Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably and they remember the [person].
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Coco Chanel never figured on a world so thoroughly wired for public scrutiny when she made the distinction between dressing shabbily and dressing impeccably. These days, it doesn't matter. We gawk at both, obsessively. In this marathon of a presidential-election campaign especially, we're asking questions like never before about image and substance, sex and sexuality, race and power, as we try to uncover the strengths and weaknesses of the politicians who want to head our government. As we prepare to cast our ballots Tuesday, I give you the players and their costumes. Forget for a moment their views on Iraq, gun control, immigration, global warming, health care, abortion, education, taxation: What are the presidential candidates wearing as they compete for the White House?
Hillary Clinton. Much ado is being made about her pantsuits. Even though women have run for our nation's highest office before — from Victoria Claflin Woodhull in 1872 to Libby Dole in 2000 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 — presidential politics has long been a man's game, with fashion discussions limited to pricey haircuts, five-o'clock shadows and Al Gore's brown-versus-blue suit dilemma. Not since Shirley Chisholm appeared in bold '70s prints and fur-collared coats have a candidate's wardrobe choices been so dissected. At one point during the New Hampshire primary, a voter asked Senator Clinton if she felt any pressure about being a woman running for president. "Oh, no. Not at all," Clinton said in an ironic, deliberately quavery voice. That "not at all" gets at the crux of the matter, the conundrum of a woman who is a serious contender for the world's most visible political office in this most visible of times. She knows that we know that she knows the rules are different for her.
Desexualization of her femininity is the issue. As first lady, she favored conservative gowns and thick, matronly suits that padded her figure like swaths of bulletproof body armor (and who's to say enough layers of tweed and boucle couldn't stop rounds from a sniper's gun?). Sure, her colors were glorious jewel tones, but the cuts were strictly Victorian schoolmarm. Her champagne Oscar de la Renta gown for Bill's second inaugural ball in 1997 was a high-necked, long-sleeved, all-lace number, like a vacuum-wrapped doily. Her beaded violet Sarah Phillips gown swirled fantastically on the eve of the Clintons' first inaugural gala, as a triumphant Bill twirled her around the dance floor, but it revealed just a sliver of wrist. Would it have killed her to show some skin, people asked? Maybe. She seems to still be working that question out. And rightly so. A bit of cleavage peeks out and it makes headlines at the Washington Post.
These days, Senator Clinton is walking the line between cerebral Ice Empress and mannish Everywoman. Sometimes it's masculine, pinstriped blazers with sharp lapels, nothing too perfectly tailored or too sleek — approachability is key — with a scarf tucked in for a pop of bright color. Other times it's back to boucle as body armor. Other countries are comfortable with their women leaders as mother figures, such as the Philippines' Cory Aquino in her trademark soft yellows, or the U.K.'s veiled-pillbox-hatted, grandmotherly Queen Mum. But girlfriends and sexy policy wonkettes aside, we in America don't know what we want from our women in charge. Clinton went head to head with Obama in Las Vegas this month, in a black pantsuit layered over a fuchsia sweater, casual as a Talbots catalog. But when she won the New Hampshire primary, she was virtually steel plated, celebrating in a gray-brocade-print, mandarin-collared coat, with not a vulnerable collarbone in sight.
How to get the look: Boxy pantsuits from Talbots. Scarves, chunky beaded necklaces and pearl sets from Ann Taylor.
Barack Obama. He has gravitas, Obama, and he's charismatic as all get-out. He's also an elegant, elegant man. And good thing, because many still feel that the United States will not elect a black man to the presidency unless he has elegance and charisma to spare. Some might forgive Huckabee his slouchy suits, but as with Senator Clinton, the fashion margin of error is slimmer for Obama. His opponents simply have to show up dressed, while Obama must show up dressed to kill. He's the romantic, scholarly, pedigreed thinker who makes bloggers swoon, and as such he favors shades of blue, an aspirational color — the color chosen by those wishing to convey sincerity, integrity, intellect and responsibility; the color preferred by overachieving Harvard and Columbia grads the world over (which he is), superheroes, space-shuttle pilots and Eagle scouts. Even with shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbows, he looks debonair, never sloppy or overly accessorized with cuff links, handkerchiefs or other distracting suit flair. Even after getting his butt kicked by Hillary in New Hampshire, he rallied the troops in Nashua, exuding a melancholy grace in a silver-gray tie, a crisp white shirt and an impeccably tailored dark suit. He's been criticized, in fact, for appearing too stylish, too hip, too urbane, but those critics are ridiculous. Give me a brainy, progressive president in a slim charcoal suit, perfect white shirt and blue-striped tie (to complement his dreamy eyes and cafe au lait complexion) any day.
