February 4, 2008 / 4:15 PM / 12 years ago

Subliminal sartorial messages on campaign trail?

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Clothes make the man, as the saying goes, and clothes can do their bit to make the candidate too.

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks during a rally in Birmingham, Alabama, February 2, 2008. REUTERS/Dave Martin

The suits, sweaters, even the knot of a candidate’s necktie, help shape public opinion in the U.S. presidential race, whether voters realize it or not, fashion experts say.

“The clothes we wear send a message about how we want to be perceived,” fashion guru Tim Gunn said. “Even if voters were to say, ‘I don’t pay attention to those things,’ I think subliminally they must.”

Political candidates are “loaded with subliminal messages,” said David Wolfe, creative director at Doneger Group retail consultants.

“You take off your necktie, you’re a man of the people. You take off your jacket, you’re even more a man of the people. Roll up your sleeves, and oh, you’re really serious,” he said.

While Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, the only woman in the White House race, gets the most attention for her appearance, her male rivals are drawing more attention than usual, said Stan Herman, former head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

“Because there’s a woman involved, a lot of people like myself started looking to see if the guys were wearing peak or notch lapels or two button- or three button-suits,” he said.

Democratic Sen. Barack Obama gets the highest praise from fashionistas for his well-cut suits, which he started to wear more often after winning the Iowa caucuses. Even his necktie is fashionably knotted in a thick, full Windsor knot, a style popular with men in their 20’s and 30’s, experts say.

While Obama’s clothes are “fabulous,” said Wolfe, he risks looking as though he is trying too hard.

“As a fashion statement, it’s venturing toward foppishness. Should a presidential candidate care that much about his necktie?” Wolfe asked.


Republican Mitt Romney dresses like the successful businessman he is, with a Harvard Business School background, said Patty Pao, head of the Pao Principle retail consultants.

“He’s very well tailored, pressed, everything is creased,” she said.

But Romney’s old-fashioned, baggy trousers make fashionistas cringe. “I don’t think that Romney’s pleated pants are going to make an influence on fashion,” said Robert Burke of Robert Burke Associates luxury consultants.

Republican Sen. John McCain often dresses casually in sweaters, “trying to look like just plain folks,” Pao said. “I guarantee once he starts winning more primaries, he going to evolve into the more presidential look.”

Republican Mike Huckabee’s relaxed dress reflects his campaign line that people would rather elect a president “who reminds them of the guy they work with, not that guy who laid them off,” but it won’t last if he gains ground in the primaries, Burke said.

“I don’t think you — in the near future — are going to see a president with no tie and an open shirt,” he said.

For Clinton, gone are the days of dated hair bands, matronly skirts and brooches, replaced by well-cut pantsuits with jewel-tone blouses and necklaces that brighten her face.

Only a few faux pas still exist, according to fashionistas, such as a bright yellow jacket with black trim, dubbed her ‘bumblebee suit’ by reporters. “Yellow should not be her color, said Irma Zandl of The Zandl Group trend research firm.

Gunn, known for his role on the hit reality show “Project Runway” and chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc., said he is disappointed in Clinton’s “same dull pantsuits.”

“I just feel like she retreated back into menswear,” he said. “I feel like she’s trying to be one of the guys.”

No matter how carefully considered their outfits, however, no candidate comes close to a catwalk look.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“Politicians as a whole are not known for a fashion sense,” Burke said. “At the end of the day, they are going to do whatever it takes to look the most professional and most presidential.”

(Editing by Frances Kerry)

For more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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