"Never underestimate the power of what you wear. After all, there is just a small bit of you sticking out at the collar and cuff. The rest of what the world sees is what you drape on your frame." –Oscar Schoeffler, editor of Esquire
Unlike the vice presidential debates, the presidential debates actually have some very important sartorial history behind them, known to have influenced the outcome of at least one election. In the first-ever televised debate in 1960, John F. Kennedy, looking young and fit defeated a pale, sans makeup (but political favorite) Richard Nixon not on substance or ideas, but on looks. Kennedy emerged from the debate with a lead in the polls, and simultaneously changed the way politics and democracy worked in America's new television era.
Take a look at how each man's clothing made them appear on TV. In black and white TV, Kennedy's dark suit and tie contrast perfectly with his white shirt and skin, whereas Nixon's light tie and light-gray suit made him look weak, almost like a ghost blending in with the wall behind him. Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes founder and director/producer of the Kennedy/Nixon televised debate, even went on to say that Kennedy won the debate on TV, but Nixon won it on the radio. With this bit of history in mind, let's get to the tape from last night, and although this one wasn't as easy to call (where's Paul Ryan when you need him?), this committee (of one) again found a binder-full to discuss.
Suits: Both candidates played it very safe last night with single-breasted, two-button, notch-lapel suits with flap pockets. President Barack Obama appeared to go with a deep midnight color -- a simple, effective choice for nighttime, and especially smart for the occasion since it's a color that absorbs artificial light very well. Gov. Mitt Romney's suit may have been midnight, but really it appeared to be black, which makes me want to offer my condolences to the governor or be told a sermon by him.
Either way, what is the American obsession with black suits? It's not a flattering color (especially not on Romney's lighter skin), it's not a versatile color, and it screams "I don't know what I'm doing. My mom just bought me my first suit!" It's almost like politicians want you to believe that they shop at discount stores out of necessity and boring taste. Maybe they want us to believe that the same "blind trust" that handles Romney's investments is the one making his clothing choices as well. I guess it would be a huge disaster for the American people to know that politicians are really rich men that love to spend money on, and brag about, their high-end suits.
As far as the cuts of the suits are concerned, there was really only one significant difference: Obama wore a dual-vented jacket, while Romney's was a center cut, single-vented piece. For those who don't know, vents are the vertical cuts, or slits, in the bottom of the jacket, usually to the side or in the back. Although the ventless jacket used to be standard and remain the most flattering kind, it generally restricts the wearer from movement and makes access to the trouser pockets almost impossible. Center vents came along centuries ago as men needed their jackets to give them room when they rode their horses. By cutting the back of the jacket in half from the bottom up, it would split perfectly in half while the wearer rode. That's why side vents are the most flattering of the two vent types. Not only does it provide a range of motion, it doesn't reveal the wearer's behind every time he moves one way or another. Ironically, side vents are associated with more expensive British-style suits, as they are more difficult to cut properly and require more fabric and tailoring. Center-vent suits, on the other hand, are generally associated with cheaper, lower-grade American craftsmanship. Maybe the candidates are venting out their stances on immigration.
Shirts: The real disappointment of the debate last night came in the form of the white dress shirt (I really don't listen to their words. I tried admitting this to readers in the first piece,). Men oftentimes make the mistake of buying a nice suit and then completely ignoring the shirt, guaranteeing that their nice suit will never actually look nice. First of all, can anybody confirm the candidates actually wore long-sleeve shirts last night? I think their cuffs were in hiding, for whatever reason. Second of all, if you're going to debate on live TV, I would highly suggest piecing together a look that will flatter the most important visual part of the debate – your face.
What does this mean for the candidates? Alan Flusser says: "think of your face as a portrait and your shirt collar as its frame." Simply put: the edges of your spread collar should be covered by your jacket, Gov. Romney. As a rule, you want the white V of your shirt showing under your jacket to be filled in the middle with a tie that draws the eyes upwards to your face, not two diminutive and flimsy-looking triangles that for some reason are right under your neck. What's weird is that Romney usually gets this right, but maybe his go-to shirt was stained by the spray-tan from his Univision appearance in Miami.
Neckwear: This is where things probably got really confusing for everybody last night. President Obama wore a red tie, Gov. Romney a blue one (and BOTH wives wore pink dresses). To the uninitiated, this was the political equivalent of "Face/Off." How does one even go about requesting a color? "Hey Mr. President, blue complements my skin much better than red, I call dibs for Tuesday, k?" Either way, this only proves my point that clothes are important, and these men care about the messages they're sending with their dress. I'm just not so sure about what exactly they were saying last night. Perhaps it was a swing-vote, "I appeal to everyone"-type move?
Either way, both men need to work on their tie-tying skills. President Obama's tie wasn't tight enough, and the dimple is a wimpy little indent under the knot. Romney was guilty of the same knotting issue, and not only was his tie striped (even I know this TV rule and I've never been on air) it was also too shiny, again distracting to the viewer. The thing men need to understand about the tie is that it is the one article in the ensemble that serves absolutely no purpose. As a rule they should be beautiful, both in appearance and presentation. Both candidates failed on this front last night.
Accessories: Just to remind you what country they're representing, both candidates wore American flag pins on their lapels. President Obama rounded out his outfit with a pink rubber bracelet for breast-cancer awareness and a watch. Although he disappointingly opted for what appeared to be a nautical sports watch on a leather band, rather than a true dress watch (can't let the country think you're rich enough to own multiple, nice watches). Romney chose to accessorize his outfit with an American flag pin that was twice the size of President's Obama's (maybe he's twice as patriotic?). This pin also featured another emblem or symbol set into the "stripe" part of the flag -- I think it was the pink breast-cancer awareness ribbon, but as much as I tried, I really couldn't tell. Here's what I don't get: Why are men who are so used to being on TV distracting their viewers with this nonsense? It also looks like Romney decided to further show off and bling out by wearing a shiny silver bracelet. Your trusted committee of one is not generally a fan of jewelry for men, but if this is a veiled political attempt at appealing to the oft-forgotten "gangbanger vote," then I'll have to allow it.
Results: Although this one was a much closer call than the vice presidential debate last week, this committee has ruled that there is inconclusive video evidence that Romney's suit, awful shirt, bracelet, and distracting pin were enough to award the victory to Obama.
Best Effort: This goes to Candy Crowley, the moderator, for leopard print on national TV.
Looking Ahead: How did America get to the point where a political figure can't express himself through his clothes? Female political figures, even the Presidential candidates' wives, wear high-fashion designer dresses worth thousands of dollars, and their style is constantly in the news. So why does the male politician dress his wealth and taste down? Winston Churchill left massive debts behind at his tailor for all his custom-made suits. Did any Brit doubt the man's ability to lead a nation? Did he alienate voters by being obsessed with his dress? What are these debates really telling us about how politicians want to present themselves non-verbally, and what are they telling us about America at the moment, in general?
For Sizing up the Candidates Pt. I: Paul Ryan vs. VP Joe Biden, click here.