Joel Rosenthal brought up something today, somewhat indelicately, that’s bugged me about some of the campaign stops by candidates on the stump for statewide office this year:
In terms of wardrobe though I give Rounds and Rhoden (along with the well groomed Krebs and Jamison) the Oscar for wardrobe. Elected officials should remember their physical appearance is important. They must project an image reflective that they represent others. Citizens will not support someone as their representative who doesn’t present well. I scribe this because of the disheveled appearance of Rep. Stace Nelson who looked like he just got out of bed with his wrinkled shirt and sleeves rolled up above the elbow. Representative Nelson who is a Big Boy and had a commanding appearance and did show an ability to make a joke presented straightforwardly on the stump (more on content below).
I contrast the way Stace has dressed in this race, eschewing suits and ties in favor of denim shirts, with how I saw him dressed in a suit & tie at a Lincoln Day Dinner in Mitchell a couple of years back. Back then, he was on the stage, and had the biggest presence in the room. Now, in this race, he doesn’t look comfortable, and in some cases, the rolled up sleeve look is sloppy, not senatorial.
And it’s not just Representative Nelson who is guilty of campaign fashion faux pas. There are others I’ve chastised from time to time. (I do notice that Dr. Boz has largely dropped the lab coat.)
There’s a saying out there, which I most recently caught while ignoring my wife watching “What Not to Wear.” I hate most television, especially reality shows, but this was an absolute truism: Don’t dress for the job you have. Dress for the job you want.
And it especially holds true for political candidates.
Normally, you’d expect suits and ties, and dresses for all. But, this is South Dakota, so much of that goes out the window. Why? South Dakota has a state ‘character,’ if you will allow, that sets us apart in many ways from more urbanized states.
The point is, the rules are different in this state, as most people have a less urbane view of what dressing up means. Which, you might term “South Dakota formal.”
It’s what you might see at a wedding reception/dance. While many will be in suits and ties, not everyone will be. And that’s ok.
So candidates, my advice is to prepare your wardrobe for “South Dakota formal.”
In most states, suit and tie would be mandatory for all candidates. In South Dakota, you can get away without it, but you need to be ‘South Dakota formal’ at a minimum. You should be dressed for the heat, or lack thereof. You should be neat and clean. No obnoxiously sized belt buckles. Avoid t-shirts.
You should look like a competent professional, because that’s the image you want to present.
This picture of Thune was from 2010, taken in Brookings after he’d been on a campaign bus in support of Kristi Noem all day.
While he’s normally in suit & tie for 4/5th of his appearances, Thune dressed down still looks well pressed, well fitted, and well, senatorial.
Congresswoman Noem dresses similarly, always looking neat and professional. She dresses down for many Republican events, and it’s not unusual to see her in jeans when it’s appropriate, but she never, ever looks sloppy or ratty.
In fact for most Republican events I attend, she’s usually one of the most fashionably dressed ones there.
And simple utility plays a big part of it.
Here, in the middle of August, is a good example of being prepared. Noem is wearing a sweater that she can ditch as soon as she has to hit a sweltering outdoor event. For men, the equivalent would be a light summer sportscoat worn along with a polo.
So, what is the rule of thumb for candidates and campaign stops in South Dakota? In the land of infinite weather changes, practicality plays a part of it. The best rule of thumb might be to be as dressed up as you can, but being pre-planned to where you can shed a layer, and still look comfortable (and good).
You wouldn’t wear a suit to a cattle yard, but as a candidate, you aren’t working the yard, either. As one article about dressing for the campaign notes:
As for how you should dress when you’re attending meetings, gatherings, fundraisers, campaign events, and other venues, there’s a simple rule that I like to follow: always dress one level above your audience. If your audience is going to be wearing jeans and t-shirts, make sure that you wear slacks and a dress shirt. If they will be wearing nicer clothes, make sure that you put on a jacket and tie. You get the picture.
One last important tip: it’s fine to wear your political campaign t-shirt when you’re at a fundraising event, doing door-to-door campaigning, or at carnivals and fairs . . . but put on something nicer if it’s any other type of meeting or campaign event. Wearing a campaign t-shirt to more formal events, with your name emblazoned in across your chest and back, is pretty tacky and will probably generate eye-rolling from a lot of attendees.
And that might be the key – look better than those you’re speaking to. They want to send their best to Washington or Pierre.
So, don’t dress for the job you have. Dress for the job you want.
And be comfortable doing so.