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Dressing the part

Come heck or high water, Governor Patrick seems to have the right garb for every occasion

Patrick donned the “MEMA’’ vest at flooded Meadows Golf Course in Greenfield after Tropical Storm Irene. Patrick donned the “MEMA’’ vest at flooded Meadows Golf Course in Greenfield after Tropical Storm Irene. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / August 31, 2011

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Celebrity magazines have made the “fashion disaster’’ an everyday term. Governor Deval Patrick is working to make disaster fashion his personal trademark.

Each time there was a snowstorm last winter - and there were many - Patrick went on television wearing a black fleece vest emblazoned with the initials “MEMA,’’ for Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

He did so again Monday, as he toured Greenfield in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

The vest is accented with an official agency patch. And it’s so popular internally that his former communications director, Kyle Sullivan, threatened to keep a matching vest as he surrendered his office, government BlackBerry, and other work accessories when he left the administration in January.

Patrick has also donned a firefighter’s jacket while touring fire scenes in Uxbridge and Northampton. And he wore a fluorescent yellow MEMA jacket when visiting a flood site in Clinton.

Mind you, Patrick wears little of this while the flood waters are rising, the flames are burning, or he’s pulling an overnight shift behind the wheel of a plow. He’s usually got it on when the worst of the mayhem is over or he’s safely ensconced in the MEMA bunker in Framingham.

When Patrick wants to convey informality, the governor has a favorite denim shirt on a hanger.

“It shows they’re engaged, it shows they’re in charge, it shows that they’re taking action,’’ said Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University communication professor who is a former political consultant.

Wearing such disaster wear, Berkovitz said, “eliminates the stick-in-the-mud, uptight demeanor.’’

Why?

“Usually you see them in a suit and tie, but in this instance, they look like more of a neighbor, or the people showing up to help them when they need it. It’s a more accessible look,’’ said Berkovitz.

The governor’s spokesman says it’s none of that.

“We follow the lead of the people who are there,’’ said Brendan Ryan, Patrick’s communications director. “People are generous with their jackets, and often they are excited to have the governor wear them.’’

Ryan inherited Sullivan’s MEMA vest when he replaced him as the governor’s chief spokesman at the start of the governor’s second term.

Patrick and his fellow Democrats would hardly be alone in employing symbology for political purposes.

Imagemaker Michael Deaver helped transform President Reagan into a Republican icon with his careful use of backdrops and choreography bolstering a presidential message.

That was true whether Reagan was in Berlin telling the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,’’ or honoring the World War II sacrifices of the Greatest Generation while standing before a sea of white cemetery crosses in France.

Fashion can be a particularly low-tech political friend - or enemy.

Republican Scott Brown soared to the US Senate with equal parts success from his brown barn coat and green pickup truck. No matter the barn coat is actually high-end suede, not low-budget canvas, or the GMC Canyon was bought to tow a daughter’s horse trailer, not to muck the stalls.

Brown conveyed an everyman’s image in last year’s Senate special election, while Democrat Martha Coakley stuck with the more conservative pantsuits common in her official capacity as attorney general.

Then-Governor Michael S. Dukakis hit a sour note during the 1988 presidential campaign, when the Democrat infamously donned an ill-fitting helmet for a tank ride intended as a photo op to convey military strength.

And another Massachusetts Democrat, US Senator John Kerry, unintentionally committed his own fashion faux pas during the 2004 campaign, when he was forced to dress head-to-toe in a sterile suit to tour a space shuttle being readied for flight.

The image of a swaddled Kerry crawling out of the shuttle’s hatch while on his hands and knees became front-page tabloid fodder and turned an uplifting moment into a downer. Kerry and his staff had believed photos of him in a mandatory “bunny suit’’ at such a secure facility would never be released to the public.

Hats - as Dukakis proved - are particularly dangerous territory.

Many an eager supporter has raced up to a politician to deliver a baseball cap from his or her interest group or some other type of logo headgear.

Most are greeted with a hearty thanks - and a sleight of hand as the candidate passes it to an aide.

Reagan had his own trademark response: He’d take the hat, inspect it, and then pull it on and cock it.

Mission accomplished.

Oh, wait.

That was President Bush and his flight suit.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.