Much has been made of women's clothing on the campaign trail, but men face just as many potential style hazards. During Wednesday night's GOP debate at the Reagan Library, subtle clothing choices could help convey a male candidate's authority before he even opens his mouth. Poor style choices could leave voters wondering why he looked "off," even if they can't pinpoint exactly why. And while Michele Bachmann's style may be the most talked about of the GOP field, the party's male presidential hopefuls have made their share of fashion faux pas.
Wednesday night will mark the first time that the dashing, if slightly over-dressed, Rick Perry joins the stage. Even given Perry's flair for the dramatic, viewers can expect the men to be wearing some version of the political uniform across the board: dark suit, white shirt, neutral tie. But if prior debates are any indication, there will be plenty of variety on display among the 'gents -- ranging from dapper to downright schlubby.
Consider, for example, the colossal failure of fit showcased by nearly every male participant in the August GOP debate in Iowa. Shoulders looked heavy or overly padded on some candidates, and sagging on others. Jackets jutted out beyond the true shoulder and necks seemed to disappear; triple-pleated pants added pounds, while trousers and sleeves begged for hemming. Of the group, Mitt Romney's jacket was by far the best fitting -- Ron Paul's collapsed at the shoulder, and Newt Gingrich's pulled at the buttons. In short, the right fit helped cast one candidate as a broad-backed Atlas and more than one as a struggling Sisyphus.
Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are a study in style contrasts at the August debate in Iowa.
Ron Paul's jacket had oversize shoulders at the first GOP debate in June. As a result, the six-foot-tall congressman's head looks smaller than average.
Ron Paul's awkward shoulder padding appears to date back to his 2008 presidential bid, judging by this debate photo. Again, the padding juts out, causing Paul's neck and head to look smaller.
One of the younger GOP candidates, Rick Santorum would do well to lose a few pleats from his trousers. Contrary to the old wives' tale, they don't camouflage a person's midsection, only emphasize it, as they did for Santorum.
In his double-breasted suit and yellow tie, pizza entrepreneur Herman Cain has staked out style territory for himself that's well beyond the single-breasted-suit-and-red-or-blue-tie of traditional politics. This is likely a political calculation itself: At the August debate, Cain's ensemble stood out amidst a field of seasoned politicians.
Of course, the whole "dressing differently" thing can get a little tiring in Herman Cain's case, given that he wore the same suit with a gold tie to the June debate, the August debate, and this week's forum in South Carolina. If he wears it again on Wednesday, he'll start looking silly.
There's no nice way to say this, but Newt Gingrich needs to let his jackets out. At the June debate, his center button pulled and creased, even with his arms at his sides.
Rick Perry bucked political tradition when he announced his candidacy for president last month wearing loud cufflinks, a monogrammed French-cuff shirt, and a bucket of bling on his left hand. But don't expect to see all this at once on the campaign trail: The shiny watch, stacked rings and flashy cufflinks might prove a little much for the GOP electorate.
It's not every man who can rock cuff links with a gun -- sometimes it's Al Pacino, other times, it's Rick Perry. This 2010 photo-op highlighted Perry's athletic-cut suit, too.
Mitt Romney and Jon Hunstman, Jr. may be the best dressers in the GOP field, but they're also the most predictable. Expect them to look exactly the same as usual for Wednesday's debate, with the possible addition of American flag lapel pins perched upon staggeringly expensive suits.
You've heard this before, but a good suit should appear effortless. It should look well-balanced and perfectly fit the wearer's physique. To help decipher who needs what, there are three dominant cuts on the market (though no retailer would likely ever admit this): the classic suit offers extra room in the jacket, worn well by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; the modern suit fits closer to the body, a style favored by President Obama; and the athletic-cut suit tends to allow for a broader shoulder and then nip in at the waist, Rick Perry's preferred style.
For a candidate in a second-rate suit, however, all is not lost. Politicians need to relate to their constituents, and there may be a political advantage to looking average instead of great. Few Americans can afford a custom-made suit, especially these days, and just as a presidential hopeful weighs the optics of chartering a private jet over taking the bus, a few candidates will likely make similar decisions about their "debate look."
Beyond the basics, personal touches will undoubtedly creep into the otherwise uninspired folds of the classic debate suit on Wednesday night. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, look for an increase in American flag lapel pins -- only Bachmann and Herman Cain wore them to the August debate. Also look out for cuff links, a splashy signature of Rick Perry's Texas swagger, but a rare sight on other candidates. Clunky rubber soled shoes and slip-on loafers are also iffy choices, but likely to pop up during the debate: Ron Paul wore thick rubber soles to the last debate, while Romney and Gingrich both sported loafers. Handlers may argue that casual footwear denotes approachability, but the truth is, it simply makes these men look underdressed for the most important job in the world.
A man's suit is his armor, and as debate season ramps up for the GOP's leading men, that suit should help make each candidate look taller and more confident. The wise politician knows that style is not about money -- even on an HDTV screen, a man's suit is only as good as it fits.
For live tweets from the style section throughout the GOP debate, follow @FashionWhip.
All photos: Getty Images
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