white men with money and nice suits

Why Are We So Obsessed With the Presidential Candidates’ Style This Time Around?

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images

Middle-aged and older white men in business-formal attire don’t tend to be the objects of sartorial fascination. And yet, for the past six months, the press has analyzed every detail of the GOP presidential contenders’ appearance as if they were Hollywood starlets on the red carpet. Consider: Silvery Jon Huntsman got the Vogue treatment  (“he looks so good in checked shirts and denim jackets that The Wall Street Journal recently compared the launch of his campaign to a Ralph Lauren product rollout”) and the Esquire treatment (“‘He has good hair,’ one man says.”)

Even the less fashion-forward candidates have gotten scrutinized for their look. Rick Santorum’s sweater-vests were described in the Times as “turning heads.” Rick Perry’s signature cowboy boots were parsed for significance, and his hairdresser became, briefly, a YouTube star. Mitt Romney’s hairdresser was tracked down and breathlessly questioned.  The state of Mitt’s coif even inspired a recurring GQ feature. We’re complicit, too. The Cut launched a full-scale investigation into who makes Romney’s jeans. So are these guys more stylish than the usual crop of candidates, or are we simply more interested?

The latter, probably. (Sweater-vests? Really? ) It’s not new for political reporters, bored with the slog of the trail, to look around for fun stories, and fashion makes for an obvious angle. But this election season feels particularly appearance-obsessed. The length of this primary might have something to do with it; so might the explosion of Twitter, which rewards funny observations about minute details. Or maybe it’s as simple as the fact that this is an awfully good-looking crop of candidates, and so we’re dwelling on their image a bit longer than we might with a less compelling crowd up there on the debate stage. Even women who want nothing to do with the Republican party found themselves openly ogling its candidates … and their offspring. A friend of mine e-mailed the other day: “Not to be a total creeper … but. Romney’s sons? 4 out of 5 are a 9 out of 10. “

The style-looks connection makes a certain kind of sense — you don’t see the color of Newt Gingrich’s tie or the width of Ron Paul’s lapel discussed much, after all. (Though the Atlantic Wire, which submitted the candidates’ pictures to Hot or Not to be ranked, tried to level the playing field a bit by using photos from their younger days.) Still, that doesn’t entirely explain the glee with which the press has seized on the opportunity to critique candidates’ outfits and haircuts this time around. I wonder whether at least some of the enthusiastic fashion analysis lately is post-Palin, post-Bachmann pent-up relief at not having to worry about cries of sexism for picking apart an (attractive) politician’s appearance. Objectifying boring old dudes somehow even feels a little subversive, like a jokey flip of the usual script.

But it’s also safe. No one seriously thinks that analyzing Mitt Romney’s hair ad nauseum undermines his candidacy — and since whether someone really “looks presidential” does factor into how voters receive them — well, why not do it? After all, though there’s plenty of evidence that certain physical traits (height, masculine features, large eyes) help in the subconscious eyes of the voter; candidates who weren’t blessed with those traits can also bolster their presidential image by dressing the part. As WWD noted last week, Barack Obama’s doing pretty well in that department:

His fashion choices are radically chic yet subtle — the perfect balance of elegance and confidence. The dark navy suit fits him to perfection with a sharp shoulder and a tapered and elongated silhouette. The proportion of the lapel matches the tie width to a mathematical degree and is accentuated by just a hint of a shirt cuff. The saturated light burgundy tie with geometric print projects strength and a cool factor. The generous four-in-hand knot alludes to a sophisticated, worldly politician. Nicolas Sarkozy’s got nothing on him. Obama makes the right choice by not wearing a pocket square, instead choosing to embellish the lapel with an American flag pin. The hint of gray hair only adds to his movie star looks and athletic physique. Simply put: He dresses like the most powerful man in the world.

Sweater-vests and cowboy boots might send up a signal to certain segments of the Republican base, but in the general election, that’s the standard: You’ve got to look like you’re more powerful than the most powerful man in the world — and this particular sitting president has raised the bar fairly high this time around. So maybe all the ink spilled on Romney’s hair is justified after all.

Obsessed With Presidential Candidates’ Style?