Earlier this year, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg began an unlikely rise to the spotlight after announcing his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Throughout Mayor Buttigieg’s several media appearances and advertisements, one unique characteristic has become all too apparent. Every time he is on television, Buttigieg reliably sports the exact same outfit: a white shirt with rolled up sleeves, a blue necktie, and black slacks.
While this is certainly odd, recalling images of a closet full of identical ensembles lined up for each day of the week, a consistent wardrobe is not out of place among candidates for political office. In fact, in this age, most political figures have some kind of trademark outfit they claim as their own. Whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s famous pant suits or Donald Trump’s mile-long red tie and innovative hairstyle, consistency of appearance seems to be key among well-known leaders.
More Than an Outfit
This, of course, is no coincidence. While it may not be the first component of campaigning that comes to mind, style is a major part of advertising strategy. In an interview with the HPR, Erica Prosser, Vice President of the leading consulting and PR firm BerlinRosen, illuminated just how much thought can go into this aspect of campaigning. “We look at everything — hair, posture, clothes, all of it. […] We put way more thought into it than most people would ever imagine.”
In politics, visual impressions can mean everything, and clothing, more than simply fabric on one’s body, is a campaign sign that a politician constantly carries. According to Prosser, the general rule is that the average person will formulate a first impression of a candidate upon seeing him or her for only 17 seconds. For this reason, physical appearance can often prove to be more important than policies or speaking points.
Fashion as a Tool
One of the most widespread uses of style is to emulate a particular group of voters. An extreme example is the successful 2018 campaign of Senator Mike Braun in Indiana, who subtly appealed to blue collar workers by wearing a blue button-down shirt to every one of his campaign events, photo shoots, and television appearances. According to an article endorsed by his website, “He wears the same blue shirt and sends the same message — that political insiders like [opponent Senator Joe] Donnelly should be sent home.” Regardless of any element of Braun’s background, including his multimillion dollar net worth, the fabric was formulated to serve as proof that he is just a regular working class Hoosier.
According to Prosser, a formulated casual look is not at all an uncommon strategy. “Sometimes we have the candidates dress down to show they’re on the side of the average person. The firm was working with a union leader recently who resisted wearing suits at all costs.” As noted in a study conducted by Manuel Adolphsen and compiled by the London School of Economics as a part of a series on media, while Hillary Clinton appeared in her trademark formal suit nearly every time she was seen moving in a campaign ad, Barack Obama was only in a dark suit 55 percent of the time. Adolphsen theorizes that this younger, fresher look is emblematic of Obama’s message for change.
Especially in today’s rapid-fire media landscape, physical appearance can be the key for lesser-known candidates to garner attention. After the first Democratic presidential debate this year, Andrew Yang, the candidate with the lowest amount of speaking time, still made headlines for his lack of a necktie. However, this sensationalist coverage of appearance over ideas may very well be counterproductive to the political process overall. Yang himself pointed this out at the close of the following debate, when he called upon voters who “care more about [their] families and [their] kids than [his] neckwear.”
Statements such as these pose an important question in today’s political process. Does society place too much attention on the appearance of political figures, as opposed to the actual issues? It’s difficult to forget the brief outcry in 2014, when President Barack Obama broke from his traditional blue and gray to don a tan suit during a press conference — a simple change in fabric dye making headlines, as opposed to any statements made that day.
Celinda Lake, founder of the political consulting firm Lake Research Partners, called attention to this idea in an interview with the HPR. “Candidates want their ideas to be heard more than their clothing.” According to Lake, a major component of clothing strategy is to shift focus from appearance to ideas. “We try to get a candidate to have a consistent look throughout the campaign. Any changes could be a problem, especially for female candidates, if, say, a hairstyle were to become entirely different. […] The difference in the amount of work we put into clothing for female versus male candidates is huge.”
Prosser and Lake, who both have a long history of working with female candidates, placed an emphasis on the idea that there is certainly a disparity in how political consultants must work with men and women. And while Prosser agreed that it has “gotten better” over the past twenty years, this gap in judgement still extends to media coverage and limits what women are able to wear when running for office. Clothing, while an important tool, can also be a source of inequality by these differences in perception.
In our modern society’s fire hose of information, a first impression is the most important real estate for a political candidate. With this thought in mind, it’s no wonder that Pete Buttigieg began his rush into the public image by dressing with the same consistency as Spongebob Squarepants. In many cases, the main job of a politician on the campaign trail is to be noticed and remembered by as many people as possible. In a landscape of new media structures, a crowded field of candidates, and election seasons centered around small chunks of information going viral, candidates must become brands that force themselves into the minds of the electorate. However, it is important for candidates, the media, and voters alike to remember that the fabric worn by a politician is not the most important issue facing the average American. On the campaign trail, a trademark look can become priceless. But at the end of the day, candidates, not outfits, are on the ballot.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Waldemar Brandt