Dressing As A Rhetorical Statement

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

43 Comments on "Dressing As A Rhetorical Statement"

  1. Most world leaders and high-ranking pols leave it to their assistants, lieutenants, and body guards to make a fashion statement for them.

    The President is often photographed with the Marines, probably the best dressed military personnel in the world with their white hats and white belts. Their shoes are so polished that they seem like mirrors.

  2. Did you mean that Roger Stone is the most extreme example of dressing with intention while on the job, or of having a natural trad style? In my opinion he does the former almost theatrically so, but he ain’t trad.

    Also, waiting eagerly for Charlottesville’s take on the use of “haughty”. 🙂

  3. Jesse Livermore | April 7, 2020 at 5:50 pm |

    While in law school, Edward Moore Kennedy would earn the nickname “Cadillac Eddie”. He was cited four times for reckless driving (three times in 1958 and once in 1959). These violations included running red lights and driving with his lights off at ninety miles per hour in a suburban area.
    – Teddy was convicted of three violations and fined, but for some reason his driver’s license was never revoked.

  4. The Earl of Iredell | April 7, 2020 at 5:51 pm |

    I knew John Bolton when we were kids (although I haven’t seen him for many years, except on TV). My guess is that he doesn’t give a moment’s thought to how he dresses. Rather, he likely dresses by instinct. His outfits are the outfits that we grew up with. Baltimore of our childhood was very much a southern city in spirit. Ivy clothes and a seersucker suit during the hot weather were routine.

  5. A senator’s salary is a paltry $174,000 a year and yet they all seem to leave office fabulously wealthy. Over Easy, you are aware that insider trading is perfectly legal for senators. Not saying it is right, just saying.


  6. Sorry, above comment regarding Burr.

  7. MacMcConnell | April 7, 2020 at 6:23 pm |

    Was Senator Whitehouse the high school yearbook whisperer during the Kavanaugh Hearings or was that Senator Coons or both? 😉

  8. Kudos, Mr. Smith, for walking the middle of the aisle on this post, which some are evidently incapable of doing. I am at a loss to understand the inability of commenters to refrain from slamming Tucker Carlson practically every time his name is mentioned. For someone from a broken home, who had little contact with his mother past age six, who married young and stayed married, and who far more articulate than most who criticize him, he has obviously done well in spite of much adversity. Can we not leave him be? Or perhaps we could just be gentlemen? I am told that he is an incredibly cool guy in person, and would be so even to those who do not like his schtick on TV. Can we not simply admire a man’s Mercer point collars and leave it at that?

  9. Vern Trotter | April 7, 2020 at 10:08 pm |

    I think insider trading was made illegal even for Senators a few years ago after some scandal. I don’t really care enough to research it. I believe insider trading is mostly legal in England.

  10. john carlos | April 7, 2020 at 10:21 pm |

    JDV- I couldn’t agree more with your comments. I thought this was supposed to be an ongoing conversation about Trad clothing and the lifestyle. Those of you who find the need to make everything political need to find another place for your comments in my humble opinion, especially at this time.

  11. ^ Here here JDV.

    Just hang out for awhile outside the Met Club in DC, watching the ingress and egress, and you’ll see the ne plus ultra of the style y’all espouse.

  12. Martin Grayson | April 8, 2020 at 6:17 am |

    That’s Hear Hear, not Here Here.

  13. Over Easy | April 8, 2020 at 7:23 am |

    sacksuit – the STOCK Act prohibits insider trading by members of Congress and other government employees. Burr was one of only three “no” votes.

  14. Hardbopper | April 8, 2020 at 7:27 am |

    Insider trading is only legal for insiders.

  15. Members of the establishment, elites and, in my opinion, progressives, are not necessarily good representatives of ability. Neither are members of the Ivy League necessarily good representatives of intelligence.

