Se­ri­ously, San­to­rum: Di-vest now

A man of the peo­ple still needs to look pres­i­den­tial

The Washington Times Daily - - Life - BY SA­MAN­THA SAULT

Rick San­to­rum is known pri­mar­ily for two things: his so­cial con­ser­vatism and his sweater vests. More than his ri­vals for the GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, the out­spo­ken for­mer se­na­tor from Penn­syl­va­nia wears his moral and re­li­gious con­vic­tions on his plainly vis­i­ble shirt­sleeve.

Although can­di­dates have con­structed their images care­fully from head to toe, few likely want to be known for their wardrobe choices. The Time mag­a­zine cover for May 21, 2007, pro­claims that for­mer Mas­sachusetts Gov. Mitt Rom­ney “looks like a pres­i­dent.” This elec­tion cy­cle, the un­ques­tion­ably sharp dresser has been spot­ted in “mom jeans.” Co­in­ci­dence?

Mr. San­to­rum, mean­while, has em­braced the ca­sual, dowdy sweater vest. It might have helped his dark-horse can­di­dacy re­main vi­able in the early nom­i­nat­ing con­tests, but af­ter los­ing in Ari­zona and Michi­gan a week be­fore Su­per Tues­day, he might need a more dig­ni­fied look.

Mr. San­to­rum didn’t plan to make the un­pre­ten­tious gar­ment his sig­na­ture look. But once it be­came an in­sep­a­ra­ble sym­bol of his every­man ap­peal — you know, the down-to-earth fam­ily man who does his own taxes at the kitchen ta­ble — he cheer­fully bowed to the in­evitable.

He told con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio host Laura Ingraham that he hap­pened to wear a sweater vest at the De­cem­ber forum about abor­tion hosted by for­mer Arkansas Gov. and 2008 pres­i­den­tial con­tender Mike Huck­abee in Iowa. “All of the other can­di­dates are dressed in suits and ties, and I just walked out and had a sweater vest on,” he said proudly. He re­ceived a surge in sup­port af­ter his speech — as did, he claims, his sweater vest, which has since in­spired a Twit­ter feed (@Fearricksvest), a Tum­blr, and a Youtube video with images of the be-vested can­di­date.

“All of a sud­den, it was like, ‘Fear the vest,’ “he told Ms. Ingraham. He also said that the sweater vest makes him feel older and, as he told a crowd in South Carolina, “gave me this power.”

The won­der­ful thing about fash­ion is that it can make one look and feel more con­fi­dent and pow­er­ful. We all use fash­ion as ar­mor: our best suit for the in­ter­view, our lucky jer­sey for the game, our sky-high heels for the first date. Mr. San­to­rum’s sweater vests may make him feel pow­er­ful, but would they project the same to tough-minded lead­ers on the world stage? The unas­sum­ing sweater vest — in­ter­me­di­ate, in­de­ter­mi­nate — would seem un­likely to awe, say, Vladimir Putin.

Is it a sweater? Or is it a vest? Worn un­der a sport coat? Or in place of one? In­doors or out? At work or at play? This wo­ven hy­brid can’t de­cide. As a true be­liever, Mr. San­to­rum knows his own mind. He de­serves clothes that know theirs.

“A sweater vest is, at best, a pal­try at­tempt to com­bine the ca­sual and the smart,” says Grant Har­ris, owner of Im­age Granted LLC in Washington, an im­age con­sult­ing com­pany for pro­fes­sional men. Mr. San­to­rum may be go­ing for an ev­ery­day look, says Mr. Har­ris, but with­out a tie, it’s just an “in­com­plete look.”

“Sweater vests are hard to get right be­cause they’re typ­i­cally cut too big, drape around the body, and pinch at the waist,” says Pranav Vora, founder and CEO of Hugh & Crye, a men’s ap­parel com­pany based in Washington that spe­cial­izes in up­scale, fit­ted dress shirts.

