If the Northeast is the pinnacle of old money, Ivy Leaguers, and powerful men of distinction, then Washington DC is a close second. Though our democracy could use a few more of distinction in that city it seems. The men are bred and trained in the New English tradition and migrate down to the swamp where the real power exists.
Sure our government is designed to be “by and for the people” and whatever mawkish aphorisms we learned in grade school. However, if anyone hasn’t noticed, the hostility toward elites, “The Establishment” and indeed ability, has reached a fever pitch. Parallel to this is the erosion of earnestness and refinement in the culture broadly. Our leadership reflects these trends. Blame globalization, Postmodernism, the Internet, a fractured value system — whatever you want. The fact is, immediate gratification and slovenliness have replaced conscientiousness under the nebulous guise of “democracy” and “freedom.” Wear sweatpants and t-shirts to the office, or lousy suits if you have to wear one at all. Therefore, we have a government being run by mediocre people. Even the ones with real credentials and zeal are bent on appearing otherwise to those they represent for fear of reprisal.
I have been persuaded by the commentary on Ivy Style and elsewhere identifying traditional, conservative American dress as a sort of counter-cultural statement in the 21st century. Nowhere is this more evident than in American politics. Boxy suits adorned with tacky cobalt or red ties rule the halls of Congress and the Executive Branch. Better to conform than risk being pegged by constituents or cable news as an elitist. The rancor, division, and lack of civility pervading public life mirrors the degradation of dressing standards since ehh…the 80s? Join me in lament. Politics is by definition a public enterprise. To that effect, if experience, expertise and grace aren’t valued, it follows that our leaders will reflect that in both their governance and dress.
Nevertheless, despite our grim state of public affairs and our leaders’ sartorial negligence, a few bipartisan politicos with legitimate trad chops remain. Except of course in 2020, they are the eccentrics. They’re harder to find than they would have been in the 1960s when well-fit three button suits and slim ties were standard. The United States Senate is a good place to start. The Senate didn’t get the nickname “the Upper Chamber” for nothing: an institution historically occupied by men of educational and class privilege.
Sheldon Whitehouse, Democratic Senator of Rhode Island is the quintessential prep. Even his name suggests he was destined to be a man of The Establishment, which he is indeed. His great grandfathers were a bishop and railroad tycoon. Both his father and grandfather were professional diplomats. He attended the prestigious St. Paul’s prep school in New Hampshire. Then he went on to Yale college for his undergraduate years. Like many a-promising young men molded in the East Coast academy, he headed south to the University of Virginia School of Law. Which, while it isn’t “Ivy” per se, is among the most haughty schools in the country. Robert Mueller, famous for the Mueller investigation and his collar roll, went to Princeton then UVA. Teddy Kennedy attended as well.
Senator Whitehouse embodies the trad ethos in his dress, class, and comportment. I first encountered him during a televised hearing. He was peppering the Attorney General with questions in his shirt-sleeves, glasses perched on the tip of his nose, and the slightest bitter tone as if to remind everyone the United States Senate is serious business.
Whitehouse favors buttondown oxfords in blue, white, and university stripes to roll handsomely around the knot of his club ties. Occasionally he’ll slip on a tan cardigan vest beneath his jacket. He variates between two-button navy and gray suits with the occasional pinstriping, alas. When the DC swamp heat is too much, he’ll even bust out a khaki cotton number during session. In the top photo he is sporting a rugged barn coat over his suit and tie. There’s a certain charm in his dignified air and aristocratic pedigree combined with an attitude that suggests he doesn’t give a damn what you think. I’ll bet he takes pride in being the ol’ New England son-of-a-bitch to his colleagues on The Hill.
Even if you’re more interested in Ivy tidbits than politics, I suggest giving him a follow on Twitter and Instagram. He is effortless, the way it should be.
If Sheldon Whitehouse is the unapologetic epitome of New England trad, aptly named John Kennedy of Louisiana is the inverse. Kennedy, a Republican did his undergraduate study at Vanderbilt University, basically an Ivy League school of The South. Like Whitehouse, Mueller et. al, he went to law school at the University of Virginia. Not to be outdone, he did further study at Oxford University in England, perhaps the most “establishment,” old money, swanky school in the entire world.
Yet for all his educational bona fides, Kennedy fancies himself more a hay-seeded Man of The People in Louisiana. He is known around the capital by reporters and colleagues for his memorable hokey phrases–once describing the President as “a hard dog to keep on the porch.” Politics is presentation, after all. He dons a wide variety of repp ties sometimes under a buttondown collar, other times knot. When he does opt for the buttondown it’s usually a pinpoint with a stiff Bayou roll. For casual occasions he’ll bust out the tweed jacket and pleated chinos he has probably had since he served in office as a Democrat in the 80s. He pairs them with topsiders and socks when he is about town. It is sort of his way of saying, “I am a Senator too but I don’t need no fancy clothes to prove it” while ironically representing a more rarified style anyway, at least to the trained eye.
Finally we arrive at the unelected, bureaucratic Ivy king of the Capital. Former National Security Advisor, John Bolton. Bolton, of Yale College and Yale Law School has been a behind-the-scenes player in Republican politics since The Graduate was in theatres and is always photographed, curiously, while he is adjusting his glasses. A pose, which combined with his furrowed brow and smoky broom mustache, make him look like he is plotting to take over the world. And maybe he is.
You won’t find a picture of him in anything but a blue, white or university striped buttondown OCBD. He is nothing if not consistently conservative. His collar roll is always a bit crooked in contrast to Whitehouse and Kennedy’s nicely formed domes. After all, he serves in appointed positions and is thus unconstrained by such esoteric considerations. He has the usual navy and black (ugh) suits in rotation, but every now and then mixes in a light gray, chalk stripe or even a seersucker suit. That’s right: a man who possessed unimaginable diplomatic, foreign policy, and military power wears seersucker suits and club ties. Take from that what you will. I guess after you grind through the Washington media-political complex for decades and finally make it to the most influential foreign policy post in the nation, you can dress just as dandily as you please. Who is going to pick on a guy’s jacket who advises the President where to deploy the United States Military?
A lot of the guys in high political positions have a natural trad style if only by accident. They grow up in that culture so that is what they wear. Certain others like Bolton, Kennedy, Whitehouse, Robert Mueller and maybe a couple more seem to actually dress with intention while on the job. Roger Stone is the most extreme example. We’d rather not admit that superficiality plays an enormous role in our public life, but it does. Rhetoric has always mattered to governance. Dressing and presenting one’s self is a rhetorical statement. To the extent that our leaders can say things about themselves through their clothing choices, we might do well to pay attention. — DEREK SMITH