people look’; jeans and boots to the State Fair, chinos and a polo shirt on a meet-and-greet walkabout. But once installed on Capitol Hill, nothing short of a suit will do. His or her public image, however de-individualising it proves to be, must be that of the office s/he holds. On balance, challengers have the advantage over incumbents, at least when it comes to what they chose to say with their clothes.
In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly is standing against the incumbent Republican Senator Martha McSally. Kelly was an astronaut with army service. McSally is a former Air Force Pilot and Afghanistan vet. But where Kelly’s clothes: tieless and in sports jackets, can reference his NASA background and by association his informed stance on national security and climate change, McSally is to be seen sporting Keratin hair and sheath dresses with no nod to her military experience, but simply the uniform of the professional politician.
In Maine, Sara Gideon’s campaign materials show her sporting casual jackets and doing yummy mummy type things. Gideon’s relatable, chic-mom vibe suggests to voters that healthcare and education may be topics of actual conversation at her kitchen table rather than abstract policy issues. She is challenging the Republican incumbent Susan Collins, who can be seen wearing tailored business suits in strong colours with (wonderfully expensive) coats atop, none of which reflect the self-made family lumber business from which she hails. It is impossible for voters to gauge from Ms. Collins look what might really matter to her.
And then there is Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, who is being challenged for the Kentucky seat by Democrat Amy McGrath. McConnell, has served on Capitol Hill since 1984, and whilst my research for this piece did not extend to scouring 4 decades of pictorial news he has, I feel confident to suggest, been wearing the same classic and expensive dark suits, sometimes pin striped sometimes not, with the same variety of coloured shirts and the same jewel coloured ties since he took office. There is nothing to reference his impoverished background nor indeed anything else that might be important to him. In stark contrast, McGrath’s campaign material makes her look like someone out of Top Gun, often pictured with her young family in open collared shirts and emblem studded flight jackets, leaving you in no doubt that this Marine fighter pilot and Afghanistan vet understands foreign policy, homeland security and veterans’ issues.
Challengers can present an image consistent with both their campaign platforms and their personal histories. Their clothing speaks for them, presenting a fully elaborated identity statement. In contrast, the incumbents’ almost uniform-like clothing gives voters little comprehension into either who they are or what they care about. They have become homophilous in their look, having over time learned to dress alike and leaving precious little insight into their personal history or policy priorities. In the end these incumbents appear faithful to only one thing, that of being a senator.
Clothes may not determine this year’s winners, but the authenticity concerns that made Pat Nixon’s coat a powerful image still play a critical role in politicians’ lives.