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Elizabeth Warren’s rolled-up sleeves

(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Elizabeth Warren has been pummeling Donald Trump on Twitter with the fleet-footed bounce of a featherweight fighter. In person, too, her style is aerodynamic. And her sleeves are always rolled up — literally and metaphorically. If her jacket sleeves are not cropped, then they are folded back. In her own tailored, jewel-tone way, Warren has adopted the traditional aesthetic of male politicians, who signal their intention to move from abstract policy promises into frank, regular-folk talk by removing their suit jackets and rolling up their shirt sleeves. She is the invited dinner guest who could take her own plate into the kitchen and do the dishes without missing a beat. She will get elbow-deep in Palmolive for you.

RELATED STORY Elizabeth Warren is sending you a subliminal message with her sleeves


Bill Clinton’s supporting player look

(Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Bill Clinton is sorting out what it means to wear the uniform of power but not possess it. While campaigning for his wife business casual is most often the uniform — everything from a buffalo plaid shirt under a Hickey Freeman blazer to checked shirts and polo shirts. He particularly likes to wear his polo shirts under a sports jacket. Among menswear observers, this is a controversial move, this blending of the formal and the informal. It sends a mixed message; it confuses the point. And instead of the American flag pins that have become obligatory for candidates, he wears a Hillary-for-president pin — sometimes a tasteful little H, sometimes it’s a medallion the size of a saucer. This time, he’s not selling America on itself. He’s selling the country on his wife.

RELATED STORY Bill Clinton’s fashion challenge: How to dress when you’re no longer center of attention


Melania Trump’s first lady costume

(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

All first ladies have used clothes as a way of defining themselves. But even the most glamorous among them did not have a profession based on their looks. That is the double-edged sword for Melania Trump: Her past as a model raised doubts for many voters, who assume such a resume makes one vain or vapid; but it also lent her a certain poise – she is both adept with body language and accustomed to being visually dissected. For a model, clothes are a costume, and we saw her experiment with fitted sheath dresses and simple cloth coats – the intentionally unremarkable uniform of a political spouse.

RELATED STORY Melania Trump: From professional pretty person to potential first lady


GOP candidates’ zip-front-pullovers

(Clockwise from top left: John Minchillo / Associated Press, Darren McCollester / Getty Images, Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters, Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

The men of the 2016 presidential campaign are all pulling on zip-collar sweaters. The outlier is Donald Trump.

The men end up looking like they all dressed from the same L.L. Bean catalogue because, despite their policy and party differences, they are all attempting to say essentially the same thing: I understand you; I am like you. I would chop down trees for you.

Trump favors suits. He has studiously avoided fuzzy, cutesy and endearing. He’s not prone to rolling his French cuffs up over his forearms.

Trump defies the fashion rules of politics. Indeed, the rules are disintegrating. A candidate with his shirt sleeves rolled up doesn’t look like he’s ready to get to work any more than those elected officials already in Washington. Aren’t they the problem?

A cuddly fleece is supposed to make you look more approachable than a business suit. But, in the Trump vernacular, that just makes you look like a wuss.

RELATED STORY The casual-Friday look that GOP candidates can’t get enough of


Sarah Palin’s spangled cardigan

(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)

Sarah Palin returned to center stage of a presidential campaign to endorse GOP front-runner Donald Trump. The former Alaska governor wore a black pencil skirt topped off with a mini black cardigan studded with what resembled needle-thin, glistening stalactites.

Her entire speech was filled with demands for attention as she picked at the wounds of her 2008 campaign. But nothing cried out louder than her choice of attire. To see a politician — someone who is ostensibly not the star of the rally but a supporting player — dressed in such a bold manner was to see someone who has come to steal the spotlight, rather than share it.

The cardigan was proudly outside the realm of vetted political attire. It wasn’t safe, and it wasn’t decorous. It was vaguely gaudy, with a hint of kitsch.

And for a political affair, it was inappropriate — which, in the politically disruptive universe of Palin, made it perfect.

RELATED STORY Did you notice Sarah Palin’s sweater? Good. You were supposed to.


Donald Trump’s shoddy tailoring

(Richard Shiro / Associated Press)

Donald Trump’s clothes are really just a perfunctory set of uniforms. His suits are cut from conservative but quality fabric, yet lack an attention to fit. They are always a little too roomy, the sleeves a tad long.

Trump’s tie always seem to hang a little too far below his belt, which makes a perfectly fine four-in-hand look not quite right. He makes ties look sloppy.

