A recent study showed that dressing down can, in certain settings, signal competence and higher status. Think of wearing gym clothes in a Louis Vuitton boutique, a Silicon Valley CEO sporting ripped jeans and Vans at a board meeting, or a bearded professor donning a T-shirt instead of a blazer and tie.
Titled “The Red Sneakers Effect,” the study examined whether boundary-pushing behavior was overall beneficial to the casually dressed in the formal setting.
The conclusion was mixed: If the behavior was considered accidentally out of sync — like wearing red at a black tie event — those surveyed viewed the subject less favorably. But those considered to be acting contrarian on purpose were viewed as big shots.
The study raised an interesting question for fashion-conscious candidates. Should they adopt an edgier, fashion-forward look on the campaign trail? Until the studies are replicated on political leaders, we’d advise against it. People want leaders they can look up to, but who are accessible and approachable.
Our general rule of thumb for political candidates is to follow the dress code for each occasion, but to dress it up about half a notch. If slacks and a dress shirt, for instance, are all that’s required, throw on a blazer, or if most people will be in blazers, add a tie. By dressing slightly better than everyone else, candidates maintain a subtle aura of authority and distinction without looking out of place.
Though they often solicit input, most women have a better grasp on how to dress in a political context. Men, on the other hand, seldom ask for help, even though they need more of it. This article is for them, though some of the advice applies to both sexes.
At a minimum, male candidates need a dark-colored suit, a light-colored suit and one or two blazers, all of which should be tailored. They’ll need about seven to ten days’ worth of slacks and dress shirts (to allow time for dry cleaning), as well as a few matching ties, belts and shoes.
Most men will also want a few pairs of jeans, some sweaters and an overcoat for colder weather. Since they’ll be out knocking on doors, candidates will need at least one pair of comfortable walking shoes that match their business casual attire. Clothes should be cleaned and pressed after being worn. Torn, stained and hole-ridden clothes are never appropriate.
Unless it’s part of the official dress code, trendy or avant-garde clothes should stay of the campaign trail. Voters want leaders who are safe and familiar, approachable and dependable. High fashion usually sends the opposite signals.
Given the chance, the press won’t hesitate to make a leader’s clothes the story.
Candidates should avoid clothes that make them uncomfortable. Voters will pick up on their discomfort. It’s just as important for candidates never to use clothes to pretend to be someone they’re not. Years ago, at a township meeting in rural Michigan, a bonafide country club Republican came to speak about his campaign dressed as a farmer. His condescending and demeaning “farmer Joe” costume was all anyone could talk about afterward.
Except on special occasions like Presidents Day and July 4th, avoid overt Americana. Flag ties, red-white-and-blue shirts and founding-era regalia are all quite difficult to wear without looking tacky or just plain nuts. Candidates are under no obligation to wear flag lapel pins. Campaign pins, buttons and stickers may be a necessity, but candidates themselves should keep the “swag” to a tasteful minimum, especially when speaking in front of crowds and cameras. Most people don’t want leaders who look like sports bar waiters.
If dressing well were enough to win elections, Tom Ford would be president by now. But campaigns don’t want voters heading home from an event or heading to the polls disgusted by what the candidates were wearing.
David Rosen is the founder of First Person Politics, a consulting firm that uses psychology to change politics.