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A style tip for the campaign trail: Dress down for success

Mitt Romney wore look as authentically American as the flag behind him while speaking to supporters in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Jan. 1. (Rick Wilking/REUTERS ) Mitt Romney wore look as authentically American as the flag behind him while speaking to supporters in Council Bluffs, Iowa on Jan. 1.
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 7, 2012
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Mitt Romney is parading around New Hampshire in mom jeans. Rick Santorum is rocking a sweater vest. Jon Huntsman’s collar always seems to be open.

When did the American presidency become the only job in the universe for which the applicants dress more casually than the incumbent?

As the race for the Republican nomination intensifies, why is one contender dressing like Mister Rogers’s brother (Santorum), and others less willing to wear a suit than a teenage boy would be (Romney, Huntsman)?

Blame the lousy economy and high jobless rate, the celebrity culture, and, according to one historian, Richard M. Nixon, the president who redefined uptight, wearing a suit and wingtips to the beach.

“Even if underneath it all they are power hungry, they have to dress like a self-denying public servant with gravitas,’’ said Simon Doonan, creative ambassador at large for Barneys New York.

At a time of hostility toward the 1 percent, he said, “it’s important to appear insanely average.’’

Even if you are a multimillionaire.

Of course, “just folks’’ campaign wear isn’t new. The red plaid shirt that Lamar Alexander wore in the 1996 Republican primary and General Wesley Clark’s argyle sweater in the 2004 Democratic race are probably better remembered than any of their positions, as is Scott Brown’s man-of-the-people barn jacket from the campaign to fill the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s seat.

Some candidates are still dressing up, although Newt Gingrich, former House speaker, did appear after the Iowa caucuses looking sloppy in an open-collar shirt, Governor Rick Perry has periodically worn cowboy boots, and US representative Ron Paul’s suits fit so poorly that he might as well be wearing a sweatshirt.

But Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning observer of style, said this campaign seems more sartorially informal than past races. The “million-dollar question’’ is whether dressing (down) to impress works, said Givhan, a style and culture correspondent at the Daily Beast and Newsweek.

“If you are someone like a Mitt Romney, who is known to the public as a business person, as ‘a suit,’ and you’re suddenly wearing jeans and crew-neck sweaters, that might not seem authentic.’’

Or, as Nick Sullivan, fashion director of Esquire magazine, put it: “Clothes do communicate things about you without you having to say anything, even if it’s a lie.’’

Indeed, the casual Romney and Huntsman - with their trim builds, tans, good hair, teeth, and shirts - look more like lawyers working on the weekend than the middle-class and blue-collar workers they are wooing.

Romney, as many voters recall, was very much a suit-and-tie candidate in 2008, when he mounted his first presidential bid. But he is determined to display a more casual side this time around and even joked on Piers Morgan’s CNN show, “Well, I stopped wearing my suit to bed at night.’’

Kate Betts, author of “Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style,’’ explained why it is important for candidates to seem easy to relate to. “We live in a celebrity culture, where celebrities are supposedly just like us,’’ she said, “and politicians and presidents are celebrities, too, so they have to adopt that formula.’’

The Huntsman campaign declined to comment on the candidate’s “casual Friday’’ style, and the Romney and Santorum campaigns did not respond to interview requests.

Ellen Fitzpatrick, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, attributes the need for accessibility in part to the cultural fallout of the Watergate scandal. “The idea of the president as a removed, distant figure is not admired anymore,’’ she said. Casual campaign wear is “an effort to close the gap and portray one’s self as a man of the people,’’ she said.

The enormous growth of the news industry since Nixon’s time and the introduction of social media into the mix mean that appearances are more important than ever. No wardrobe choice goes unphotographed, or, in the case of Santorum’s sweater vests, untweeted.

The sweater vest has its Twitter handle (@FearRicksVest), hashtag (#FearRicksVest), and Facebook page, reportedly created by anonymous supporters.

That’s not to say that early leaders didn’t wrestle with wardrobe choices, said Catherine Allgor, professor of history at the University of California at Riverside and author of “A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation.’’

“On one hand, they knew from their experience with kings, that clothes would help them establish the kind of authority that the new nation so badly needed,’’ she said in an e-mail. “On the other, after fighting a revolution against a king, they didn’t want to be caught dressing like one.’’

But these days, even royalty can’t dress like royalty. “The queen dresses with a dogged frumpiness,’’ Doonan said.

“Years ago, I interviewed Sir Hardy Amies, the man credited with creating the queen’s signature look, and I asked, ‘How did you come up with the matching coat and dress and twin sets?’ He got very irate with me. ‘Young man, you know that Her Majesty must never appear to be chic. There is an unkindness to chic, and she can never appear to be unkind.’ ’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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