For a man who is quick to tout his financial status, Trump’s style doesn’t telegraph money. It doesn’t look luxurious, which is probably one of the many reasons why the average voter can listen to him pound his chest and still relate. Trump may have his name plastered on assorted buildings, but he looks more like an ordinary, angry, middle-management guy.

Besides, it takes a particular kind of confidence to dress well, with discreet elegance. It means being willing to rely on the eloquence of subtlety — trusting in the power of a whisper.

Trump serves as proof that a bad suit is much harder to ignore.

RELATED STORY Donald Trump thinks he’s a fashion critic. Here’s what our fashion critic thinks about him.


Bernie Sanders’s slovenliness

(Charles Ommanney / The Washington Post)

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wears his suits too big. His shirts engulf him like a tent. His public style is disheveled. And yet, it works for him because it communicates his personal brand: He is not slick. His commitment to digging through policy papers is so complete that he might just forget to change his clothes for a few days. He is too busy being his authentic self to worry about getting a haircut.

Sanders’s inattention to his attire is also an expression of privilege. He is a white man, the default exemplar of authority and competence. He is upstanding and believable until proven otherwise. Unlike so many minority men, he doesn’t have to do cultural outreach by wearing a reassuring uniform of prim tailoring. Unlike a woman, he doesn’t have to be young, good-looking, slim or fashionable to be seen and heard.

Sanders’s style speaks precisely to who he is. But only a white man has the luxury of being that honest.

RELATED STORY Why does Bernie Sanders dress like that? Because he can.


Rick Santorum’s sweater vest obsession

(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

It began in Iowa, where Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum squeaked by Mitt Romney to win the caucuses, his sweater vest became his good luck charm, his go-to alternative to a suit, his conservative uniform and a fund-raising device.

Few fashion items so clearly speak of another era: of bungalows behind picket fences and “Father Knows Best” nuclear families. The choice of a sweater vest – worn without irony – is an argument against “cool.” After all, no one survives middle school, sleep-away camp and the like without coming to the punched-in-the-nose realization that a sweater vest rests alongside the dickey in the realm of menswear.

For a politician studiously steering clear of cool, and its connotations of being slick, knowing, cosmopolitan and perhaps a little bit enamored of newfangled notions, a sweater vest reads like a treatise against modernity.

RELATED STORY Santorum sweater-vests defeated by Romney’s suits


Hillary Clinton goes makeup-free in public

(Getty Images)

During a trip to Bangladesh to do the business of American diplomacy, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was photographed wearing no makeup, aside from a bit of red lipstick. Her shoulder-length blond hair hung loose and easy, and she wore a pair of dark-framed eyeglasses.

When asked about her bare face, Clinton responded with her signature guffaw and noted how pleased she was to have arrived at a point in her life when she could style herself however she pleased.

It’s ridiculous to expect the average woman to be as hyper-groomed as models and actresses. Still, it was surprising to see Madame Secretary without makeup. Such a choice is uncommon. Her bare face showed a humanity that typically is not revealed by public figures.

Clinton looked a bit like she did before she entered public life and slipped on the mantle of a politician. Makeup should make a woman look like herself, only better. Clinton looked like her old self — not necessarily better, but certainly braver.

RELATED STORY Hillary Clinton’s makeup-free photo: Putting on a brave face


Herman Cain’s double-breasted suits

(Mark Blinch / Reuters)

No other candidate on the 2012 Republican docket demonstrated the affection Cain showed for the double-breasted suit. It was more formal than a single-breasted one and carried with it a sort of haughty businessman’s swagger.

Cain is an ordained Baptist preacher, and a man with a habit of breaking into a gospel song at the slightest provocation. Ministers of a certain persuasion often seem to have a predilection for double-breasted suits. Some of that must surely be because of tradition and formality, but there is also an element of the hierarchal at work. The fancy suit distinguishes them from the mere congregants they lead. It gives them the appearance of clout, dignity and righteous grandiosity.

Cain described himself as an unconventional candidate. But he wrapped himself in sartorial cliches, positioning himself as the flamboyant Boss Man and the irreproachable believer.

RELATED STORY Herman Cain’s power suit


Barbara Boxer’s ‘so yesterday’ hair

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) wears her hair in a perfectly acceptable, conservative shag. But in a quip to her staff captured by a live mic, her California Senate challenger Carly Fiorina called her style “so yesterday.” The words weren’t a simple critique of Boxer’s beauty. Looking “so yesterday” doesn’t necessarily mean unattractive.

