Could clothes make, or break, the man who would be President?
Chicago — Does the fate of Election '88 hang on a power tie? Will short-sleeve shirts spell disaster for Michael Dukakis? Can George Bush's conservative suits win over the electorate? Probably not, says costume historian Barbara Schreier. But in an age of 15-second TV appearances, voters make a lot of quick judgments from a candidate's clothes.
Dr. Schreier, a University of Massachusetts professor and contributing curator of a Smithsonian Institution clothing exhibit, has been keeping an eye on this year's presidential campaign. Here are her observations:
On Bush: ``He has some very astute and excellent advisers.'' Looking uncomfortable and out of place in a farm cap while campaigning early in Iowa, Bush is looking increasingly presidential with conservative suits and just the right mix of variety and understatement.
On Dukakis: ``Either the [coat] sleeves are too long and so you don't see any of the shirt - or the shirt sleeves are too long so he just kind of has this frumpy look to him. ... Because Dukakis uses his hands and he gestures so much through every speech, your eyes are drawn to that.''
She says the candidate's shapeless suits and buttoned-down shirts are too casual and take away from the take-charge, presidential image that many voters are looking for.
``They are [not] saying: I am not going to vote for this man because he doesn't dress the part. But I think that because it's on a subconscious level, we pick up these cues of authority and trustworthiness,'' Schreier says.
Spokesmen for both presidential candidates downplay the importance of clothes.
``There's maybe a new round of ties that have come in in the last 18 months,'' says Mark Gearan, press secretary for Dukakis. But ``he picks his own clothing.''
Ditto for Bush. But ``There is always thought given when the jacket is on and when it's not, when the tie is loosened and when the sleeves are rolled up,'' says deputy press secretary Alixe Glen.
Presidential attention to clothing has evolved a lot since television came on the scene, Schreier says. At the first televised Democratic convention in 1948, President Harry Truman wore a white linen suit and dark tie. It ``perhaps is the best masculine garb for the video cameras,'' the New York Times noted.
But in September 1960, it was dark-suited John Kennedy who outshone rival Richard Nixon in their first and now-famous televised debate. ``Nixon, in his light suit, faded into a fuzzed outline,'' wrote journalist Theodore White.
Since that debate, candidates and presidents have paid increasing attention to clothing cues, Schreier says.
Gerald Ford, known for his checked suits and loud ties as a Michigan congressman, quickly toned down his dress after becoming President. Before one important event, Ford laid out all his ties so his media consultant could pick the most appropriate one.
Jimmy Carter in February 1977 delivered an energy speech in a beige cardigan sweater. That particular gambit backfired, Schreier says. ``Instead of coming across as being homey and reassuring, as I think they wanted, it came across as being artificial and sort of fake.''
Reagan, of course, has reinstituted White House formalism. ``Even if you look at his leisure clothes, instead of wearing sports shirts and sweaters on his own ranch, he's wearing jodhpurs,'' she adds. He has also reintroduced brown as a presidential color.
Clothing can't make candidates, Schreier adds, but it helps them shape an image - something voters ought to be aware of the next time they take a look at Election '88.