How to get the look: Slim-cut, minimal single-breasted suits from Barneys. Ties from J. Crew.
John Edwards. It doesn't matter how dapper he looks in a suit, he'll be remembered for the $400 haircut. We've had our past brouhahas in the realm of political fashion faux pas — George W. Bush's crocs 'n' socks, Condoleezza's knee-high, leather whip-me boots — but nothing like Edwards' pricey trim, paid for initially out of the campaign war chest. He took a lot of flack for that, as did Bill Clinton some years back when he got his hair cut by a Beverly Hills stylist onboard Air Force One. Bill paid $200 for his cut, which would be considered slumming it in certain fashionista circles. Looking at Edwards' lovely, shiny mahogany locks, the money was worth it — it usually is.
How to get the look: Celebrity stylist Joseph Torrenueva, Torrenueva Hair Designs, 9601 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 288-0606.
Republicans are having a tough time ferreting out their top gun — the selection process has been a roller-coaster ride thus far — perhaps because, sartorially speaking, the candidates literally look the same. What's going on, boys? Fitting the Average Joe mold is a good strategy and all, but was there a buy-one-get-three-free fire sale at the GOP Men's Warehousebefore the debate in South Carolina? They were a shuffling television chorus line of old white men in dark suits, light shirts and red power neckties. All the more baffling since, in terms of public ethos at least, the candidates, from McCain to Ron Paul, couldn't be more different: a Vietnam POW, an evangelical, a doctor, a business-whiz CEO, a self-styled 9/11 folk hero and an actor (who has since withdrawn from the race).
Mike Huckabee. This is a man whose style of dress is distinguished only by its lack of distinction. His ensembles appear to have been assembled for him by robots, which is ironic because when the human species eventually evolves into robots, as an evangelical Christian, he will be the first to deny that the process ever occurred. The draped-on black blazers, the oddly proportioned slacks jowling around the legs, the halfhearted ties — his clothes are strangers to his body. Perhaps lust for style is a novel concept for those whose physiques have gone through dramatic change (Huckabee lost over 100 pounds at one point). Or perhaps the schlumpiness is a deliberate and diabolical ploy meant to humanize him, to curry favor with the 99 percent of the American public who could care less about fashion. Tough call. Either way, if Hillary wears clothing as armor, Huckabee wears it as afterthought.
How to get the look:3 Day Suit Broker (but do not try on before purchase). Ties from same, select with eyes averted.
Rudy Giuliani. A man so synonymous with 9/11, it's tough to even register what he's wearing. Except for those moments when his makeup job makes him look like he's stepped out of a La Cage Aux Folles road show (as it did recently on This Week with George Stephanopoulos), whatever dark suit, white shirt and bold tie he may shrug on, we see him as he wants us to see him, seven years in the past, in a Windbreaker and FDNY cap, elasticized facemask at the ready, ashes swirling in the air and crumpled steel at his feet.
How to get the look: FDNY embroidered baseball cap from FDNY Fire Zone Store, www.fdnyfirezone.com.
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Mitt Romney. The handsomest of the Republican candidates, he looks hale and Conde Nast yacht-boy tony even in a sweater and khakis. Obviously, the men in this fight have it easier than the woman. It's a suit and tie for the guys no matter what, and Romney rocks that look with a vengeance. He is upper-crust American Ralph Lauren through and through. While the other GOP contenders were fussing over what pattern to choose for their red ties at the South Carolina debate, Romney was cool as a cucumber — taking a cue from Obama — in his navy-blue-and-ivory stripes.
How to get the look:Brooks Brothers or bespoke shirts, cashmere sweaters from Ralph Lauren. Haircut: Supercuts; spend no more than $50, including tip.
John McCain. With his close-cropped fuzz of white hair, stocky build and straight-talking demeanor, he comes across as a fresh-scrubbed, take-no-prisoners firecracker of a football coach, the kind who pushes your buttons but improves your numbers in the long run. Of course, he was a prisoner of war in Hanoi, tortured, no less, and as such has earned the right to dress however he wants — combat fatigues, feather boas, muumuus, giant chicken suits. He's taken the higher ground, however, and pulls himself together handily, usually in some safe combination of red, blue and white. Though he's not above a pair of slacks and a brown-leather bomber jacket.
How to get the look: U.S.-military-issue USAF leather bomber jacket from military surplus store.