Revealing Clothes

Herman Cain Fashion: Double-Breasted Suits Don't Fit His Message

Double-breasted suits send the wrong message amid sexual-harassment claims. Robin Givhan explains.

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has been trying to shut down the unsavory story line that he sexually harassed at least two female co-workers while heading the National Restaurant Association from 1993 to 1996, by proclaiming that he was “falsely accused” and suggesting that he’s the victim of a witch hunt, a liberal—or perhaps Republican—conspiracy, or some other kind of evil voodoo.

What he has not done is make any evident attempt to consistently telegraph trustworthy, innocent, presidential or future-well-paid-pundit as cameras scrutinize his every glance and gesture.

In the matter of aesthetics and nonverbal communication, Cain appears never to have witnessed a 60 Minutes ambush interview, a TMZ video, or a single episode of Law & Order. Otherwise, he would be familiar with the rule: don’t get angry on camera. The candidate understandably has become aggravated by media queries about his past—but such is life on the campaign trail. So he was not helped when he was recently taped snarling “Excuse me, EXCUSE ME!” to a throng of reporters wielding cameras. His image was also not aided by the presence of a hulking bodyguard sporting a pin-striped suit with a Steve Harvey-esque, four-button stance and looking more like a thug named Tiny than a professional security presence.

Cain’s own attire hasn’t been much better, but for different reasons.

No other candidate on the Republican docket has demonstrated the kind of affection Cain has shown for the double-breasted suit—this menswear silhouette with its wide, peak lapels. He has favored six-on-two button suits in solid charcoal as well as those with subtle chalk stripes. To be sure, Cain’s suits are well cut and he has the stature to carry them. Still, they have always been a curious choice and they have now become ill-advised. He would do well to expunge every double-breasted suit from his wardrobe.

A double-breasted suit is more formal than a single-breasted one. Because of that, there are those who believe a double-breasted suit conveys a certain elegance of a bygone era, calling to mind Humphrey Bogart in a white dinner jacket or Gianni Agnelli with his dashing and eclectic style. They are favored by high-end designers and aficionados of bespoke tailoring. But in this more casual age—when the “suits” are feeling the rage of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and anyone who has helplessly watched the rapid decline of their 401(k)—Cain’s garb carries with it a sort of haughty swagger.

At first, the style seemed to play to his hustings sales pitch: He was the accomplished businessman who, while preaching tough love—or disdain—to the unemployed, assured voters that he could right this country’s finances if only given the opportunity. It’s a daring approach, as even Mitt Romney, who also sells himself as having a keen businessman’s insight on job creation, has been skittish about exuding suit-wearing bravado.

But now, when it’s alleged that Cain wielded his executive power in a sexual and inappropriate way, that in-your-face, sartorial swagger reads in damning ways.

Cain’s love of double-breasted suits also links him to religion. He is an ordained Baptist preacher and a man with a habit of breaking out in gospel song at the slightest provocation. Ministers of a certain persuasion often seem to have a predilection for double-breasted suits, as well as three-piece ones. Some of that must surely be because of tradition and formality, but there is also an element of the hierarchal at work. Instead of choosing the most modest and humble of suits—a sack suit, perhaps—they opt for something more regal. The fancy suit distinguishes them from the mere congregants they lead. It gives them the appearance of clout, dignity, and righteous grandiosity.

But when a finery bedecked Cain turned a lectern into a (bully) pulpit by busting out a hymn, he sounded more self-righteous than meek.

Black politicians have always had a wider berth when it comes to attire. They often dress more formally to make their authority more evident in a society that might question it. And historically they have been allowed more pizzazz, more personal flair. But Cain’s double-breasted suits don’t come with a creative flourish. They come with a standard yellow four-in-hand and an American flag pin perched on his left lapel. Sometimes he dons a ranger hat, which is about as imaginative as cowboy boots for affecting a down-home cool.

Cain describes himself as an unconventional candidate. His campaign organization certainly is unorthodox. But Cain wrapped himself in every sartorial cliché about authority, pecking order, and religiosity. Through his wardrobe, he positioned himself as the flamboyant boss man and the irreproachable believer.

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But lately, as he dabs the sweat from his brow, the click-click-click of the cameras reveal that Cain has lost control of his message. That savvy, crafted image has turned on him. And far from defining him as an empty suit, it suggests he is one filled with both hubris and sanctimony.