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It has been a week of trans-oceanic change, from Nicolas Ghesquière taking the design chair at Louis Vuitton in Paris to Virginia abandoning its traditional Republican loyalties and electing Terry McAuliffe as governor and New York voting for Bill de Blasio to replace Michael Bloomberg in Gracie Mansion. Of the three events, it’s the latter that strikes me as the most potentially subversive. And probably not for the reasons you think.
When de Blasio swept the mayoral election on Tuesday it was clear that a new era had begun. Not just because the de Blasios are a mixed-race family, or the first Democrats to lead the city in 20 years; but because the de Blasios are a mixed-style family. In recent political history, I can’t recall another.
I mean, there they were on stage at the Park Slope Armory: the mayor-elect in what his daughter Chiara once described as “boring white-guy” garb (in the sense that while he might look like a boring white guy, he isn’t): dark suit, white shirt, red striped tie. Next to him was his wife Chirlane McCray and their 16-year-old son Dante with, yes, a suit and tie, too, but also a Jackson 5-like afro so impressive it prompted Mia Farrow’s son Ronan to tweet: “The real winner tonight: Dante de Blasio’s hair.” And there was Chiara crowned with a headband of white roses that nicely offset her ear-lobe plugs. It’s about the accessories, stupid. Rarely have visuals sent as succinct a message about change.
From the Obamas, whose daughters’ wore colour-blocked J Crew coats at their father’s first inauguration, to Mitt Romney and his mini-me sons in khakis and blue button-downs, political families have been getting more, not less, on-sartorial-message.
And while this is most obvious in America, where families tend to be trotted out for Instagram moments at every opportunity, it isn’t limited to it: Tony Blair’s children routinely posed for family portraits at the entrance to Number 10, always dressed in the sort of clothes one’s mother might deem “appropriate” and most children label “uncomfortable.” And though arguably this was yet another example of Blair’s proto-American approach, it seems to have taken hold: current Labour party leader Ed Miliband’s two young sons are often photographed in matching outfits.
Contemporary political image-making has seen families become part of the platform, and dictated that they should be groomed accordingly – whatever their personal preferences. And as such, these appearances have started to feel more and more synthetic, right at a time when the general conversation leans heavily on words such as “genuine”.
De Blasio, however, has turned all this on its head. In letting his family look so clearly individual (and not in a manufactured, Spice Girl way), he has not only reinforced his credentials as a regular guy but opened up his potential voter base immensely: not just to liberals, but to anyone wanting to put their own stamp on their lives. These kids honestly look like they shop for themselves, whether it’s the sequinned hot pants and bustier that Chiara wore for the gay pride parade in spring, or Dante’s variously coloured T-shirts and jeans.
No wonder then that a generation famously sensitive to any sort of marketing has adopted the de Blasio children as symbols. They are widely lauded on Twitter, especially Chiara. Here is @HoolieP: “WAIT. Chiara de Blasio does an ad for her dad’s mayoral campaign wearing a headpiece of giant pink roses. This is now my new favorite thing”. And @flimlim: “Chiara de Blasio is my style icon, I don’t care.”
If anything, de Blasio’s win makes you wonder why it took his peers so long to realise that perhaps letting kids “be themselves” was a good idea when it comes to attracting a diverse electorate.Indeed, not long ago the Republicans obviously realised they had missed a trick, and started attacking him for letting his kids be front and centre in his campaign. (Clearly, not a very effective tactic.)
As clear is the lesson that allowing individuals to look individual does not mean ceding any of the power of image – it may actually mean increasing it. Certainly, the younger de Blasios have been notably savvy about each acquiring an identifying characteristic, from the afro to the roses, that gives them an instant-recognisability factor. Indeed Dante’s hairstyle became so visible during the campaign that it got its own hashtag (#gowiththefro).
All this makes me wonder if we may be seeing the end of the stage-managed family. Granted, that might be overly optimistic, and I am sure an argument can be made that while this sort of sartorial freedom works in New York, it wouldn’t play in Peoria, Illinois. But I tend to think we’re at a tipping point. At least it looks that way.
More columns at ft.com/friedman