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Can Clothes Make a Man? Ask Bob Dole

May 26, 1996|Richard Martin | Richard Martin is curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

NEW YORK — It's a make-over, just like on Sally! From bimbo to bambi. Or, in this case, from white collar to redneck. It may be that Bob Dole's first executive proclamation would be "casual Fridays." No candidate has ever shucked the tie of Washington more overtly than Dole--who has taken clothing as his essential transfiguration from powerful Senate majority leader to ordinary Joe coveting the uncommon office of U.S. president. Is there a platform in dressing down--especially for a Republican?

Of course, Democrats have allowed themselves the populist license of dressing casual. Robert F. Kennedy was the great campaigner who took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves--but even he conventionally kept his tie on. Similarly, Lyndon B. Johnson was a loyal son of hot Texas--where he would doff a jacket, but seldom stump without benefit of a tie. President Jimmy Carter affected blue jeans and cardigan sweaters as souvenirs of his peanut-farmer past. Bill Clinton and Al Gore, in 1992, often appeared together in casual clothing with open-collar shirts. But these are liberal Democrats.

Big-business Republicans were not expected to dress down. President Ronald Reagan affected rugged wear out of "Death Valley Days," but mostly kept to his "Bedtime for Bonzo" suits. President Richard M. Nixon, who seemed to have been born in a cheap suit, kept his awkwardly casual clothes for golf outings. Even Lamar Alexander, who made a point of wearing plaid flannel shirts during his short-lived campaign, justified the style on the basis of his Tennessee roots and made little sartorial or campaign progress. George Bush could occasionally look like a WASP New Englander dressed maladroitly out of the L.L. Bean catalog, yet his basic look was suit-and-tie professional.

But Dole as Homer Simpson? What can it mean that the ostensible Republican candidate for president, so long identified with dark suit and tie, is now parading before the electorate in an immaculate re-conceptualization as "just a man" in doofus outfits for the mall or auto speedway? Can a Republican turn collar and run--even if Dole does generally maintain his cuff links?

Can clothes make the man when the "man" is the common man campaigning for high office? We would all acknowledge the encroachments of casual dress in America. From clerks and bank tellers to executives, there has been a pronounced tendency in recent years to ratchet down a notch or two in dress. Even the most affluent shopper on Rodeo Drive wears Levi's--or Ralph Lauren rustics.

The workplace transformation is entirely due to the significant presence of women in the job force. Their versatile lives; their effectiveness in projecting images of power and personality, and their capacity to understand dress even when ambiguous have defeated the stuffed shirts and the pomposity of male dressing for work in the "dress for success" mode.

Yet, do we believe Dole is a new man when he scraps his tie and opens his collar? There is a fashionable ethos in business that casual attire promotes accessibility and agreeability. Thus, CEOs are said to be more approachable on casual Fridays, when there may be no dividing line--suit and tie--from workers. In some ways, we have always been susceptible to the idea that clothes proclaim the man. If there is a fallacy to the thinking, there is at least a current popular faith that casual clothing can ameliorate and humanize a too-rigid social and business hierarchy.

Dole may, in fact, benefit from that clothing faith and fallacy--at least initially. He shucked the Beltway faster by spurning a tie than by any other symbolic action. But does it render a new profile of Dole warranting fanfare for the common man? At the track, at the planned-impromptu rally in Chicago, the old man may seem slightly novel, but is Dole, the master politician, setting himself up to mingle or to lead? To so readily abandon a power symbol, when the objective is the awesome power of the presidency, suggests an odd vacillation.

Democracy both encourages individualism and a satisfaction in likeness. Its implications for modern consumerism and fashion are spelled out in philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky's "The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy." The same democratic urge that propels us to novelty and individuality as fashion consumers also draws us to conformity and to the rejection of fashion as too ephemeral. Yet, in a society of e pluribus unum, there is a wholeness, a oneness expressed in our archetypal jeans and sweats and work-wear. A garage worker's uniform of the 1950s and 1960s--the last time anyone really got service at a gas station--is now the rough-wear of college students. Designer Tommy Hilfiger recently used railroad workers' blue stripes for a collection that was equally proletarian and nostalgic--and inexorably heroic.

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