Fiorina’s words were an example of style bullying.

The phrase was an assessment of Boxer’s cultural knowledge, of her connection to the here-and-now. It suggested that she didn’t understand what it meant to be in sync with the times.

Many folks might argue that women are burdened by an unfair emphasis on their appearance. Certainly, there is more public consideration of how they look. But is it unfair? With their rich style vocabulary, women can say so much more than men. What man could make as nuanced and layered an assessment of a competitor with a single remark about a hairstyle? Style speaks softly, but it can deliver a cruel blow.

RELATED STORY Coco Chanel and Carly Fiorina, style bullies who could deliver a blow


Hillary Clinton grows out her hair

(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)

Hillary Clinton, at age 62, grew out her hair. And it looked quite nice.

Conventional wisdom advises that after a certain age — 50ish — women should cut their hair. So, as secretary of state, Clinton served as further proof that women do not have to kowtow to expectations, rules of thumb or other quietly bullying cultural assumptions. She was a role model for women who are past the ingenue phase of their lives. She was making a fashion statement.

In our cultural vocabulary, long hair signifies youth, femininity and sex appeal. Shorter hair is serious, sophisticated, strong.

Whether Clinton’s new style was feminine or pretty or soft are matters of personal opinion. What resonated most broadly was the length. Somewhere between chin-length and shoulder-grazing, a hairstyle became a silent reminder that cultural assumptions do more damage to women as they age than any poorly chosen frock ever could.

RELATED STORY In her latest act of defiance, Hillary Rodham Clinton gets a new, longer hairdo


Barack Obama’s mom jeans

(Tim Sloan / Getty Images)

When President Obama was tasked with throwing out the first pitch at the MLB All-Star game, he wore a pair of jeans that sagged. They were too short. They had creases. They were light blue — practically stonewashed.

The jeans also sat relatively high on Obama’s waist. They were, in effect, “mom jeans.”

Obama lacks a foolproof casual wardrobe that combines accessibility with clout, mixes ease with presidential authority. When he wears a blazer over a polo shirt or with an open-collar dress shirt, he strikes just the right note. He looks like a Silicon Valley titan, a player in the new economy. And in a bad economy, that was reassuring.

But there were moments when a jacket was not required — when it was, in fact, inappropriate. Those beloved jeans did not suffice. They might have been comfortable and they might have been neatly pressed, but they were not in the least bit presidential.

RELATED STORY Can Obama elevate the look of presidential downtime? We can only hope.


Sarah Palin’s campaign shopping spree

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

It’s wise for a candidate to polish her image before stepping onto the national stage. Photos from when Sarah Palin was just a run-of-the-mill governor show her wearing fleece jackets, chunky turtlenecks and windbreakers. When she joined the Republican ticket as John McCain’s running mate, her wardrobe needed a little help.

But how do you sell someone as a no-frills hockey mom — the frugal, homespun chief exec who dispensed with the state plane, fired the official cook and hunted her own moose meat — and then wardrobe her in clothes from Neiman Marcus (a.k.a. “Needless Markups”)? What was the Republican National Committee thinking when they lavished her with fashion swag valued at more than her annual governor’s salary of $125,000?

Fashion is a form of self-definition. Part of being a good merchant is finding a way to speak to whoever the customer believes herself to be. And in our culture, Neiman Marcus, Saks and the rest stand for “elite,” not for “everyman.”

RELATED STORY After a $150,000 makeover, Sarah Palin has an image problem


Barack Obama’s ‘cool’ traditional suits

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

We’re used to politicians adhering to a uniform, and candidate Barack Obama was no different. The then-senator from Illinois wore a dark suit and white shirt. His most distinctive aesthetic flourish was taking off his tie. But in a homogeneous landscape, that was something.

Mostly what distinguished Obama was that he was a skinny man in a conservative suit. He looked boyish in fashion’s most grown-up uniform. He was a black man standing where no other black man has ever been. And he appeared utterly comfortable there. Paper magazine called it an expression of “cool.”

It is the kind of cool embodied by the likes of Miles Davis, Mick Jagger or the beat poets. It is a 1960s version based on confidence, self-satisfaction and life philosophy.

The definition of cool has changed over the years. Today, coolness has been defined as something so distinctly of-the-moment that it cannot possibly last. And that made coolness a volatile form of political currency.

