For all the coverage of the 2012 election, there has been a lack of reporting on the issue of men’s fashion. Pundits have extensively analyzed the length of Michele Bachmann’s nails in the context of her political success, but almost nothing has been said about why male candidates are using spray tans, artificially graying their hair, and squeezing themselves in suits.
Lauren Rothman and Christina Wilkie, writers for The Huffington Post’s political style column, “The Fashion Whip,” have aptly noted that Bachmann’s image evolution over the course of the campaign comes off as fake: she “closes out the year looking less like a normal person and more like a product of full-time stylists and make-up artists, with little left of the Minnesota mom who captivated the GOP’s conservative base in 2010.” Bachmann’s fashion choices mirror her ambitions and influences. She dresses how she imagines a president would dress, leaving her congressional seat and her natural hair color behind.
But if Rothman and Wilkie are correct in charting Bachmann’s development, they ignore the similarly contrived picture Mitt Romney is presenting. His calculated shunning of ties, meant to cultivate his image as a down-to-earth everyman, has received infinitely less coverage than Bachmann’s eyelashes alone, even though his sartorial strategy is obvious enough that Representative Barney Frank has called Romney out for changing up both his look and his political stances.
Such oversight is both sexist and empowering. Sexist, because the majority of media coverage belittles Bachmann and Palin as mere clotheshorses: society expects these women to look attractive and trendy and serious instead of being able to coherently describe their platforms. Even the articles that don’t explicitly condemn dressing femininely still fixate on details of clothing, luxuriating in an itemized list of which woman wore what.
What is empowering is the knowledge that, if reporters were taking female candidates seriously instead of deriding them, it would be astoundingly clear that the women of the 2012 election race are better at dressing themselves than the men are. Bachmann simply does business casual better than Romney. Palin’s red power suits are more iconic and digestible than Perry’s over-the-top Texanity. And everybody’s blazers are better tailored than Ron Paul’s.
So why are fashion and fashionable women so denigrated? Writer Greta Christina postulates, “It’s a subtle but definite form of sexism to take one of the few forms of expression where women have more freedom, and treat it as a form of expression that’s inherently superficial and trivial. Like it or not, fashion and style are primarily a women’s art form. And I think it gets treated as trivial because women get treated as trivial.”
It is quite true that Rick Perry’s current fondness for combining excessive jewelry with even more excessive ostrich-skin boots has little bearing on the man’s plans and policies, and I fully believe the media should prioritize reporting what candidates say during debates, not what they wear to them. That being said, what a politician chooses to wear reveals how he views himself and how he wants to be viewed by the American public. The best dressers are conscientious of details and the overall image they present, undeniably the hallmarks of skillful public officials. Most importantly, fashion is a daily exercise in judgment—when to be restrained and when to put on a show.
At a time when unemployment is soaring, careful styling is also an indicator of a candidate’s economic savvy as well. It’s interesting that, while wealthier men like Huntsman and Romney are dressing down in gingham and rolled up sleeves, trying to appeal to their idea of the average American, their efforts are clumsy. Michelle Obama manages to have all the glamor and poise Americans have come to expect from prominent individuals, even when she outfits herself in clothes from mass retailers like J. Crew and Talbots. The takeaway here is that the price of clothing matters far less than how it is worn and who wears it.
Political media sources are doing a disservice to the American people by failing to look into the fashion choices of male politicians while simultaneously overanalyzing how their female counterparts are dressing. We should care about Gingrich’s pleated pants and Santorum’s sweater vests—if only for the fact that they tell us how much a candidate cares about himself.