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January 20, 2012 10:01 pm
Let us pause to consider the sweater vest, that milquetoast item of men’s wear that is neither a sweater nor a vest but something soft and cuddly and in-between. Let us pause to consider the fact that it has become, bizarrely, a sartorial player in the current Republican primary contest. Has ever a piece of clothing seemed less likely to be a political tool?
Yet check in on Rick Santorum today as South Carolina goes to the polls and you can put money on the fact that he will be wearing a sweater vest during his last push for votes. It is his uniform, just as the V-neck sweater and jeans have become standard wear for Mitt Romney while Newt Gingrich has adopted shirtsleeves and a jacket. But while the latter two candidates have been somewhat dismissive of their dressing, refusing to let it become part of the conversation (Romney hasn’t even deigned to acknowledge the assorted jibes and questions about his luxuriant head of hair, though The New York Times saw fit to put the issue on its front page), Santorum has adopted a somewhat more proprietary approach to his vests.
His attitude seems to be: if you can’t beat ’em – that is to say, if you can’t stop a media that makes image as much a part of public office as any platform – then you should join ’em: that is to say, own what you wear, metaphorically as much as literally. To be specific: if you visit the Santorum website you can find, under “donate”, a special limited edition offer. It’s so astonishing, I am going to quote it in full:
“For a limited time, donate $100 or more using the form below, and we will send you an official Rick Santorum For President sweater vest. Perfect for demonstrating solidarity with true conservatives, this vest is a great way to show your support for Rick. It’s 100 per cent cotton, made in the USA, comes in grey, and is yours for your contribution of $100 or more. Don’t let sleeves slow you down – donate today!”
I found this jaw-dropping at first – yes, the slogan T-shirt is a political basic but I can’t remember any other presidential candidate ever using other kinds of clothing in quite this way before – but then actually pretty smart. Though politicians from Margaret Thatcher to George W Bush have always known the effectiveness of being immediately associated with certain clothes, they have rarely been as overt or transparent about their tactics.
By making the vest part of his fundraising campaign Santorum has transformed it from often-mocked grandpa/academic wear to semiological signature: see a man in a sweater vest and, at least for the near future (things may change as the campaign progresses), your first thought will not be “nerd!” but rather “Santorum supporter!”. Conversely, he has also ensured that those who are not Santorum supporters will, at least for the moment, have to stay away from sweater vests lest all sorts of erroneous assumptions be made about their politics. It’s an impressive bit of outflanking.
. . .
And though the sweater vest might at first glance seem a weird garment to have chosen, given its rather wimpish associations, in practice it has proven surprisingly useful. It has provided the Santorum campaign with the means for great word play – active demonstration of that section of the Bill of Rights so beloved of conservatives that gives people “the right to bare arms” – as well as a terrific metaphor for Santorum himself: like the vest, the candidate was originally dismissed as an insignificant factor in the election (in some places even a bit of a joke) but he has proven startlingly popular and resilient, if just for the moment.
What’s more, even beyond the symbolism, Santorum’s sweater vests have provided his campaign with narrative ammunition about having helped a segment of the economy: Santorum told Fox talk show host Sean Hannity that he had heard from many retailers that, thanks to his promotion of the garment, said stores were selling out of the sweater vests. And though the vests were originally available only until January 11 on the Santorum website, when I checked back on the 12th the offer still stood, with the new billing, “Extended by popular demand”. It is possible that this is a ploy to make people like me think the sweater vests (and by extension Santorum’s campaign) are doing very well when, in truth, they have only sold 10 items, but I doubt it.
Either way, the big question now is whether, thanks to Santorum, 2012 will mark the year that politicians finally embrace fashion, overtly as opposed to covertly, as yet another weapon in their campaign arsenal. Whether, whatever his rivals think of Santorum’s ideas, they will at least see the value in co-opting what has been a pundit’s bludgeon and putting it to use. And though I deplore many of the things Santorum stands for (don’t get me started on the birth-control thing); though I can’t actually imagine a world where he becomes Republican candidate for president; in this one case, at least, I think he’s done something smart.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman
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