RELATED STORY Cool’s hot-and-cold constituency


Sarah Palin’s designer eyeglasses

(Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

They were so remarked upon that they became part of the visual shorthand for Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign: a pair of Kazuo Kawasaki eyeglasses.

If paired with a trim red blazer and a messy updo, a would-be Palin impersonator was already halfway there. There was nothing distracting about the glasses aside from the fact that a public figure was actually wearing glasses on a regular basis. Most people – most women – in the public eye tend to find a way to avoid eyewear, either with contact lenses or by donning, only occasionally, a pair of reading spectacles.

Palin’s glasses were more lens than frame, but those lenses were rectangular, which made the glasses both discrete and distinctive. People found them fashionable, which in politics is a bit like finding a unicorn.

RELATED STORY Palin has created quite a stir ... with her designer glasses


Hillary Clinton’s hint of cleavage


There was cleavage on display on C-SPAN2. It belonged to then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.

She was wearing a rose-colored blazer over a black top. The neckline sat low on her chest. The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. There wasn’t an unseemly amount of it showing, but there it was.

It was startling to see that small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity coming from Clinton, someone who has been so publicly ambivalent about style, image and femininity.

Showing cleavage suggests a certain confidence and physical ease. It means that a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality. It also means that she feels that all those other characteristics are so apparent that they will not be overshadowed.

To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails requires that a woman be utterly at home in her skin. Any hint of ambivalence will make everyone uncomfortable. And in matters of style, Clinton is as noncommittal as ever.

RELATED STORY Hillary Clinton’s tentative dip into new neckline territory


John Edwards’s son-of-a-mill-worker style

(Sean Gardner / Getty Images)

No other candidate spent as much time in front of the cameras dressed as if he was on his way to put up drywall than John Edwards. Wearing stonewashed Levi’s jeans, a long-sleeve work shirt, a rubber “Livestrong” bracelet and a sport watch the size of a hubcap, Edwards embraced blue-collar clothes with the zeal of a man eager to demonstrate that he was no stranger to elbow grease.

An especially flattering photograph of Edwards appeared on the cover of Men’s Vogue, taken by celebrity portraitist Annie Leibovitz. But in the portrait, his hair is tousled and gleaming in the way that only expensive hair can be both fabulous and mussed. His canvas work jacket is too crisp and spotless. He doesn’t look like a family farmer getting ready to walk the back 40. He looked like a gentleman farmer preparing to tour his estate.

He looked like a man in costume, a millionaire tourist in his own narrative. Instead of underscoring how close he is to his working-class roots, Edwards reminded viewers of how far he has come.



John McCain and his crewnecks

(Stephan Savoia / Associated Press)

John McCain dressed like Mr. Rogers. He wore crew-neck sweaters with his shirt, tie and suit jacket.

He seemed to wear these sweaters because they are warm. And indeed, the historical record captured him campaigning in Vermont, in the snow, in a suit jacket and sweater. But he would have cut a more sophisticated image if he took off the sweater and wore an overcoat. Gloves wouldn’t have hurt, either.

Sweaters — crew-necks and cardigans — have warm and kindly connotations. Public figures, male ones at any rate, use them to soften their public image or to appear more lovable or paternal. Privately, McCain very well may be sweet and fuzzy. But that was not the impression he gave in public.

There was an uncomfortable Peter Pan quality to McCain’s clothing, a sense that he hadn’t quite moved beyond the affectations of his youth. A man doesn’t have to embrace fashion’s avant-garde to prove that he’s forward-thinking. And he doesn’t need to dress like a child to proclaim his vitality. But a man must always know how to dress his age.

RELATED STORY Picking knits


Mitt Romney’s hair: Anchored away

(LM Otero / Associated Press)

The most memorable accomplishment of the TV ad that depicted Mitt Romney jogging along a tree-lined road — huffing and schvitzing as he goes — was assuring voters that his hair was not actually carved out of granite.

Romney had been accused of having “anchorman hair” — glossy perfection that lies neat and immobile atop the head. While the “anchorman” package is built around the idea of creating an authoritative, knowledgeable, trustworthy and likable presence that viewers will want to welcome into the living room, the same inferences don’t hold true for politicians.

There is the suspicion that a man with such flawless hair must spend so much time looking in the mirror that he doesn’t understand what it means to engage in the kind of labor that results in calluses and frizz.

Voters want empathy. Hear my story. Help me! Love me! A candidate who looks too good comes across as the pretty-boy mystery date who’s deemed way out of their league.

