Rep. Paul D. Ryan's ill-fitting suit on the day he joined Mitt Romney… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
When Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R.-Wis.) billowed onto the national political stage in Norfolk, Va., as Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate this month, the reaction was swift and unanimous — at least among the fashion-focused.
Press pundits, fashion critics and men's magazines bemoaned sartorial missteps such as a suit jacket so voluminous and ill-fitting it could have been inspired by David Byrne's "Stop Making Sense" suit. Kurt Soller, writing for Esquire, described Ryan's get-up as "a trash-bag black suit with a silhouette that would be great — if you were Herman Munster." Words like "rumpled," "ill-fitting" and "sloppy" peppered reports in the Washington Post, Women's Wear Daily and New York magazine. Commentary was served up with a tone of bewilderment: Why was the ab-crunching adherent to the arduous P90X fitness program hiding his assets?
And the slings and arrows of social media took the pride of Janesville, Wis., to task for turning up sans necktie — the kind of symbolic jettisoning of the noose of corporate oppression that might have resonated if only Ryan weren't essentially vying for the second most powerful corporate job in the free world.
"Everybody was commenting on it," says Susan Abrams, a Los Angeles-based political image consultant. "I even saw other image consultants posting about the ill-fitting jacket on their Facebook pages, and I just thought: 'That's so not about the issues,' but it really does play a role."
Ryan is hardly the first politician whose sense of style (or lack thereof) has become part of the national conversation. Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton was pilloried for her pantsuits, President Obama was derided for his dad jeans. Sarah Palin's vice presidential candidacy sparked demand for Kawasaki 704 rimless eyeglass frames and upswept hairstyles — and made headlines when it was reported that the Republican National Committee had picked up a $150,000 tab for wardrobing her and some of her family.
One theory about why half the Republican ticket made his debut on the national stage looking like he was wearing hand-me-downs from the other half is that the rumpled Ryan in all his unfettered, bratwurst-making, bow-hunting glory offers a relatable counterweight to Romney's focus-grouped sense of style. Asking him to switch up to a slimmer suit coat before entering the political arena might feel somehow inauthentic — akin to asking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to shed a few pounds before delivering the keynote speech at the National Republican Convention.
And, make no mistake about it, the way Ryan looked when he took the stage next to Romney was no last-minute wardrobe malfunction. Thanks to his 14-year career in the public eye, we're able to confirm that the blousy, oversized dress shirt with the too-long arms, the rumpled trousers and the kiddie pool of a jacket have been staples of the Ryan wardrobe since his first run for public office in 1998.
Another constant seems to be the black digital watch strapped to Ryan's left wrist — it can be seen in photos where he's in workout gear and crossing his forearms into muscled X's with P90X program creator Tony Horton, as well as at the Aug. 11 candidacy announcement. Post-announcement photos also show what appears to be an Apple iPhone holstered to Ryan's belt — the less said about that fashion offense the better (at least with jackets as roomy as Ryan's it won't show.)
The MIA neckwear was a bit of a head scratcher though, since Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has a well-documented proclivity for wider and more garish than normal neckties. We've seen them fluttering in the wind as he trailed President George W. Bush down the steps of Air Force One in 2006 and draping his front like two-thirds of a purple-striped lobster bib when he introduced his "Path to Prosperity" budget recommendations on Capitol Hill in 2011.
Abrams says that tweaks to a candidate's personal style can pay dividends to the overall campaign. "[I]t's not about packaging someone to be phony, or in a way that doesn't have authenticity or integrity," she says. "It's about presenting and projecting a message — whatever the campaign message is — through their behavior and their clothing. That's the importance of it."
For her part, Abrams says she wouldn't have allowed any candidate to take to the political stage for an important announcement "without making some changes or revisions — and that's true on almost any level from governor on up."
"Sometimes the younger generation sort of bucks the traditional rules," she says. "You see that a lot with celebrities and even young executives. But, when it comes to a national stage, that's not where you make those sort of decisions." In other words, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg might get a pass for wearing a hoodie to his IPO, but for the 42-year-old congressman at the heart of the veep-stakes, it's a whole different ball game.