October 30, 2010 1:30 am

New Congress, new closet

Politicians are increasingly becoming sartorial role models – when they change position, so do the winds of trend

On Tuesday, Americans go to the polls in the much-ballyhooed game-changing midterm elections, and by Wednesday, things in Washington could look a lot different – not just metaphorically, but literally, too. If the results are, as pollsters and pundits keep predicting, out with a lot of the old and in with some new, there’s bound to be related fallout on the fashion front.

I’m not talking here, you understand, about the tendency of the odd Tea Party member to dress up like Abraham Lincoln, a weird costume development that will probably be on display in Stephen Colbert’s March to Keep Fear Alive in Washington, DC (the counterpart of Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity also taking place on Saturday in DC). And I’m not talking about a bump in Halloween sales of Sarah Palin costumes. I’m talking about the fact that increasingly, politicians are becoming sartorial role models. When they change position, so do the winds of trend.

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Vanessa Friedman

Before you roll your eyes and cry, as Barney’s window dresser Simon Doonan did recently in Slate: “A successful politician must appear to be Prada-oblivious” (translation: they shouldn’t look as if they spend taxpayer time or money thinking about fashion), consider the following study. Conducted by Professor David Yermack of the Stern School at New York University, and featured in the Harvard Business Review, the report looked at Michelle Obama’s public appearances from 2008 to 2009, and concluded that she had “created $2.7bn in cumulative abnormal returns – value over and above normal market variations – for fashion and retail companies associated with the clothes she wore.”

Ahem. That’s money directly linked to specific brands. Who are you calling oblivious now?

Meanwhile, after Mrs Obama’s husband was photographed wearing a Weatherproof bomber jacket on the Great Wall of China during a state visit, the company decided to send jackets to 200 other political leaders because “there isn’t an actor or model in Hollywood today that could compare to these prestigious and sometimes controversial political figures”, according to Weatherproof president Freddie Stollmack. This tallies with Prof Yermack’s discovery that Michelle Obama’s appearance in a brand was associated with a 2.3 per cent rise in returns for said brand, while the announcement of a new celebrity endorsement only resulted in a 0.5 per cent average gain.

Indeed, as a result of its experience, Weatherproof decided to test the premise that politicians were effective style conduits, and conducted a survey on the Huffington Post that asked: “How will style factor into the upcoming November midterm elections?”.

Of the 3,168 people who responded, only 45.3 per cent said a politician’s policies were more important than their presentation, and 38 per cent said they were “more likely to vote for a well-dressed candidate.” When asked to rank the most stylish female politicians, Nancy Pelosi came in first, Kirsten Gillibrand seventh, and Sarah Palin eighth. Which is interesting because – yes – all three women will be in the public eye during the upcoming elections.

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Pelosi, for example, may well lose her position as speaker of the house to Republican John Boehner – who is also known as a sharp dresser, though he tends less to Pelosi’s favoured Armani and more towards Mad Men-styled suiting (and a deep tan). As a result, the power of the female trouser suit could dim, while the Don Draper look could be given another boost.

Then there’s Senator Gillibrand, who is up for re-election, and who is currently the subject of a major feature shot by Norman Jean Roy in November’s American Vogue. Recently she was also described by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg as “stunning”. Her willingness to discuss her weight-loss efforts with the magazine and attend Fashion’s Night Out in New York are relatively groundbreaking for a female politician (most of whom fear being tainted as non-serious if they evince any interest in appearance), although all of it will come to nil if Gillibrand loses to her rival, the plain dressing Joseph DioGuardi.

Still, in the end, it’s the success, or not, of Palin and her mini-mes running for office (Christine O’Donnell, Michele Bachmann, Kelly Ayotte) that may have the greatest style repercussions. According to Prof Yermack: “Some vendors reported surges in sales of wigs in Palin’s hairstyle and her Kazuo Kawasaki eyeglasses when she was selected as John McCain’s running mate. Most notably, sales surged for the red Naughty Monkey pumps she wore for that announcement.” But there wasn’t enough data to quantify the effect.

Now, however, there may be more. These women offer a different kind of fashion role model to Pelosi and Hillary Clinton (who ranked the third most sartorially influential female politician), both of whom take the feminised-version-of-a-man’s-suit approach to professional dressing. By contrast, the Republican gals are all lush brown locks, bright skirt suits and boots; you can just imagine them drawling “women should look like women”, alongside their speeches on why government should look a lot smaller than it does.

If any of them win, expect a spike in the sales of 1950s shirtwaists and electric rollers.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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