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No windsurfing gear in candidates' closets

Barack Obama has his rolled-up sleeves and John McCain his sweaters under suit jackets, but absent from the 2008 presidential campaign are any risky or gimmicky fashion statements. Will consistent style win out in this election?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barack Obama has his rolled-up sleeves and John McCain his sweaters under suit jackets, but absent from the 2008 presidential campaign are hunting shirts, windsurfing trunks and absolutely anything resembling Michael Dukakis' helmet.

The most remarkable thing about the wardrobes of Obama and McCain is their consistency, says Ned Martel, who has traveled with both campaigns as Men's Vogue deputy editor.

McCain's style, according to Martel, is "traditional Republican senatorial garb": a dark suit, a striped tie, solid shirt and, sometimes, the slightly grandfatherly sweater. Obama often goes without a tie and is either in a dark solid suit or khaki pants. He favors blue or silver ties and white shirts.

"Neither strays from the uniform because it works," says Martel, who has covered five presidential election cycles.

Both candidates wear bracelets given to them by mothers of fallen soldiers.

Considering that's about as wild as it gets, it's clear McCain and Obama have learned from the fashion mistakes of other presidential candidates.

"Every four years you usually get to look at these guys try to go “native.” Think of President Bush in his brush-clearing outfit," says Tyler Thoreson, executive editor of "But if you're president, the day job does involve a suit and it can be awkward when you're not in work clothes."

The American voter can be put off by a candidate who appears to pander by wearing the uniform of a local team or gear so rugged he looks ridiculous, he says.

"Everyone knows how fast a picture can go from local novelty to worldwide laughingstock."

The buttoned-down lookConsider Sen. John Kerry's windsurfing outing in 2004, an event later used by Republicans to criticize him as a candidate who shifts with the wind. Or the infamous 1988 image of a helmeted Michael Dukakis poking his head out of a tank. Or Al Gore's much mocked attempt to soften his image with earth tones.

Obama's unwavering look may indicate that he's working hard to be taken seriously as a young candidate and the first black presidential nominee of a major party. The more buttoned-down look could boost a candidate attacked for being wet behind the ears, says Brian Kirwin, a Virginia Beach, Va. political consultant.

But in his clothing, as in his campaign, Obama could face the charge of elitism for choosing stylish, slim-cut suits with a European look, Thoreson says. Thoreson admires the style, which he says shows off Obama's tall, athletic build.

"It shows he's not trying to be like everyone else. It's part of the visual message that he's crafting. In an odd little way, it adds to the authenticity — he's not pandering in a conservative, middle-America suit like a 50-year-old tax lawyer wears," he says.

Nothing trendyMcCain, meanwhile, avoids anything too trendy, which style watchers say is sensible given his age and party.

"It would be inappropriate if McCain looked as stylish as Obama — he has a different physique, he's a different age and he's much more conservative," he says. "He does have occasional fun with a wider, flashy tie."

Evangelia Souris, founder of Boston-area Optimum International Center for Image Management, has just one complaint about McCain's clothes: they're too big. "I think what he's trying to do is create a bigger body image — maybe he uses bigger shoulder pads — but I think it makes him look smaller," she says.

Still, the former fighter pilot has a quick step and looks dapper in uniform — he can carry off a leather bomber jacket even at 71, says Vogue's Martel.

"Not all senators can wear that, but it looks right on him," he says.

The picture-perfect style gets tiresome for Robert Verdi, a stylist and TV fashion commentator. He compares past presidents and current presidential candidates to groomsmen at a wedding: "You could put Barack's head on John's body and say he's gained a little weight, but you wouldn't notice he was in different clothes."

Kirwin thinks McCain may shift to a softer look as he tries to persuade blue-collar workers and Reagan Democrats alike that he's in tune with current issues. But Martel thinks consistency will win out.

"Neither guy seems to think too much about what he's wearing on a daily basis," he says. "It's consistent and comfortable."