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At the End of the Race, Dressed to Impress

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2004; Page C01

Whether celebrating a victory or displaying graciousness in defeat, political candidates -- and the family members who accompany them to the podium -- must decide how they want to be perceived by their cheering supporters, by their adversaries and by history. Ideally, the winner should look humble yet confident. He should not swagger. The loser should appear grateful for the opportunity to have met so many good people. He should look dignified, yet absolutely must not weep.

For the victor, this public moment represents a beginning, a confirmation that the voters did the right thing. His dress should reassure them that he is up to the task. For the loser, the concession speech reflects the end of a chapter, a sobering up to the harsh reality of defeat.

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush dressed to fit the occassion at the victory speech. (Shaun Heasley - Reuters)

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Former mayor Marion Barry celebrated his return to elected office in a snap-brim hat, gray beard and no tie. Instead of a man dressed to greet his loyal constituents, the D.C. Council member-elect resembled a cool cat who had been out with his boys.

Barry's appearance was by no means disheveled. He was, in fact, quite tidy and his beard -- a millimeter or so longer than five o'clock shadow -- was neat. But Barry's victory lap style served as a visual reminder that he uses far more than words to communicate a "just us people" sensibility.

On the campaign trail, he favored a wide straw hat that was a perfect blend of country barker, rural naïf and sly fox. So it was appropriate that he should continue his adept use of headwear when he stepped up to acknowledge his new seat on the council. Barry was wearing a hat that was neither a Stetson nor a baseball cap, both of which are used to announce patriotism and allude to postcard Americana. It was not a classic fedora that could help impart some of former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown's glow of fashionability and success. Instead, it was a blocked felt hat that would look equally at home on the head of a church deacon or a man who drives a big Cadillac with tinted windows and a hanging air freshener. That is the beauty of the hat and of Barry's communication skills.

In the Tuesday night images of Barry, with his fists raised, he projects streetwise cocksureness that he is not bound by the rules of political decorum. Politicians have mustaches, but they do not grow beards. They do not wear facial hair that is likely to make them look as though they party into the wee hours, ride Harleys cross-country or own a cabin in the woods where they stockpile cans of Vienna sausages.

The too-big overcoat that hung loosely from his shoulders gave Barry the look of a slight man who was wearing clothes from his larger-than-life days. The coat gave him the look of someone struggling with his demons or the rent or the Man. But in combination with the hat, with its rather wide brim tipped slightly down, the open-neck shirt and the beard, Barry resembled some urban griot come to speak of history and foretell the future. He looked simultaneously beaten and resurrected.

In contrast to the political veteran, the Democrats' new star, Barack Obama, delivered his victory speech in a dark suit and gray tie with a crisp white collar framing his face. In celebrating his victory as the new U.S. senator from Illinois, he looked ready for the boardroom or the courtroom, rather than a rousing late-night party. His attire was professional but a long way from jaunty. For all of the star power accompanying his success, he was dressed to blend in with the establishment, not to stand out.

When Sen. John Kerry stepped onstage in Boston Wednesday afternoon to concede the presidential election to President Bush, there was no evidence of the good-luck totems that had been with him during the last days of the campaign, nor was there any symbolic costuming. No Red Sox paraphernalia. No tan barn jacket. No beat-up motorcycle jacket or camouflage hunting gear. He was simply in a dark suit, white shirt and red tie. He was no longer in the business of presenting himself as larger than life, as mythic. He did not salute the crowd. His attire did not make him appear heroic, brave or athletic. Instead, his wardrobe reflected the reality. He was a defeated politician with an extraordinarily good haircut.

Bush dressed for his victory speech as if he were getting ready to deliver a State of the Union address. To complement his dark suit and light shirt, he wore his telegenic pale blue four-in-hand, which seems to be his sartorial way of saying: Listen up, I am being presidential.

Vice President Cheney looked almost perky onstage with his tangerine-colored tie. After so many months of hunch-shouldered, cocked-head baritone allusions to doomsday, his tie was like a burst of sweet sunshine.

There is nothing particularly nice to say about Lynne Cheney's ill-chosen lime suit. One is left only with this unfortunate fact: It had the effect of making her skin look sallow and her lovely blond hair look green.

In watching these speeches, one could not help but notice and appreciate that Jenna Bush remains rakishly off-message on the political stage. Dressed in a pair of menswear-style trousers and a cherry red camisole topped with a black lace cardigan, the president's daughter looked as though she was wearing lingerie in front of the cameras at the Ronald Reagan Building. By the standards of the fashion industry, it was an of-the-moment ensemble; for several seasons, designers have been enamored with mixing menswear styles with dainty touches. But in politics, cleavage is usually kept hidden until after sunset. Jenna Bush had it on display before the cocktail hour.

Laura Bush looked lovely in a pale pink skirt and jacket. The blazer, with its nipped waist, had frayed edges. This detail actually counts as an acknowledgement of fashion trends, something so rare from the ever-conservative first lady that she might as well have been wearing a Versace power suit as she stood clutching her husband's arm.

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