He’s wearing the uniform that has come to define him when he’s out campaigning: neatly pressed trousers, white shirt with barrel cuffs and somber tie, along with a haircut that he appears to have settled on sometime around fifth grade. His chosen style of accessible familiarity, however, was no match for the full Vogue treatment, in which he has been posed and illuminated so that he looks like a glamorous version of the cookie-cutter bureaucrat.
That’s the beauty of Buttigieg’s public wardrobe. It’s so perfectly bland that it roars regular guy. You know him even if you don’t. He’s not the pencil-neck in the suit pushing papers, he’s the hands-on manager who’s getting things done. The jacketless look accentuates his rarin’-to-go youth while underscoring focused energy.
The Vogue portrait isn’t intimate. You don’t come away feeling as though you’ve glimpsed some inner truth. It’s not an emotional image but rather an aloof one. He’s not looking at you, after all. He’s purposefully turned away.
There’s something about that inaccessibility that makes him seem more intriguing than perhaps he is and puts a gloss of sex appeal on his policy wonk ensemble. And every politician can use a little sizzle — even one who, thus far, is mostly that.
Buttigieg is captured in profile as he is preparing to knot his tie. It’s a preposterous position with his head turned to his right and his torso directly facing the camera as his hands try to make sense of a four-in-hand with its narrow stripes. It’s all in service to the angles. Ah, the angles! With his head swiveled to the side, the viewers’ eyes go to his jawline, the straight line of his nose and the slight cleft in his chin. The lighting highlights a dusting of a beard. But there are no self-conscious or overly dramatic shadows. Everything that’s happening is internal, which fits nicely with the idea of Buttigieg as the down-to-earth intellectual.
The background is neutral. He hasn’t been placed into the context of a narrative because his very presence is the essence of the story. His photograph is such a contrast from all of those that Annie Leibovitz took of Beto O’Rourke for the April issue of Vanity Fair. Take any one of those pictures and the eye is overwhelmed by symbols and references — open roads, sweeping horizons, a moseying dog, American flags flying in the wind. O’Rourke is all parables and metaphors.
Each image seemed rife with importance. What does Beto mean? Beto: noun. A lanky political animal that climbs atop tables and counters; verb: to fail upward.
Vogue regularly photographs politicians. Flip through its archives and there are pictures of Kirsten Gillibrand from 2010 as a young senator and mother. More recently, Kamala Harris was pictured soon after arriving in Washington as the junior senator from California. She is shown laughing with Dreamers, smiling at her swearing-in. Talking. She’s shown engaged in conversation, which, as she has begun her campaign for the presidency, has become a bit of a theme. There are many topics about which she’d like to have a conversation.
Most often Vogue photographs female political figures, including Cindy McCain, Hillary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. When it does, no matter the age or the party affiliation, there is always the sense of a magazine determined to merge fashion and power, femininity (however that might be defined) with authority, in a way that looks, if not organic, then at least eloquent. Women in politics still tread carefully in the realm of fashion, but at least they have begun roaming semi-freely over that territory.
There’s a minimum standard of polish in politics that a woman must clear, otherwise tongues will wag. For men, that bar is set much lower. If they don’t rise to it, people might talk, but the critique will be less of a takedown and more of a roast.
For a woman, the Vogue portrait is almost a bullet point on a political résumé, the signifier that she has become part of a dynamic cultural conversation that has broadened beyond the Beltway or some grim city council forum. She has found that elusive balance between style and power: the Pelosi algorithm. You know it when you see it.
For a man, there’s the advantageous presumption that simply because he’s speaking, the words must surely echo broadly. He’s ready for the national stage even if he’s rumpled and frowzy.
The portrait of Buttigieg taps into our love of gloss and our tendency to connect a well-calibrated measure of it to accomplishment, confidence and capability. It’s an important arrow in the quiver of women, people of color and others who are in the minority — or who are regularly underestimated. Buttigieg, who is gay, still has a level of white male privilege. He doesn’t need the patina of glamour, but it doesn’t hurt.
And if nothing else, he’s got a mighty fine photo for his campaign scrapbook.