    Working while sitting on my veranda this morning with old Land’s End mesh knit long sleeve in navy, RL Bleecker shorts in a nice blue and green plaid and a pretty full five day beard.


  16. The STOCK Act has been about as effective at stopping insider trading as the Affordable Care Act has been at providing affordable care. If Burr were one of three no votes it simply means, in my opinion, that he was one of three honest senators.

  17. Both Kennedy and Bolton attended public high schools, by the way.

    If, as my Freud-adoring friends think, just about everything can be reduced to psychology, including stuff like birth order and the chemicals our body produces in response to pleasure-giving behaviors, then it may be there’s something at work here–something resembling a meta-theory of preppy/Ivy/trad. And it would be very funny indeed if it had little or nothing to do with (whether or not one attended) a private school. Case in point: the worst dressed person I know graduate from Dartmouth; one of the preppiest guys I know graduated from a little public high school in PA and the U. of Delaware.

    A work in progress…

    The mythology of the New England prep school is rooted in bits of reality. But it’s both interesting and amusing how many “older” men I’ve gotten to know (who attended one of the better prep schools): as they made their way in the world (throughout the 70s,80s, 90s), they relinquished the totems of preppy culture (button down shirts, sack suits, penny loafers, etc.), in favor of a strange blend of the two styles Mr. Smith bemoans: the high-shouldered, very businessman-in-the-boardroom suit (see: nearly every man who wears a suit in America) to athletic-leisure wear (sweats and running shoes). They go back-and-forth with the two.

    I’ve attended four graduations at “elite” private schools throughout the past few years: aside from the hideous looking blazers the students are forced to wear, nobody else looks like preppies looked 40-50 years ago. Most of the men wear what you would expect venture capitalists, surgeons, and hedge funders to wear. They’re indistinguishable from other successful men who may or may not have attended private schools and summered on the Vineyard.

    David Souter is one of my favorite examples. Sure, he graduate from Harvard — twice? But really he’s a small-town New Hampshire Yankee who, at some point, probably consciously eschewed what I’ll call “New Capitalist Style”/NCS (See: Trump adult children). It’s vulgar and obnoxiously upper-middle alpha male: like new Audis and Mercedes.

    Tucker is an interesting case in point. He loves those spread and pointed collars in all sorts of checks. Very NCS of him.

  18. The Earl of Iredell | April 8, 2020 at 10:41 am |

    S.E. — John Bolton did not attend a public high school. He was a scholarship student at McDonogh School (private) in Baltimore County for grades 7-12.

  19. The Earl of Iredell | April 8, 2020 at 10:46 am |

    Addendum — of Bolton’s graduating class (1966), which was fewer than 100 students, I believe that five went on to Princeton, five to Johns Hopkins, three to Yale, others to Chicago, Brown, Cornell, Penn, Duke, Carolina, Virginia, and so on.

  20. elder prep | April 8, 2020 at 10:56 am |

    I also agree with JDV. You may not like Mr. Carlson’s politics, but were are here to discuss his personal style, which I prefer. This is a site for men’s traditional fashions and derivatives of same. Let’s save the politics for the appropriate venue. Not here.

  21. MacMcConnell | April 8, 2020 at 11:23 am |

    I have never thought long point or tab collars weren’t Ivy Style. There are some occasions a button down is inappropriate.

  22. Charlottesville | April 8, 2020 at 11:26 am |

    Paul – As a graduate of Washington & Lee University, I try to be diplomatic about the other university, but I will say that I am happy that there is a good state school available for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend W&L.

  23. Cville, did not know you went to W&L. I had a long-time employer who did undergrad there in the 50s. Excellent school, of course. I was also an ODAC man, played tennis at Emory & Henry. You guys were our arch rivals, although we both you had others, such as Lynchburg and Hampden-Sydney. Great clay courts at W&L.

  24. Is “St. Paul’s prep school in New Hampshire” prestigious? I didn’t know that. I did know that UVA is a “haughty” school, though.

