When Joe Cunningham first announced he was running for Congress, he did so in a singular ensemble.
Standing in front of the U.S. Custom House between two cardboard cutouts of Mark Sanford, he modeled a pinstripe navy blue suit, falling generously at his wrists and ankles, and a red tie as he decried special interests and the Lowcountry’s traffic problems.
“That was the first and last time we saw that pinstripe suit,” says Tyler Jones, the Charleston-based political strategist who helped Cunningham secure a seat in the U.S. House in November. “That might have been on purpose.”
The 36-year-old soon adopted a look more in keeping with the times: a button-up shirt with rolled-up sleeves (tie optional), seen in campaign photos, videos, and a surprise visit to a polling station on Election Day, when he became the first Democrat to represent South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District in almost four decades.
It was a workaday style employed by 46-year-old Barack Obama in 2008, and, more recently, by 46-year-old presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke, a former congressman from Texas who’s parlayed standing on tables and cursing during concession speeches into news fodder.
Jones, now lending his South Carolina expertise to O’Rourke’s 2020 bid, credits Cunningham’s appearance to a limited frame of reference. Growing up, he and his four brothers shared one bathroom, Jones says, leaving little time for them to experiment with aesthetics. In the end, he stayed away from his candidate’s closet as much as he could, choosing not to disturb his mojo.
“With Joe, for instance, he’s a cross between Bradley Cooper and Luke Bryan,” he says. “I would’ve only screwed that up had I tried to get involved there.”
Authenticity, therefore, must be carefully maintained.
“The biggest mistake I’ve seen candidates make in a campaign is throwing who they are out the window in exchange for a political costume,” said Lee Heyward, a Charleston-based image strategist who’s worked with candidates for local office, in an email to the City Paper. “You absolutely have to look the part, but it’s important to maintain elements of your personality and your unique point of view in order to show voters how you differ from the rest of the pack.”
This shift toward a more lax presentation may have its roots in an increasingly informal dress culture. Casual Fridays and “office casual” have spilled into every day of the week, and into settings that don’t explicitly require formal attire, says Charles Bierbauer, dean emeritus of the University of South Carolina, where he taught media and politics.
Bierbauer covered the Pentagon and the White House for CNN from 1981 to 2001. Back then, it was rare for anyone to ditch the suit and tie.
“You never saw jeans,” he says. “Now you do, and I think it’s just as studiously calculated as, ‘Are my jeans pressed?’ and, ‘Is this the right shirt to wear with them?’ as it would’ve been to say, ‘Do I wear the blue suit or the gray suit?'”
These questions are much more complicated for women, Bierbauer admits, whose wardrobes come with as many choices as opportunities for criticism.
“It’s harder for women in that regard because they’re much more likely to be scrutinized on what they’re wearing,” he says. “When it comes to men it’s, ‘Did he have a tie on or did he not have a tie on?’ ”
In the age of clickbait, a candidate’s image rests on more than his or her sartorial decisions. Cunningham and O’Rourke have taken to courting voters by way of craft beer. Both stumped at local breweries, and Cunningham enjoyed a viral moment when he was stopped from taking a six-pack of Lowcountry brews onto the House floor. (In a similar moment of whimsy that spoke to the freshman congressman’s aptitude for press, he blew an air horn during a subcommittee meeting in an effort to mimic the noise produced by seismic airgun blasting in undersea oil and gas exploration.)
The uniform of the 21st century male candidate helps convey relatability, Bierbauer says.
“I think it gets a little more formal when you get to a general campaign,” he says. “In primary season, you are going to coffee shops and farms in all kinds of places.”
Often times, it’s just a matter of practicality.
“You wanna look nice,” Jones says. “If you take off the tie and jacket and you’re wearing a suit, you’re left with what you just described.”
Jones, who’s also worked with former presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and John Edwards, as well as state Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, is coy when asked whether or not he’s ever had to veto an item of clothing.
“Yes, but I don’t know that I can tell you the story,” he says. “I’ve had to make sure that certain shoes were in the very back of a person’s closet so they can’t find them anymore.”
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