Bill Clinton is sorting out what it means to wear the uniform of power but not possess it. He is settling into the role of backup performer — that silent, onstage partner whose gaze must always be loving and engaged — no matter how familiar those applause lines may be.
Who made your suit, Bill? Make sure you know, because the label will matter. Is it American-made or some fancy European import? Did it originate in a big corporation, or is it the work of an independent firm — a much-vaunted small-business owner of the sort that the political establishment loves to woo?
Your clothes have always mattered, because the fashion industry matters. And over the years, you have worn suits by Brooklyn’s Martin Greenfield and Donna Karan (back when she made menswear). But if this presidential campaign works out for Madame Secretary, your clothes will gain greater significance, because the clothes will now speak for you. They will have to, because unless protocol is ignored and tradition upended you will not be delivering an address at the swearing-in or a toast at a state dinner.
The subtleties will matter, and your designer will matter, in the same way that your favorite sports team, musicians and even your golf game will be used to provide insight into your personality, into who you want us to believe you to be.
In almost eight years, Michelle Obama has cycled through dozens of formal gowns, some offering up a bit of fashion diplomacy and others serving to alter the cultural perception of femininity, glamor, body image and race. Could a male occupant of the East Wing use fashion in a similar way?
A first gentleman could bring the fashion business deeper into the fold of American industries with a global reach. Maybe attend a menswear show and highlight the craft of tailoring. Discuss why shoes and fine knits are so rarely made in the United States anymore. Certainly, Bill Clinton could give a nod to the frock trade the same way that he has gushed about Shinola and its watches. Yes, Clinton is a Shinola man with all its connotations of bootstrapping, Detroit-based, blue-collar craftsmanship.
A man’s attire resonates. President Obama appears to have relied on two tuxedos during his time in office, according to a non-exhaustive survey of photographs. There is the two-button peak lapel tux that he donned for his first inauguration in 2009 — his first new tuxedo in 15 years, he said at the time, made by the American company Hart Schaffner Marx. But there is also a one-button peak lapel tuxedo that seems to be in regular rotation for state dinners. Or maybe he has a closet full of look-alike tuxedos? The White House offered no intel on the subject. And, yes, we asked.
Perhaps a female president should adhere to such fashion monotony. A couple of black evening gowns to cover all formal events? A custom le smoking for state dinners? Leave fashion in the hands of the first gentleman.
If the votes align just so, the East Wing could become a man cave, and instead of pretending as though it doesn’t matter what the first spouse wears, perhaps the country will learn to discuss attire, the garment industry, its cultural significance and all the rest with a new focus and intent.
In the meantime, the hustings reveal a former president who, like so many male power brokers, is at his aesthetic best when he is in a suit with an elegant four-in-hand, and not when he opts for business casual.
But in his vigorous campaigning for Hillary Clinton, business casual is most often the uniform, because the job is not to exude power but empathy. The husband has worn 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 if a man insists on this combination, the jacket should be identifiably informal, which his are not. It should not look like a suit jacket missing its pants, which his do.
Like a lot of politicians, Bill Clinton uses attire to declare his connection to the regular folks, and the more rural the setting the more he looks as though he’s ready to come over and mow your lawn — or at least have a beer and a chat on the front stoop about the problems down at the plant.
But if there is any single sign that the husband is not the candidate, it is the particular accessory attached to his lapel. In the contemporary history of presidential campaigns, the candidate is identified by the flag pin forever stuck to his lapel. Patriotism must be displayed in the form of a brooch. A man must campaign under a cloud of Americana. The candidate is God-bless-America writ large.
Not now. Bill has been tagged by Hillary. He wears a Hillary-for-president pin on the campaign trail. Sometimes it is 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.