  25. Charlottesville | April 8, 2020 at 12:36 pm |

    JDV – I graduated from the law school at W&L in 1985. Those clay courts were indeed something special. I’m not sure whether they are still there. I hope all is continuing to go well with you since last we corresponded.

    Paul – Of course I was kidding about UVA above. It is an excellent school with much to be proud of, but I think that the reputation for haughtiness may be (at least mostly) a relic from years past.

    Trace – These days I hear far more boosterism for the basketball team than aristocratic pretensions. Yet, I do still occasionally hear someone, usually older, refer to “the University” as if it were the only one around. One may meet a snob anywhere, though. At whatever institution one picked up one’s smattering of ignorance, there is always someone else who can one-up you. Even at Oxford and Cambridge, I am sure that there are “old boys” from Trinity, Christ Church and Magdalen smugly looking down their noses at one another.

    Also, FWIW, I cast my vote with those who wish that every post mentioning a pol or pundit, living or dead, would not require a full-throated defense or denunciation of some political view. I have my own views, of course, but am always happy to see a public figure in a decent suit, tie and OCBD. They are rare enough that the novelty alone makes it interesting. Tucker has nice shirts, but it is too bad that he gave up the bowties, and I very much approve of Senator Whitehouse’s and Mr. Bolton’s attire, although I am sure I could find many disagreements with the views of all three if I put my mind to it. As JDV indicated above, one of the glories of Mr. Smith’s piece is that he did not choose to do so.

  26. @Derek: Thank you for the thoughtful piece, and for the lively discussion that followed.

    @S.E.: “New Capitalist Style” is a brilliant description of that look.

    @Charlottesville: It’s fascinating how the different styles seem to be so closely correlated with different political approaches. It’s not entirely along ideological lines (from the neck down, Carlson and Schlesinger could exchange wardrobes), but the dialectic between Eastern Establishment and New Capitalist styles seem to resonate strongly, particularly in these times. Dressing a certain way seems to align one with the traditional establishment, or in opposition to it.

  27. Over Easy…thanks for clearing that up. If Robert Mueller went to St. Paul’s, then that settles it.

  28. Sadly, with classes being finished remotely this semester and the chance of things being online for the fall (I’ve just added my name to the list being circulated for the possibility of being awarded funding to support retooling face-to-face courses to high quality online delivery in case we end up online in Spetember), there is little opportunity for making a statement with my attire, rhetorical or otherwise, at the moment. Will my seersucker and linen suits get to make an appearance this August? It’s hard to say at the moment. Sigh.

  29. Charlottesville | April 8, 2020 at 2:58 pm |

    A.N.V. and S.E. – I agree that “New Capitalist Style” is a useful descriptor. The East Coast Establishment is no longer the ruling elite, so it is hardly surprising to see the clothing styles associated with the ECE fading in general popularity. Now the NCS seems to have displaced it, whether in its suit-and-tie-form, or the more common suit-and-no-tie form. Or even more common, the logo-emblazoned zip-front fleece vest or quarter-zip sweater. Zoom meetings are pretty enlightening about normative dress when one is not required to come into the office.

    I am hardly a member of the ECE, but its style had become very much a part of the culture in the areas where I spent my late teens and early adult years (Virginia, Washington, New York). My father dressed more or less that way (although rarely wearing a button-down collar), and so did the professional men with whom I came into contact. It was just the norm, and the sort of clothing the better men’s stores carried. I note that I would include some of the RL Polo offerings of the era, along with the more traditional clothing from Brooks, Press and various college-town shops (such as Eljo’s locally).

  30. AtlantaPete | April 8, 2020 at 5:08 pm |

    Per Charlottesville’s comment at 12:36 pm, I have always understood that if you area real Virginian, you attended The High School, then The University, following which you joined The Club.

  31. Thank you for the correction. I’ll stand happily corrected. For some reason I thought Bolton had a working class background. Was his father a fireman or something like that?

