Mirror, Mirror: Fashion politics: What they wear could sway whom we elect

Creating jobs is the most important talking point for the candidates vying to be president, but style is affecting the campaign in ways it has never done before.

Of course, a focus on image in elections is nothing new. Even before a sweating Richard M. Nixon faced the handsome, cool John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, image mattered to the public.

Still, election 2012 has reached a fevered fashion pitch. From the moment Republican candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, took the stage at the Republican National Convention in August, we've been evaluating the Romneys and the Obamas like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian on the red carpet.

Couple our growing obsession with the wardrobes of the well-heeled and the ubiquity of social media, and every time the big political players take the stage, you get a bunch of amateur fashion critiques and high-tech memes. What once was supplied only by traditional news outlets is now the purview of every Jane with a Twitter account.

"Social media has democratized how we make and send out images," explained James Peterson, director of Africana studies at Lehigh University. "People can take a picture of Ann Romney, or Barack Obama, or even Big Bird and manipulate it. . . . those quick impressions become lasting."

Just check out the Tumblr blog that resulted from Romney's "binders full of women" comment last week (bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com). Now, Obama's we-have-fewer-horses-and-bayonets quip from Monday's debate is making its rounds among folks good with Photoshop.

Many argue it is unfortunate that Americans seem to be more preoccupied with image than with foreign policy. Even the candidates - who say they care about substance over style - were practicing rehearsed zingers before the debates. That's more about appearances than budgets.

In an election season that has proven candidates have little control over how, and how often, images are distributed, it's no wonder they need to constantly monitor their image.

Ask Paul Ryan. He unfortunately agreed to pose in a baseball cap while curling dumbbells for Time magazine last year. The photos were released hours before the vice presidential debate and re-posted ad nauseam. Even when he's wearing a suit, I still see him dressed for the gym.

The presidential candidates have been more careful: While campaigning, Romney has turned to jeans and a plaid shirt, a look that says he's down with the people. Obama has little choice but to look presidential at all times. His most casual outfit is a suit, sans jacket and tie, sleeves rolled up.

Romney wore almost-black suits in all of his debate appearances. Obama wore a navy blue suit during the first debate, but switched to a darker charcoal - a move that signaled his understanding that the public wanted more of an alpha male.

"By the second debate, he proved he was back in the game," explained Richard Bates, chief creative officer of the Brand Union, a New York-based brand analysis group.

"But it's the candidates' wives' choices that really give us a peek into what the men are thinking," explained Joannie C. Danielides, president of Danielides Communications, a public relations agency, and press secretary for former New York first lady Donna Hanover.

After all, you can draw more conclusions about the cut of a fuchsia dress than about the candidates' basic uniform - white shirt, dark suit, flag pin.

"The women's vote became more and more crucial as election season has progressed," said Susan Mackey-Kallis, associate professor of politics, media, and culture at Villanova University. "The wives are really key in courting the women's vote, and the wives show a stark contrast to the candidates' different visions."

Michelle Obama's edgier, sleeker looks by a younger group of designers, including the recycled Thom Browne dress she wore Monday night, send a subliminal message that she, and therefore her husband, embrace new and innovative ideas. When designers are quick to tweet her fashion choices, it shows they embrace her - and possibly him. It can't hurt to be liked by a hip industry that many women follow and connect with.

And the first lady made political fashion headlines during the Democratic National Convention when designer Tracy Reese was prompted to reproduce the special-for-Obama, nearly $500 dress and have it on shelves this fall. It's one thing when a designer sells out of a dress after Beyoncé wears it. It's another when demand inspires the mass production a one-of-a-kind dress made for a politician's wife.

And then there's the craze set off by Obama's gray nails. She made mainstream the color that was once solely for the über-fashion conscious.

During this election season, Ann Romney has been hailed for wearing Alfred Fiandaca's saturated pastels and unique patterns on simple silhouettes. However, it's her recent penchant for Oscar de la Renta that sends the most interesting message - she thinks she's fit for the White House. Yet the de la Renta camp has been quiet about taking credit for dressing her - a loud signal that the fashion industry likely doesn't embrace her husband.

After all, Mitt Romney is opposed to gay marriage. It's hard to picture someone like Jason Wu getting excited about designing Ann Romney's inaugural gown when her husband could prevent Wu from marrying his partner.

"This is really a very close election," said Villanova's Mackey-Kallis. "The candidates' images are factors that can really change the outcome of an election."

And if fashion can sway a vote, maybe we should stop treating it like a passing fancy.


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.