By Jenn Harris
Los Angeles Times
When the Republican presidential candidates took the stage at the NBC News/Facebook debate on Meet the Press on Jan. 8, it was their last big chance to make an impression before the New Hampshire primary. They may have strayed from one another in terms of political issues throughout the event, but there was something unmistakably uniform about the six candidates. Lined up side by side under the bright lights, each wore a plain dark navy suit, solid light-colored shirt, subtle tie and, except for Ron Paul, a lapel pin of some kind (in most cases, an American flag).
Did six guys trying to stand out in voters' minds really want to look so much alike?
Probably. The dress code of a politician may seem trivial. His or her ideas and actions are meant to make more of an impression, but as evidenced by the unified sartorial front displayed by the candidates at the debate, there is a clear purpose and conscious decision behind every suit, tie, shirt or cuff link worn by a politician.
"This is a business where khakis and a blazer are considered pretty avant-garde," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "The last thing you want is a voter missing what the candidate says because they are distracted by a particularly loud neck tie."
Some style decisions, such as choosing a softer rather than a bolder tie when trying to appear moderate, are unwritten political dress rules that have been established over time, while others are as simple as choosing a dark, solid suit because it will look better on television. A little color, such as a dark navy, is encouraged, while black is never worn because of the resemblance to a groom's tuxedo, according to political consultant and public relations strategist Brian Kirwin.
Geography and constituency also help determine how a politician dresses.
"Up in the North, there is much more rigidity in appearance," Kirwin said. "When they come down South, you will see them a lot less formal when they ditch the coat, open the first collar button and roll up their sleeves to shake hands."
Mitt Romney wore jeans and an open-necked shirt when he stepped off a plane to begin campaigning in Columbia, S.C., and Rick Santorum looked casual in a sweater vest as he campaigned in Sun City, S.C. Jon Huntsman, who quit the race mid-January, fit in with his constituents when he wore a leather bomber jacket and open collar during a stop to meet the constituents at Daddy Pop's Tumble Inn Diner in Claremont, N.H. But Ron Paul resembled a college professor just about everywhere he went, including Manchester, N.H., in an oxford shirt, navy blue V-neck sweater and jacket.
For formal appearances, the dark suit, plain tie and American flag pin are common visual cues that have become instantly recognizable as presidential. Over time they've also become expected of candidates.
But sometimes a candidate might be helped by veering from the expected.
"If there is anyone who could possibly benefit from changing up his look it's probably Gov. Rick Perry," Kirwin said, before Perry quit. "If he got a bit more cowboy, not so formal, and tried to say 'All these other guys with their stiff shirts and suits are Washington insiders and I'm a real guy from Texas,' it could help him."
Still, when bold patterns and colors can turn people off, experimenting during a campaign can be risky business. Political dress involves a certain degree of strategic formula, but sprucing up the look of a politician is doable, without alienating the public.
We asked a few style experts how they might update the candidates' campaign wardrobes. Celebrity stylist and costume designer Jennifer Rade suggests mixing up the candidates' looks with small details, such as wearing a flat-front pant as opposed to a pleated front, a double vented jacket, possibly a check-pattern shirt with a striped tie or a cool watch.
"I don't think they give the population at large enough credit to know that we are okay if you show up and you have more colors in your repertoire than just gray, navy and red," Rade said.
Menswear consultant and stylist Michael Macko also believes the candidates can dress up their looks with subtle details. He suggests a simple white pressed cotton pocket square or a navy on white Bengal stripe shirt with a tie, but stressed the biggest improvement the candidates can make is investing in a tailor.
"The error a lot of men make is that they don't have the suit tailored for them," Macko said. "If the suit is properly fitted, you'll see about an inch of cuff of shirt sleeve through a suit."
Stylist Vincent Boucher also believes tailoring is important, for a politician or for any man's image. He suggests a gutsier, robustly striped tie for Romney to show his strength and aggressiveness as a candidate, but he noted the importance of staying subtle if the candidate wants to win over the American electorate.
"In Europe, a pocket square would be no problem, but in the U.S. that sort of signifies maybe (being) a little too costumey," Boucher said.
Boucher added that Ron Paul's seeming lack of attention to his clothing and resemblance to a college professor might actually work for his campaign. "It feeds into that sort of professorial authenticity that he kind of somehow is trying to cultivate," Boucher said. "Like if you put him in spiffier garb, it's not what people are looking for from him."