Tim Gunn Reviews the Candidates

In Bolivia, socialist president Evo Morales has stubbornly refused to abandon his casual striped sweater in favor of the pricey suits more commonly seen on world leaders. But in doing so he has inspired a fashion craze: the comfy sweater is flying off the racks, even inspiring its own line of "Evo fashion." Here in the States it's probably safe to assume (or at least hope) that nobody's running out for John McCain's customary Mr. Rogers sweater vest, or the vast array of Easter-egg-colored Hillary Clinton blazers. But it would be naive to dismiss the importance of those style choices in this campaign—and the role of fashion in any.

Whether we like it or not, the way we dress conveys a message about who we are, and though advisers may hate to admit it, clothes, throughout history, have always been a huge part of the political message. John F. Kennedy wasn't considered the innovator of modern presidential style for nothing: he chose a two-button, tailored suit at a time when the male uniform was a shapeless three-button sack. Lyndon Johnson brought regional style to the Oval Office with his brand of Texan: he often wore cowboy boots and hats, or suits with a stitched yoke across the jacket front. And Jimmy Carter, always the people's president, wore polyester-blend suits, carried his own garment bag and maintained his celebrated cardigan sweater in an effort to come off as a regular wage earner.

In this campaign, it's Democrat Hillary Clinton, the only female in the race, who gets the most fashion flak—often to an arguably unfair degree. (When, in July, she showed a very little cleavage while talking about higher education on the Senate floor, the media jumped all over the former First Lady's new "sexy" look, eliciting thousands of angry letters, e-mails and comments from the public.) But looking good ain't easy—and it's definitely not a challenge reserved for just the female candidate. Style guru Tim Gunn, the creative director for Liz Claiborne, a veteran of Bravo's "Project Runway" and now host of "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style," spoke about the harsh worlds of fashion and politics with NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How important is image to a political campaign?
Tim Gunn:
I can't imagine marginalizing image; it's critical. The clothes we wear send a message about how we want to be perceived, and about how we want to present ourselves to the world. I would think that there should be just as many image consultants involved in these campaigns as there are speechwriters.

What is it about politicians in particulardo you have to have bad taste to be one?
Well, all of these people come from Capitol Hill, and that place is another planet when it comes to fashion. I was on the Hill just this time last year, and I had all of these elected officials literally running from me saying, "I'm not a fashion person! Don't look at me!" In the beginning I thought it was kind of sweet, but the more I thought about it, I began to find it appalling. You're an elected official. How many people see you and make judgments about you before they ever even know your point of view? I have to do something for these people.

I assume the people running from you were women. Do female politicians have it harder?
I'm deeply respectful of gender and of gender differences, and I like someone who acknowledges what his or her gender happens to be. I mean, are we ready for a male cross-dresser in the White House? No. But frankly speaking, there are times when I wonder about Hillary.

Ha! Is there any female who pulls it off well?
I think Hillary should be taking a lesson from Nancy Pelosi, I really do. She, for me, is fashion on the Hill. She has a femininity yet a professionalism, and she has style. She's also not afraid to be a woman, and she celebrates it. She's not ever remotely vulgar or provocative in what she wears, but I have to say, she's a very sexy woman.

Alan Flusser, the author of ''Style and the Man,'' called Kennedy ''the last stylishly dressed president." Do you agree?
Well, you can't look at Kennedy without looking at Jackie, because they really enhanced each other. But it was clear that what was on the outside was important to them. They had a polish and a sophistication that was accessible, and I think that's why America embraced them. Those were the most glamorous days that Washington knew, and the only days that came remotely close to that were, frankly—and forgive me—the Reagan years, and I think it was the Hollywood aspect. Reagan knew how to dress, Nancy had her own designer clothes, and there were a lot of movie stars walking around.

What's your take on the current candidates, as a group?
I look at them and I feel like they've stepped out of the 1980s. And what really disturbs me, deep down in my very core, is whether these candidates really think that having people talk about your clothes in a positive way could be a bad thing. To think that they might answer yes horrifies me.

I hate to keep focusing on Hillary, but is there anything she's doing right?
[Pauses] You can say I responded with utter silence. [Laughs] But let me put it this way: her clothes fit her, she does have a polish, and she's well groomed. Those things are all good. But it's like she's wearing a whole body of Kevlar and she wants to make certain as much of her is protected as possible. I just want to say to her, "Hillary, don't be afraid to wear a dress!"

But do you think she avoids looking too feminine because the press gives her such a hard time?
When you think about what we consider feminine traits, I think those would be great in a leader and belong in the White House. I mean, we think of sensitivity as being feminine, and I think that is a wonderful quality and attribute. I think that's what she has to offer as the only female candidate: her womanhood. The fact that she's a mother. These are the things that none of the other candidates can even pretend to be. And I just wish she'd celebrate it more.

Have Americans moved on from the power-suit mentality, as Vogue editor Anna Wintour said recently?
Yes, those days are over. Yet the candidates don't seem to have received the memo.

Power suit or no power suit, just tell me why everyone in Washington finds it necessary to dress so boring.
It's the fashion safety net. They don't want to offend anyone, and subsequently they may offend everyone.

What would you say a politician should avoid wearing, at all costs?
Well, I hope no one's going out on the campaign trail wearing a pair of Crocs.

I love you. Are you referring to the Bush photo?
Yes. And now you must ask me whether I was surprised, because the answer is no. I will summarize his entire fashion presentation in one phrase: shlumped-over and drooling. I hope I don't end up in some Iraqi prison for saying that.

Is there anything coming out this spring that we should pay attention to?
Well, of course, the skinnier suit is in, but that's not going to happen for any of the candidates, except for maybe [Barack] Obama. But we don't want to see Mike Huckabee in a skinny suit, God knows.

Maybe one day we'll have a gay man in the White House. Now that would change the fashion landscape, no?
I think maybe there already has been! Though not a fashionable one.