Does the outfit make the candidate?

Once a year, from 1991 to 2021, German photographer Herlinde Koelbl captured the portrait of Angela Merkel striking the same pose. This project testifies that apart from the length of her hair and the weight of the years, the ex-chancellor has, in thirty years, changed little in her style of dress. She almost always wore sober suit jackets with a barely fitted cut. But what did this – formal – outfit reveal to us about this powerful woman? Can we really, as a voter, rely on a clothing identity to form an opinion on the political figure and his ideas? At the dawn of the legislative elections, can fashion influence our choices?

On paper, politicians will tend to brush it off: politics is by nature serious business, while fashion remains a frivolous appearance-based industry. However, let’s not underestimate the role of clothing in the corridors of power, this environment where every word is weighed and where the image counts more and more, from campaign posters to social networks. This will not make the Chevreuil tailor lie, claiming since the 19the century that“a garment is an idea that floats around a man”.

In these times of legislative campaign, the candidates must therefore leave nothing to chance. Starting with their look, which each voter will scrutinize, voluntarily or in spite of himself. Because beyond its practical function, clothing is an additional – non-verbal – means of communication. “In politics, clothing is a kind of second language, which extends and accompanies a speech. If the commitment and action of political figures are at the heart of the matter, it should not be overlooked that the assessment of candidates is also based on their appearance. These criteria particularly come into play at the time of an election, in the same way as gestures, facial features or the way of standing., analyzes Benjamin Simmenauer, associate professor of philosophy and professor at the IFM (French Fashion Institute). Suffice to say that in politics, more than elsewhere, there is no reason to separate form (image) and substance (speech).

After a succession of conscious or unconscious mental operations, the very first impression that the voter has of a candidate is through his physical appearance, and therefore his outfit, the voter being able to identify (or not) with this person. through her clothing choices. This applies in politics as in many other areas, as revealed by a study called “The influence of clothing on the first impression”, conducted in 2013 and published in the Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management.The latter consisted of asking 274 participants to evaluate two men in suits, one made to measure and the other ready to use. At the end of the survey, it was the man dressed in a made-to-measure suit who had been evaluated more positively overall. Proof that small, seemingly insignificant details can interfere with the opinion we have of a person.

How then to decipher an electoral message via a style of dress? “Among politicians, the stylistic room for maneuver is small. There is a paradoxical issue which is that of communicating, but without being noticed too much, without seeming to care too much about one’s appearance. As if it were necessarily reprehensible to pay too much attention to it, all the more so when one is seeking high office., explains Benjamin Simmenauer. The messages conveyed by the clothes are therefore nestled in the details. This is how the candidates find a micro-niche to express their positions. “The difference between right and left is generally in the relationship to formalism. On the right, politicians appear in classic tie suits, usually blue. While on the left, we take more distance from the codes of the establishment by abandoning the jacket, or sometimes even the tie, as with the ecologists, or by wearing a red model to show its political color, as it is the case of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. » But what do these details tell us that we don’t already know about the candidates? Do not rely on it, this little information can sometimes be more eloquent than long speeches and even in places create controversy – just as Marie-Antoinette’s expensive toilets once earned her the anger of the French people. Remember the (crooked) ties of François Hollande, the (very luxurious) tailor-made suits of François Fillon, those (made in France) of Emmanuel Macron, the sneakers of François Ruffin or the heels of Nicolas Sarkozy, which are entered the collective unconscious, and often spoke for them. So, if a candidate cannot naturally be reduced to his clothing, the latter nevertheless deserves to be observed, deciphered and analyzed. If only to try to break through, behind the clothes, the communication strategy.


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