SCENE: Upscale menswear store. ENTER: The three presidential candidates.
Ross Perot: Show me everything you got. First, I want to dispel myth No. 645: I am a dowdy dresser. Let's fix that. Second, I'm not mediocre, so why should my attire suggest that kinda thang? Gimme new duds.
George Bush: Not gonna do it. Not gonna do pinstripes anymore. Be a fool to deny it: Conservative dressing is dull. This means an agenda for vestment renewal. Read my lips: I want new garb.
Bill Clinton: It's time to change... clothes. It's time to give the American people new raiment. I have put forth a plan to clothe myself according to whatever situation I find myself in.
The scenario might seem a bit silly. After all, presidential candidates dress conservatively for good reasons. But for a moment, imagine a time when politicians' attire was more sporty, and the public welcomed a show of style. The gray suit, white shirt, and red-striped tie would be deemed unacceptable, with cries of "too predictable!" "unimaginative," "stuffy," and "outdated."
With a little fun in mind, we asked Scott Seltzer, buyer for Sola, a menswear store here, to give each of the candidates a fashion makeover.
Perot's was the only one that really "came to me" Mr. Seltzer says. "For a man who's so outspoken, and hearing his Texas accent, I couldn't let him leave the store without a flannel cowhide-print shirt," says Seltzer. The irridescent plaid tie? "For the man who has everything, he needed a tie that would go with everything."
George Bush got a break from pinstripes when Seltzer chose a "play on patterns." The different shapes and patterns all work together as in a black-and-white photo, he explains.
Thinking of Clinton's coloring, "I went right for the orange-rust jacket," says Seltzer. The boot plays off the color in the jacket, while the tie picks up all the colors.
Seltzer, whose actual clients range from architects and graphic designers to college professors and students, says that unusual ties are some of his best-selling items. "Ultimately everything filters into the mainstream," he says. Menswear - and fashion in general - is all about pushing boundaries in patterns, textures, colors, and fibers. Although Seltzer says he's not sure that we'll see upheaval in presidential fashion policies any time soon, he muses: "If you're a strong candidate it shouldn't matter
what you have on."
But in the real world, of course, presidential candidates must dress conservatively. Especially with television cameras lurking at every turn, anything they wear that's distracting could be subject to ridicule. (Remember Jerry Brown's turtlenecks and Paul Simon's bow ties?)
"Their clothes have to avoid sending out any strong messages," says Valerie Steele, teacher of fashion history at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "Anything they wear will be picked up on," continues Dr. Steele. "Most of the time politicians have to try and dress down - respectably, casually, middle class, middle of the road. The public hates it when candidates look really rich," she adds.
Conservative dressing tends to project a caring, well-rounded, credible, thinking person; not a spendthrift, notes Fred Knapp, owner of Frederick Knapp Assoc. Inc., an image- consulting firm in New York.
Image consultants are no strangers to politicians' payrolls. Their purpose is to examine the minutiae of personal presentation, from hand gestures to hairstyles. "We work with the details, not to deceive, but simply to deal with the realities of how people react to others," explains Mr. Knapp.
Knapp offers some research data: When we meet someone for the first time, or see them on television, we form quick judgments: During the first ten to 30 seconds and up to a period of two to three minutes, we react 55 percent to what we see, 37 percent to the way the person sounds, and 8 percent to the content of what person is saying, Knapp says.
If leaders shouldn't wear "thousand-dollar suits and alligator shoes," as Ross Perot put it, can they ever be too understated? Although opinions vary, some observers note that casualness - when used cautiously - can be an advantage. For a candidate to be seen in jogging attire, for example, has been known to send a positive message. Sporting a baseball cap or rolling up sleeves suggests a "regular guy," which can be read as a plus. Stressing the casual can also put at risk credibility.
Still, at the end of the day, the goal is persuasion, says Dorothy Sarnoff, chairman of Speech Dynamics Inc. To do that, the candidate needs to reach the mind, heart, and soul of voters, Ms. Sarnoff says. Clothes should serve as an attraction, but "the most important thing in image is presence and carriage."