September 7, 2012 7:45 pm

Politics of perception in the image age

Isn’t it time we started to take fashion spin seriously?
Mitt and Ann Romney at the Republican convention©AP

Mitt and Ann Romney at the Republican convention

Mitt Romney wavering between red and blue ties, Paul Ryan’s ill-fitting suits, Barack Obama’s undone knots, Michelle Obama’s move away from Oscar de la Renta and Ann Romney’s embrace of the same – all the sartorial talk during the Republican and Democratic conventions of the past two weeks. Does any of it really matter?

Shouldn’t we focus on the debate, reality and fantasy surrounding the candidates – on Medicare, abortion, taxes, the euro and the renminbi? Isn’t this obsessive litany and analysis of what our public figures wear and how they wear it unseemly, old-fashioned, sexist (there was much more comment on Ann Romney’s red dress than her husband’s red tie) and superficial?

No.

Not that we shouldn’t discuss truth and lies in policy, but it is time to acknowledge that the importance of dress in politics is enormous. Paying attention to how our statesmen and women look is not an example of old-fashioned thought; it’s a phenomenon born of the contemporary age, and – I’m pretty sure about this – it is only going to get more extreme.

The Obama family in smart dress©Getty

The Obamas in smart dress with their children

Because here’s the thing: the corollary to the information age is the image age, and we live in an era of image politics. The more obsessed and reliant we become on immediate communication, the faster we need our data and the faster we need to process it. And the very fastest way to receive any kind of information is visually.

Before we read the position papers (assuming anyone actually does read them), before we listen to speeches (assuming you do listen to them), even before we hear sound bites (those you can’t avoid), we see the people issuing them. And we judge them. And those judgments are based, most often, on their clothes and their hair.

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in casual attire©Getty

The Obamas in more casual attire

Once upon a time, when radio and newspapers were the basic public source of knowledge (when Harry Truman got his “emergency” cables once a week in a special room in his holiday home in the Florida Keys), words and how you used them mattered, and Franklin D Roosevelt could be president for 12 years without most of the electorate even realising he was in a wheelchair. Not any more. Pictures are the currency of the internet and the mobile world – it’s why Pinterest and Tumblr have become so successful – and our shared language is visual. Everyone in the public eye knows this, from celebrities to heads of state to captains of industry – men as well as women. Though Hillary Clinton declared, when she ran for president, that people wouldn’t care so much about her clothes if she was a man, it’s worth remembering that, while her hair has been written about for years (by me, among others), it never ended up on the front page of a newspaper. But Mitt Romney’s did – thanks to The New York Times late last year. I am sure he has not forgotten.

French housing minister Cécile Duflot addressing the parliament©Photoshot

French housing minister Cécile Duflot

There’s a reason every American political candidate wears those little American flag pins; a reason why they are always in shirtsleeves and jeans or khakis and not navy suits when stumping in the heartland. There’s a reason such a hoo-ha was created this summer when Cécile Duflot, the French housing minister, got up to address her parliament wearing a floral, 1950s-style dress, and many of the men in the room started hooting and wolf-whistling.

The moment went viral on YouTube and, suddenly, a debate was raging, from the internet to the BBC, about whether her choice of dress was a response to her first controversial fashion moment, wearing jeans to the official cabinet portrait, and thus her colleagues’ reaction was, in fact, about her apparent attempt to use clothes to influence opinion, or whether it was mere sexism. (I lean towards the former.)

Yulia Tymoshenko©AP

Yulia Tymoshenko

There’s also a reason why Duflot’s boss, François Hollande, had a makeover between his first, losing campaign for Socialist party candidate in 2007 and his recent successful one; a reason jailed former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko always wore her hair in traditional braids; a reason why Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein, when testifying before Congress, wore the exact same outfit – navy suit, blue tie, white shirt – that Obama, Romney (and often David Cameron) have adopted as a quasi-uniform. These are tribal markings – the first signals that someone is like you or not, from which many of us extrapolate that they then think like us or share our concerns.

Mitt and Ann Romney©AP

Mitt and Ann Romney at leisure

So, isn’t it about time we all stopped being embarrassed about this and acknowledged it’s time to take fashion spin seriously? Jim Messina and Matt Rhoades, the campaign managers for Obama and Romney, respectively, certainly do. Whatever the two men and their families wear during the next two months as the campaign gets into full swing will have been thought through down to the last detail.

. . .

Clothes may exist on the surface but that is not the same thing as being superficial. Indeed, there’s nothing superficial about trying to anticipate and outflank people’s perceptions of you, and clothes are the frontline of communication between an individual and everyone who sees them. You can ask why we let ourselves be manipulated in this matter but I think the answer is: it’s basic human instinct.

And it’s universal. People may not feel equipped to judge Obama’s healthcare reforms or Romney’s tax policies without a certain amount of knowledge or research (or, then again, they may and we may all wish they wouldn’t), but everyone wears clothes – everyone makes choices about clothes – and thus no one has any compunction about judging other people’s clothes. It’s the reason the decibel level is always higher in a museum costume show than a Kandinsky retrospective (for example). People feel qualified to have, and voice, opinions.

Fashion is the most efficient way in: to hearts and minds and votes. That makes it a powerful weapon. Ignore it, dismiss it, and underestimate it at your peril.

Well, that’s my platform, anyway.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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