The endless march to the Iowa caucuses—finally blissfully over—included a curious parade of fashion moments, both dazzling and head-scratchingly odd. There was a glamorous loser and at least one snarling boor. There was a reference to doggy sunglasses, a fur-trimmed coat worn on an indoor dais, and, of course, the rise of the sweater vest as a symbol of warm, fuzzy righteousness and religiosity.
Tuesday night, as Republican candidates took to the lectern to thank their supporters and pat themselves on the back for all their hard work, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who came in fourth, cloaked himself in churlishness and accessorized with self-pity. A tieless and grumpy Gingrich lashed out at Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, both of whom bested him in Iowa, and whined about being the target of negative advertisements.
Gingrich’s open-collar shirt, coupled with his barely contained frustration and anger over his low standing among Iowa voters, made him look less like a dignified presidential contender and more like an indignant, overachieving schoolboy who couldn’t believe someone else won the regional spelling bee.
Meanwhile, over at Congressman Ron Paul’s campaign, the candidate’s wife, Carol, a cookbook author, left one wondering if perhaps someone had failed to heat Paul headquarters—or at least her little section of it. As she stood alongside her husband, she was buttoned up in a heavy winter coat with a fur collar. Everyone else onstage, apparently planning to stay awhile, appeared to have doffed their outerwear, as is the tradition on these occasions. Carol Paul, who largely dodged spousal campaign demands, looked as though she’d breezed by to deliver quick congratulations and was hoping to get home in time to catch the end of The Tonight Show.
Tuesday night, although winning only 5 percent of the vote, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann looked particularly glamorous and glowing with her well-applied eye makeup and the artfully notched collar of her jacket framing her face. Her husband, Marcus, hovered closely behind her onstage—in her camera shot, so to speak. His cherubic cheeks flushed in the spotlight and his smile turned upside down in startled embarrassment when his wife revealed he’d spent the afternoon buying doggy sunglasses—a revelation that was apparently intended as a compliment.
Less than 24 hours later, Marcus was again in his wife’s camera shot when she announced she was suspending her campaign. He wore a rose-colored tie with an American-flag pin on his dark lapel. She was central-casting perfect as she thanked her family and the Lord for their support. As has been her tradition, Michele was impeccably turned out with gray gumball-size beads trimming the edges of her charcoal woven jacket.
Bachmann was one of the few Republican presidential contenders campaigning in Iowa who, at least in her style, managed to convey starchless professionalism. She dressed for the job to which she aspired, but balanced polish with approachability. Still, no one emerged from Iowa with a more distinctive style than former senator Rick Santorum, who came in a close second behind Romney, the night’s winner.
As he campaigned, former governor Romney studiously avoided fancy businessman togs and chose a uniform of sport jacket, open-collar shirt, and casual pants. No matter—he has yet to shake the perception that he’s still akin to a stiff, corporate suit.
Stylistically, Santorum went further and fuzzier. He traded in business suits for sweater vests. And once his Mr. Rogers–esque style attracted public comment, Santorum embraced vests as symbolic of his neighborly Good Lord Jesus sincerity. If over the years rolling up one’s sleeves has become political shorthand to indicate a moment of blue-collar, straight talk, Santorum’s utter lack of sleeves surely, surely meant his words were beyond blunt or honest. They were righteous, divine, chosen.
Santorum’s vests became the subject of a campaign video and were given a Twitter handle, all of which made them seem like the most self-conscious bit of political costuming since Ronald Reagan’s cowboy hats and Michael Dukakis’s Army tank.
When Santorum took the stage to celebrate his Iowa success, he—like Romney—dressed in a formal suit and tie. Santorum’s four-in-hand was red-striped, while Romney’s was blue. Their suits were dark. Their lapels bore American-flag pins. In the end, only eight votes separated them.
Both gentlemen seemed to realize that no matter what sort of costuming helps them navigate the campaign circus and sweet-talk voters, for men, only a business suit—in all its formality, tradition, and dignity—readily declares: yes, I could be president.