September 17, 2008

Menswear War: How Harper and Dion use sweaters; whether to blue suit or not to blue suit; and how style became a 2008 election issue in Canada



The Conservative party's strategic deployment of the blue sweater vest to soften Canadians' impression of Stephen Harper has turned the sartorial sensibility of all the candidates into a campaign side issue.

Taking the initiative, Harper now owns the sweater. While in previous campaigns politicians have pulled out sweaters to show solidarity with the regular folks, something is different this time around because it worked.

It would seem no other candidate can now wear a cardigan, vest or pullover without cuing close clothes watchers to reference Harper's first strike (as seen in the above still from the first volley of Conservative election ads - this one titled, "Family is Everything").

It reminds me of Nike's attempts in the 1980s to initiate branding by electronic colonisation. The athletic shoe maker faded their famous swoosh logo into a field of TV static with the hopes of making electronic snow a visual cue for viewers to see the Nike logo where it wasn't.

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Everybody knows if you wear a blue suit you're a "suit". However, this election it doesn't really pay to wear any other colour. Yes, there is an old English tradition of socialist and labour leaders wearing black suits as a nose-thumbing to Tory blue - but at least they were smart enough to avoid weaker tints.

Jack Layton, who in the past, has been caught in murky grey suits that appear green under the lights (or are they murky green suits that appear grey?) has stuck with a front-runner's blue. Tory may lay claim to inky indigos and the Liberals have the less masculine red...and the NDP have orange with green highlights. Jack, stick with the blue suits and say NO to orange ties.

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What about St├ęphane Dion? This week, he too has adopted the blue suit. And better yet, he has in his arsenal an absolutely dark shade of blue in two-button form. He's taken a fairly sophisticated approach and paired them with nice on-blue foulard print or jacquard square ties with tiny squares or diamonds. This is a nice break from the endless striped (regimental) ties I have seen. So, for Dion, I award a Snazzy.

One tip I would offer is: Super dark, midnight blues are best because they are resistant to the wacky white balances video cameras must adapt to compensate for different temperature lights. Only the darkest blue suits will stay bold and dark under all lighting conditions.

Dion did go with a grey for his visit to Newfoundland. There seems to be stripes or herringbone patterns, who knows, and that's what you want to avoid. Visual ambiguity. Though, his colouring does do well in a grey suit for in-person appearances. I suppose he's a "winter." Just not so good for the camera.

Actually, here's another good tip. Candidates should dress in front of a video camera and monitor instead of a mirror. This is a good way of figuring out what will look good on camera.

If Stephen Harper followed this advice, he never would have appeared in this atrocity. The light colours make him look heavy and do not convey a sense of strength. Actually, it looks cheap.


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Obviously, candidates want to relax their look once and awhile, especially if the goal is to sway blue collar votes. Dion did a pretty good job by having the best of both worlds. On Sunday, he work a blue suit with a burgundy (a nod to Liberal red) sweater and an open neck.

Not bad, but I vote for candidates to keep their ties firmly knotted. And, in the case of Dion, I recommend he keep his dark suit pants on and give the blue jacket a break during the day by wearing a herringbone tweed sports coat with elbow patches. Preferably dark.

It will evoke his professorial credentials without making him look stuffy.

Though, one may have to wear it with the burgundy sweater if a dark version can not be found. We don't want the whole outfit to come across too pale.


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One final thing. I've noticed all the candidates have attempted a bit of variety by wearing striped shirts. However, most have adopted framed striped shirts. This is where a thicker main stripe is bracketed by two smaller stripes of another colour. DON'T WEAR THEM.

They often look like the below:












Harper's Bengal-striped shirt from earlier today is slightly better (right).
If digital strobing can be avoided, candidates may want the more sophisticated butcher striped shirt. The lines are more distinct and graphic with a simple foreground-background relationship. Another option is the pinstripe shirt, which, unlike the pinstripe suit, has a nice relaxed allure to it with the stripes being thicker, yet straight forward.

Remember, how you dress occupies the greater bandwidth of non-verbal communication. And since personality and leadership qualities have become a major selling point among the candidates, it would make sense to dress the part.

Sorry, Ms. May - you need to snap it up.

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