By Lyndon Conrad Bell
Rating the President's Threads

"Naked people have little or no influence on society." Mark Twain

When it comes to political candidates, how they look can be as important as what they say. Remember the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960? JFK seemed calm and confident, Nixon looked tired and shifty. TV viewers saw Kennedy as the winner of the debate. Radio listeners thought Nixon the winner.

It doesn't take Gore Vidal to break it down: Kennedy looked sharp. He dressed in an authoritative dark suit, while Nixon wore a capricious gray number. Two years later, Nixon said it best: "I believe I spent too much time in the last campaign on substance and too little on appearance."

Flash forward to our current presidential race. Gore is on the campaign trail in casual attire, while Bush is favoring the traditional coat and tie. What is Gore trying to say?

Professor Phil Klinkner, a political scientist specializing in campaigns and elections at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., says it's a reflection of the times. "Back in the 1920s you would see pictures of Calvin Coolidge wearing a suit while out camping." Today, just as candidates are more likely to appear in less formal settings town hall meetings, on MTV and Oprah they are also more likely to dress casually.

Sherry Maysonave, president of Empowerment Enterprises and author of Casual Power: How to Power Up your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success, says, "Gore's casual dress is part of an attempt to appeal to younger voters, and folks of the casual dot-com mentality." The vice president is trying to set aside his image of being stiff, formal and aloof, while Bush, with his conservative attire, is scratching for as much credibility as he can muster.

That said, what constitutes presidential attire?

"Most presidents favor the conservative single-breasted suit," says Maysonave. "This, of course, varies as presidents are not immune to the dictates of fashion." Some are even credited with starting trends. After John Kennedy attended his inaugural ceremony hatless (he was the first president to do so), hats fell out of favor in men's fashion.

One thing remains clear: clothes have a strong influence on our perception of people. Studies show that 55 percent of all communication is nonverbal.

"If a candidate's appearance is distracting, the impact of his words is reduced even further," says Maysonave. "To be taken seriously, to be seen as an authority, as the guy with the right answers and to be heard a candidate must be impeccably groomed and appropriately attired."

After all, look at what happened to Dick Nixon.

The man's dress suit is more than an article of clothing; it's a symbol.

A quality suit says the wearer is educated, successful, professional, powerful and competent. It isn't surprising then that the dress suit has become the president's uniform.

Like all uniforms, a president's suit can be broken down into components. The main parts are the suit itself, the dress shirt and the power tie.

Most presidents have worn single-breasted suits of a conservative cut. They generally favor one-button styles. Brown suits still don't command the respect that black, navy or gray do. For example, when President Clinton gave his last State of the Union address, he went with a navy herringbone suit coupled with a white cotton shirt, and a navy tie dotted with gold squares. It was a very rich and powerful look.

The white shirt, particularly when worn with a dark suit, is still considered the most authoritative power shirt. The French-blue (darker and brighter than the traditional oxford blue) shirt began to gain popularity in the early '90s, and Bush and Clinton were the first presidents to choose it over traditional white.

Power ties are made of high-quality silk. They can vary in color from the tone-on-tone that coordinates with the suit, to a multidimensional design. President Clinton, of course, has been known to stray from this. It's in ties that Clinton most often expresses his individuality.

While rigid in format, the dress suit does give an individual an opportunity to express himself. The important thing to remember is that true elegance is in subtlety. In other words, KISS Keep It Simple, Sir.

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