RELATED STORY Anchored away


John Edwards’s primped-out hair

(Mary Ann Chastain / Associated Press)

John Edwards paid $800 for two haircuts, or so we learned from a campaign finance report. His presidential campaign paid hundreds more for camera-ready makeup.

He was also caught on camera fluffing his hair before an interview. The video turned up on Youtube to the tune of “I Feel Pretty.”

Audiences expect politicians to look polished on television. They don’t want to see some washed-out guy with a shiny nose waxing on about his call to public service. And politicians are only human. They want to make the best impression.

But there is a line between grooming and primping. Brushing your teeth is grooming. Giving yourself a big Chiclet smile with veneers is primping. Politicians — especially male ones — should never, ever primp. Or at least shouldn’t get caught doing it.

Campaigns are filled with an endless series of symbols and metaphors all meant to evoke common ground. A $400 haircut shatters the illusion they work so hard to create.

RELATED STORY Primping for president: A little dab’ll do ya


Hillary Clinton’s sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits

(Melina Mara / The Washington Post)

The mind, fascinated by things mango and lemon-yellow, ponders the sartorial: How many pantsuits did Hillary Clinton have in her closet?

The pantsuit was Clinton’s uniform. Hers was a mix-and-match world, a grown-up land of rose and aqua-colored Garanimals.

Women had come a long way from the time when wearing a pair of pants was considered “borrowing from the boys.” So it would be highly regressive to suggest that the candidate was using trousers to heighten the perception that she could be as tough as a man. And yet ...

This was a campaign in which gender stereotypes were being challenged. Voters were being asked to envision something this country had never had: a female commander in chief.

As first lady, Clinton played to tradition, dutifully wearing skirts of an unflattering length and jackets shaped like a rectangle. But now, her wardrobe reminded voters that a woman could have as much peacock bravado as the boys.

RELATED STORY Wearing the pants


Dick Cheney’s overly-casual parka

(Herbert Knosowski / Associated Press)

At the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Vice President Dick Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders in his olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. Also, a knit ski cap, embroidered with the words “Staff 2001.” True, the January weather was bitter cold and snowy. But it is also worth mentioning that Cheney was wearing hiking boots -- thick, brown, lace-up ones. Did he think he was going to have to hike the 44 miles from Krakow? The vice president might have been warm in his parka, ski cap and hiking boots. But they had the unfortunate effect of suggesting that he was more concerned with his own comfort than the reason for braving the cold at all.

RELATED STORY Dick Cheney, dressing down: Parka, ski cap at odds with solemnity of Auschwitz ceremony.


John Kerry in a NASA clean suit — not a good idea.


In the careful crafting of public image, John Kerry worked overtime portraying himself as a macho man. But during a visit aboard the orbiter Discovery at Cape Canaveral, he donned a pale blue jumpsuit and hood. The ensemble, which looked like a cross between surgical scrubs and a bunny suit, is worn in laboratories to maintain a clean environment.

In this age of image, the very mention of the lab suit should have set off flashing red lights. No costumes!

One might argue that Kerry’s intellectual curiosity caused him to ignore how ridiculous he would look in the clean gear. But as a general rule, anyone aspiring to be the commander in chief should always try to avoid looking like a Teletubby.

Political consultants warn that everything about a presidential candidate must speak of gravitas, strength, wisdom and authority. Words provide context and details. Image is shorthand. A candidate in a costume will always read: absurd.

RELATED STORY An unsuitable costume for the manly candidate


Howard Dean rolls up his shirtsleeves

(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Among the Democratic politicians, one of the most common fashion tics was the rolling up of the shirtsleeves as a symbolic gesture of informality, camaraderie and machismo. It was the candidates’ awkward effort to step outside the safety of their dark-suited uniforms and show themselves as manly men who could lay bricks to support their family and throw a punch to defend its honor.

By the nakedness of his forearms, the candidate has rendered the setting informal, and he is announcing to the audience that it will be treated to unscripted responses, sincerity and ultimately the real man.

Candidate Howard Dean’s sleeves were rolled tightly beyond his elbows and onto his biceps, the cuffs practically twisted into tourniquets. Accompanied by a knotted tie and a facial expression bordering on hostility, the pushed-up sleeves suggested that Dean was readying himself for a fight. If the presidential race were a bar brawl, Dean was ready “take it outside.”