“I think the vest worked in Mr. San­to­rum’s fa­vor, mak­ing him a bit more ac­ces­si­ble to the av­er­age Amer­i­can, es­pe­cially in con­trast to Rom­ney’s suited, pol­ished, pri­vate-eq­uity look,” Mr. Vora says.

The sweater vest is the dress-up at­tire of lit­tle boys and the uni­form of the con­sum­mate preppy. It’s the choice of foot­ball coaches and golfers, who seem to think it hides the mid­dleage gut but re­ally em­pha­sizes it. It’s a sig­na­ture of “Fam­ily Mat­ters’ “Steve Urkel, the ir­ri­tat­ing geek next door. It can “make you look like a Nick­elodeon car­toon char­ac­ter,” says Mr. Har­ris, re­fer­ring to Doug, the odd sweater-vested char­ac­ter from the 1990s.

The sweater vest evokes a num­ber of images, but “pres­i­dent” is not one of them.

From Ge­orge Washington’s ruf­fled shirt and pow­dered wig to Abra­ham Lin­coln’s three-piece suit and top hat, John F. Kennedy’s slim-cut Brooks Broth­ers en­sem­bles and Ron­ald Rea­gan’s strong 1980s shoul­ders, the pres­i­dent’s at­tire his­tor­i­cally has been for­mal, con­vey­ing re­spect for one’s job and one­self. With a few ex­cep­tions — like Jimmy Carter, who wore a cardi­gan for a 1977 fire­side chat — the U.S. pres­i­dent doesn’t per­form of­fi­cial du­ties in a ca­sual knit.

It’s dis­con­cert­ing that Mr. San­to­rum was proud to be the most ca­su­ally dressed can­di­date at a ma­jor cam­paign event. He looks like an or­di­nary Amer­i­can man, but the U.S. pres­i­dent is not or­di­nary. It would be hard to take him se­ri­ously giv­ing speeches or at­tend­ing meet­ings in a sweater vest — and his global coun­ter­parts, of­ten in much more for­mal, bet­ter-fit­ting suits than the av­er­age U.S. pres­i­dent, likely would agree.

We’re told to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Fash­ion ad­vis­ers agree that Mr. Rom­ney, “mom jeans” aside, epit­o­mizes pres­i­den­tial in his crisp, well-cut gray and navy suits and busi­ness-ca­sual blaz­ers. Pres­i­dent Obama does, too. Newt Gin­grich may be stuck in the ‘90s in his frumpy suits, but there is no doubt that he is dressed for im­por­tant work in Washington. Even Ron Paul, with suits two sizes too big, tie askew and a “col­lar gap,” as im­age con­sul­tant Mr. Har­ris calls it, rec­og­nizes the im­por­tance of the suit.

Mean­while, Mr. San­to­rum’s dowdy woolen vest may be ap­pro­pri­ate to lead the home­own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion, but it’s not ap­pro­pri­ate to lead the most pow­er­ful na­tion in the world. In­deed, one be­gins to won­der just what job Mr. San­to­rum is pur­su­ing. The public is most fa­mil­iar with his views on is­sues such as con­tra­cep­tion, higher ed­u­ca­tion, and the sepa­ra­tion of church and state — and his sweater vests. Is he run­ning for pres­i­dent or fa­ther in chief?

Though many of us ap­pre­ci­ate a stylish suit or creative tie, the pres­i­dent does not need to be fash­ion-for­ward. The pres­i­dent does need at­tire that con­veys re­spect for the job and lead­er­ship. The sweater vest isn’t quite the right look.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TO­GRAPHS

Broth­ers (from left) Laine, Lo­gan and Luke Hicks donned the sig­na­ture look of Rick San­to­rum dur­ing a cam­paign rally last month in Michi­gan. Vot­ers in the state, how­ever, gave more sup­port to Mitt Rom­ney, who Time mag­a­zine says “looks like a pres­i­dent.”

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