  32. Atlanta Pete, we Virginians appreciate your kind comment, but that would leave our Mr. Jefferson, who obviously did not attend UVa. May in the W&M Tribe (his alma mater) out there might complain to you. For sure, real Virginians, many say, are born Virginians. There is a thing known as FFV, First Families of Virginia, which is really cool if you can trace to that, although, if you don’t have an ancestor named Powhatan you likely are not “really” FFV. I am from the southwestern tip, closer to Hokie land than Wahoo central, yet have always identified with UVa as my Division I favorite, so hope I have some coattails there. Played tennis in Division III personally, though.

  33. Addendum: just learned Bolton was the recipient of a full scholarship to McDonough. Working class family… And a son who worked his ass off and did well. Makes sense.

  34. What about Bernie? If anybody is a devotee of button down shirts, blazers, repp ties, and rumpled suits, it’s Bernie. He looks like an L.L. Bean catalog circa 1984. Compare and contrast with most United States senators, who prefer NCS all the way.

  35. JDV: Thanks for the very appropriate correction. My comment doesn’t reflect very well on my education. Hear hear.

  36. Roast. I believe that was someone else who corrected. But glad you liked my post.

  37. NaturalShoulder | April 8, 2020 at 11:00 pm |

    Derek – thank you for authoring such a well-written post. Hopefully, you will do so again. I was not familiar with Senator John Kennedy until I saw him on Tucker Carlson’s show last week and thought he looked very tradly. Bolton certainly has the elements of the look but his shirts look heavily fused and don’t seem to have a nice roll as another commentator noted and his jackets seem heavy on the shoulder padding.

  38. Sorry gentlemen, but this post made my skin crawl. I was under the impression that the ivy style mindset and aesthetic was to hope to move further away from attaching it to a sycophantic admiration of the elites (especially in the case of a corporatist, mainline crony-class senator from Rhode Island. Sorry Derek, no I won’t follow him – or any other politician – on twitter). And the less said about John Bolton the better. I think we can do better than this.

  39. Charlottesville | April 9, 2020 at 1:00 pm |

    Atlanta Pete and JDV :

    “To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.” — Anonymous

    I fear that I am a Virginian only on my mother’s side, as my father was a New Yorker and I was born in Pennsylvania. However, I have lived in the Old Dominion for almost my whole life, and can highly recommend the experience.

  40. All which the gentlemen on this page are requesting is common decency, as Mr. Smith in the above post provided. If others refuse to allow that, then there will be less subscribers to the page, and the inconsiderate, indecent, and inarticulate will have won, whether they like Sen. Sanders or Mr. Carlson, or Dr. Fauci, or not. Very unfortunate, especially as our country faces crisis, and considering the time of year, but that seems to be the way of our society as a whole. I thought this page was different. I will refrain from mentioning names of contributors who have no propriety, but a rose by any other name smells the same.

    Charlottesville, thanks for the quote. On one’s mother’s side, indeed.

  41. JDV

    Unless I’m very much mistaken, over the years I have never read a comment by a conservative requesting or requiring that liberals stop posting their comments, no matter how instructive or vile.

    Nippy today, grey wool pullover, white oxford, khaki shorts, working from home office veranda.


  42. Will, cannot tell if your feel I have done that? Just asking all to focus on the clothing and not the politics, whether liberal or conservative. Talk about Sanders’ button-downs not his socialism, and same for Carlson, his Mercers not his conservatism. And to be gentlemen and keep the profanity to themselves. I can see all that on twitter and come here for a respite.

  43. JDV

    I agree with you regarding the limiting of gratuitous profanity. I have to admit that I enjoy the occasional ribald anecdote. I think we might all be guilty, with the exception of Charlottesville, of salty language. However, everything has become political and, in my opinion, is fair game for discussion.

    God bless and Happy Easter


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