RELATED STORY Something up their sleeves


Katherine Harris’s makeup

(Dave Martin / Associated press)

The first time the nation got a good look at Florida’s then-secretary of state, Katherine Harris, the presidential vote count hadn’t yet spiraled into a full-fledged soap opera. Harris looked tired and tousled. Viewers accepted that without comment. This was honest human imperfection.

By the time perplexed Americans got another gander, Harris’s mouth was overdrawn with berry-red lipstick. Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat. And her eyes, rimmed in liner, bore the telltale spikes of humongous false eyelashes.

By the time folks finished deriding her makeup, they couldn’t stop the momentum. They went on to the clothes. Hate the suit. Hate the buttons. Hate you.

At a moment that needed diplomacy, understatement and calm, spectactors were left to wonder how an official who couldn’t even use restraint when wielding a mascara wand could use it to make sound decisions in a game of partisan one-upmanship.

RELATED STORY The eyelashes have it


Beta-male Al Gore takes Naomi Wolfe’s advice: Go with earth tones.

(Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

The gossip bubbled up until finally presidential candidate Al Gore had to confirm that feminist author Naomi Wolfe was a paid adviser to his campaign, telling him to wear more “reassuring” earth-tones — shades of brown, olive and tan.

Recognizing the power of fashion to speak eloquently and subtly was good thinking on the part of the candidate. Putting someone on retainer to do that thinking for you was bad politics.

Politics allows that it is efficient and decisive to have a Man Friday lay out a navy or gray — or tan — suit each day. That suggests a focused mind that wants to quickly dispatch with a quotidian chore. Fussing about which section of the color wheel is most appropriate for the day’s message smells of indecision, narcissism and obsessiveness. Outsourcing that color counseling to a paid consultant comes across as infantilizing.


Bill Clinton’s super-short jogging shorts

(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)

Early in his presidency, Bill Clinton was known for his jogging. In particular, he was known for jogging in exceptionally unflattering shorts that revealed the full expanse of pale presidential thigh and had a tendency to creep into the nether regions after only a few paces.

As a matter of pure aesthetics, the shorts were unattractive – ill-fitting, sloppy. As a form of communication, they overstated the message that Clinton was a man who understood regular-guy problems because he personally wrestled with them.

Building an empathetic relationship is important. But a president also has to communicate that he has a solution, the political might to sell it and the sophistication to put it into play.

In his dollar-store shorts, Clinton looked like your next-door neighbor. But would you trust the guy jogging around your cul-de-sac to run the country?


Michael Dukakis wears a tank (and a military helmet)


The point was to prove he wasn’t a wuss. So Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis delivered a speech on his Soviet strategy in Chicago. Then he headed to General Dynamics just outside Detroit to inspect some military gear. He slipped into a tank, donned a helmet that made his head look pea-size and clutched a machine gun, which he eyed with a Clint Eastwood squint. The image called to mind the awkward ineptitude of a newly legal driver who can barely see over the steering wheel. The image quickly became attack ad fodder for his opponent, George H. W. Bush.

Reasonable minds could understand the guiding logic behind the Dukakis gambit: Put the candidate who has problems communicating his toughness inside a military vehicle. Associate him with combat, aggressiveness, bravery.

But it’s not just what you wear, it’s how you wear it. Dukakis wore that military gear like an ill-fitting suit. Here was the perfect Hollywood set piece, and the star muffed it.


Ronald Reagan’s unattainable style


As president, Ronald Reagan wore tan suits and plaid blazers, cowboy hats, leather jackets and riding boots. And he looked good. His powers of persuasion — an abilitly to convey an idea, a mood, an indefinable something — earned him the nickname “the great communicator.” He did so with words and gestures but also with his style. During the 1980 campaign, he daringly wore a brown suit with a tinge of red; his inaugural garb was white tie. He was a man who took care with his appearance not out of grudging duty but, reportedly, with a sense of pleasure.

In the 2016 race, the Republican candidates invoke him relentlessly. Reagan, Reagan, Reagan. But style is the one aspect of his messaging skills that they not only ignore but seem to actively disdain. When it comes to aesthetics and public perception, the GOP hopefuls stick to red ties, blue ties, boxy suits, tiny American-flag pins. None of these Reagan-loving candidates looks to be in a first-name relationship with an expert tailor. Everyone looks the same: middling and banal. That’s not Reaganesque at all.

RELATED STORY The Republican candidates idolize Reagan. But not one of them can match his style.

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