Clothes Sense

Suits Me

In praise of campaign wear.

Up until a few weeks ago, the presidential campaign was marked by a deliberate effort at restraint–no insults, few attacks, an unvarying tone of stern politesse. The candidates’ clothes followed suit, which meant, of course, suits. No T-shirts or zipper jackets on the body; no cowboy hats or tank helmets on the head. Just the careful hair of each (unconvincingly dark for Dole, unconvincingly gray for Clinton), the contrasting hair of their running mates (soberly dark for Gore, youthfully gray for Kemp), and similar suits on all the very different bodies.

Not that they haven’t lapsed. Bob and Bill have each momentarily given in to the populist urge and appeared in leisure wear or rough gear; but that’s always been a mistake. Clothes like that are supposed to show the public man in private, the regular guy with his guard down, but they usually just make him look childish.

It is one of the paradoxical effects of suits that, instead of concealing character under a bland exterior, they enhance it. Bill, Bob, Al, and Jack are more visible in their smooth, dark envelopes than they are in the multicolored, bunchy stuff required for golf or hiking, picnics or beaches. Such exposure may not always be flattering, but it does let the voter sense the man behind the slogan. Dole may be trustworthy, but in a suit he comes across as withheld and static. Kemp is youthful and beefy, but he takes his coat off to jump around, which, like his exuberant faith in quick fixes, seems a little bit foolish. Clinton is plump, bouncy, and optimistic. Gore is solid, but sedate. And for once, the candidates look like heads of state before they’ve even taken office, clad in the same somber outfit as Prime Minister Netanyahu, Boris Yeltsin, or President Karimor of Uzbekistan–a very dark suit, a pure white shirt with starched spread or pointed collar, and a tie with a generous but disciplined pattern.

This is the costume, not of “power,” as people woozily say, nor of rigid conformity and unimaginative conservatism, but of classic and flexible modernity. Suits are the dress of civility itself. They aim to avoid embarrassing or intimidating others, either with display–of bare skin or startling color–or with a show of personal force. Instead they mean to suggest, with self-respecting reticence, the idea of a strong but adaptable order in things. This is the look we want in our leaders–the look of unlosable cool in shifting circumstances.

This campaign has featured a nicely symmetrical ensemble of youthful gaffers and aging youngsters, each team starring one white head and one brown, one thick body and one thin, one mobile frame and one stiff. But what this civilized sartorial theater underscores more clearly than anything else is that the president is sexy and the others are not. In breathing, tailored life, they are stiffs, except for Bill. He’s the only one you want to hug, the one carrying his flesh with obvious pleasure, ready to share it with others. Images of him with his tailored arms across the shoulders of other leaders seem reflections of genuine impulse, all the more poignant in the context of sober modern dress. No wonder he’s ahead in the polls.

It is instructive to contrast the candidates with politicos who don’t obey the fashion rules. Dick Morris, for one, can’t hide his unpalatable stump of a body behind the trappings of genial sensuality. He may wear a soft collar, a suit with wide lapels, and a brilliant yellow tie covered with yellow sunflowers, or a button-down collar with a glen plaid suit and a brilliant magenta tie, but it only emphasizes his lack of bodily self-possession.

In American life, a dark suit is a given; it is a costume generated out of modern man’s honorable and heroic past, particularly his political past. When it comes to suits, we are all, Republicans and Democrats, still in thrall to the Great Emancipator, the Ultimate Public Figure, whose great black suit merged his great American soul and body into such a forceful image of physical appeal and high principle. Candidates might usefully remember that there are no photos of Lincoln in fishing gear or country clothes. His presidential suit alone created his special blend of personal attractiveness and public statesmanship, a blend our leaders are always being urged to emulate. There were, moreover, no attempts to carve Lincoln in the nude with drapery, as there had been with Washington, no efforts to heroicize him out of his trousers, just as there were none to popularize him with comfy sportswear.

Lincoln sits forever in his monument, his marble words glowing high up on the walls behind him and beside him. His marble sleeves and pants legs break into noble tailored folds around his endless arms and legs, his marble lapels lie gravely along his chest, his marble buttons, watch chain, necktie, and collar points create small episodes along the front of his lean body, over a marble shirt and waistcoat that create a stately sequence of carved wrinkles.

The statue enshrines Lincoln and his tailoring along with him, a suited beacon for all future political generations. Washington and Jefferson in their antique knee pants can’t hope to compete; neither can Teddy Roosevelt in his boots and gun, nor Reagan in his cowboy outfit, nor, frankly, Dole and Clinton in their exercise clothes. In their expressive self-effacement, suits make grown-up politics possible. It’s one of the things they were invented for.