George Santos arrived for his arrest last week dressed in what has now become something of a signature uniform for him: blue blazer, knit sweater over a white collared shirt, chinos, penny loafers, Ray-Bans. It’s an unremarkable outfit, the kind that expresses a sort of Brooks Brothers–esque nonchalance (“Oh, this old thing?”). But it was a potent visual of what he has been trying to do.
That the clothes make the con is an old story. “Fake it till you make it” is the ultimate aspirational koan, and as New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman put it, writing in January about Santos’ fashion choices, “Throughout history, the greatest grifters have understood that dressing the part is half the game.” But Santos’ particular spin on an old trope is underscored by the unalloyed chutzpah of him having misused campaign contributions in order to buy “luxury designer clothing,” as noted in the indictment unsealed on Wednesday. In other words, paying for self-presentation is part of what just got him in trouble. That’s no accident.
The quintessential Santos outfit is a uniform that conveys old-money assuredness, a statement not just of “I belong here” but “I deserve power because of my status.” (“Behold, the uniform of preppy private-school boys everywhere,” Friedman wrote, “like something straight out of Dead Poets Society.”) The look caught the eye of Derek Guy, a menswear writer, who told me over email that as a political candidate, Santos often “wore many of the markers of financial success, but in a sort of ‘Nordstrom way’: fleece vests, quarter zip sweaters, Ferragamo horsebit loafers, quilted Burberry jackets, and slim sport coats.”
Sometimes Santos “seemed to have fumbled some of the language,” Guy said, “such as pairing pinstriped flannel suit jackets with chinos or wearing clothes that were too small for his build. Things that generally don’t happen with people who authentically come from that world.” But we all “dress for the part and to convey something more than we are,” Guy added, “and we don’t always get the language right.” In any event, the fumbled parts (an oddly fitting Burberry jacket, an out-of-place Hermès bracelet) don’t very much matter in Santos’ case. He was convincing enough to win a seat in Congress.
Now that many, many stories have been reported about the vast expanse of Santos’ grift, the clothes have become the hardened carapace of his brazenness—a facade of conservative apparel that stands in stark contrast to the outlandish lies Santos tells and the endless, unsophisticated ways he screwed up when it came to covering his tracks. “If you’re going to try to hide where your campaign money is going, then don’t leave an obvious paper trail,” Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance expert, told my colleague Ben Mathis-Lilley. “It just boggles the mind.”
But Santos’ wardrobe, and his ability to ape an archetype, is a testament to just how much appearance can boggle the mind. “It reveals the extent to which our society operates by trust,” said Amy Reading, a historian of American con artistry. “We have to take each other at our words, and we have to accept each other’s reputations,” she said. “We have to each spend cultural capital and recognize other people’s cultural capital in order to function as a society.” And that trust can be shockingly easy to exploit with visual cues. Reading pointed to the story of the fake heiress who conned New York high society with her own penchant for designer looks and lifestyle illusions: “It’s impossible to talk about Santos without talking about Anna Delvey,” she said, noting another prime example of someone who played (or preyed) flagrantly on the gullible nature of social trust, and got away with it for an absurdly long time.
And just as with Delvey, whose story spawned dueling TV series and endless outpourings of ironic adulation, the fascination with Santos has now taken on an air of mordant admiration. The utter gall of that man, and his truly bottomless capacity for shamelessness, is, in its own way, impressive. A photo of Santos holding his head high while being crowded and hounded by the press has become a meme for that reason. (The photo was published by the Washington Post after Santos’ indictment, though it was taken at an earlier date.) The joke is, essentially, that the man exudes all the complicated glamour of a troubled pop star:
“It’s all there in that photo,” Reading said. “Looking at all those microphones and cameras pointed at him in his sunglasses, that’s the media appetite for somebody that has the absolute brazenness, like Santos or like Anna Delvey, to just make it up.” It’s basic, really, but it requires a level of “nerve, gall, fearlessness, and a complete disregard for the consequences” that most of us just don’t have, she said. “What we admire when we look at a con artist is that willingness to go there.”
He has certainly gone there. A former drag queen who has supported anti-LGBTQ+ laws, an alleged unemployment lawbreaker who co-sponsored a bill to take down unemployment lawbreakers, Santos’ unwillingness to ever break character implies a self-delusion—or commitment to the bit—that is equal parts repulsive and mesmerizing. Here is a man who has clothed himself in the garb of MAGA, becoming a caricature of right-wing zealotry, but is, in almost every way, also running from himself.
Last Wednesday, after leaving the courthouse, Santos declared the indictment a “witch hunt” and began to spew conspiracy theories about the Biden family, unbidden by a chorus of boos. “I’m gonna fight my battle, and I’m gonna deliver,” he said haughtily, wearing his signature blue blazer and shades. It was the outfit of an important somebody who doesn’t suffer consequences. Wrapped in that costume of self-assuredness and conviction, Santos briefly made you wonder if he could get away with it.