Dress Codes for Men in Politics
This guide is aimed at helping men who work in politics – especially candidates for office and political leaders – figure out what to wear. There are eight commonly used dress codes that every man should understand. Here’s what they are, what they mean, and what leaders need to know about them.
The easiest way to think about dress codes is to divide them into two classes: social attire and professional attire. Social attire is what you wear in your personal life and in social settings. Professional attire is what you wear to work or to accomplish a specific goal-oriented task. While there are some exceptions, social attire tends to be more expressive of individual differences and contains greater variety. Professional attire tends to be a bit more conformist and reserved. Each class has four levels of dress.
Male political candidates and leaders will spend the vast majority of their time dressed in business suits and in business casual wear, occasionally dabbling into the other six categories for specific events. As a result, the bulk of a politician’s wardrobe should be devoted to dress shirts, slacks, blazers, and suits – along with matching ties, belts, and shoes. No matter how formal or relaxed the dress code at any particular event, political leaders should dress as conservatively as possible. Politics is no place for avant-garde fashionistas, though it is still possible to dress well despite the industry constraints.
Let’s address each dress code, starting with the most casual attire and working our way up with increasing formality.
Casual / Street Wear
Purpose: To kick back and relax.
Examples: shorts, sneakers, athletic clothes, jeans, t-shirts, broken-in polos, sandals, flip-flops, baseball caps, tank tops, shirts with graphics, text, and loud colors, sweatshirts and hoodies, sports watches, boat shoes, swimwear, sunglasses, sports team apparel
Fashion Keywords: relaxed, playful, fun, easygoing, cool, sporty
Comments: When worn by political leaders, casual clothes send a very clear signal to the press and to the public: “I’m not working. I’m on vacation from being a leader right now.” Leaders shouldn’t be seen in public or photographed wearing casual clothes unless it’s to purposefully send that message. When a public event lists the dress code as casual, leaders should go in either dressy casual or business casual clothing.
Purpose: To perform manual labor or participate in outdoor activities.
Examples: blue collar trade uniforms, clothes you can sweat in and get dirty, clothes designed for camping, gardening, fishing, hunting, and outdoor activities, clothes for cooking, housework, or construction, clothes appropriate for manual labor
Fashion Keywords: functional, comfortable, durable, plain, insulating, utilitarian, practical
Comments: Use extreme caution when donning work wear, because they often seem like Halloween costumes. Voters understand they’re looking at a leader – not a sportsman, construction worker, or cook – so the outfit can easily come off as pretentious or condescending. Even if it isn’t what you’re “supposed to wear,” sticking with loose fitting jeans and plain sweatshirt is sometimes the safer option.
Dressy Casual / Smart Casual
Purpose: To impress when out and about.
Examples: sports shirts, designer jeans, casual slacks, everyday blazers, velour jackets, leather jackets, trendy shoes, belts, and ties, most boots, most hats
Fashion Keywords: trendy, stylish, modern, edgy, hot, contemporary, sporty, attractive
Comments: Leaders should almost always wear dressy casual or business casual clothes to public events with a casual dress code. In retail stores, this level of dress is usually referred to as “sportswear,” and leaders should avoid sportswear that is too edgy or revealing. Note that sportswear potentially includes a large variety of fashion niche categories like country western, hipster, hippie, club wear, hip hop, military, biker, and eco-friendly – most of which are not recommended for anyone working in politics, except when required by protocol.
Purpose: To appear well dressed but relaxed in professional and informal settings.
Examples: slacks, buttoned-down shirts, ties, blazers and sport coats, loafers and drivers, dressy polos, sweaters, sweater vests, plain scarves, leather and suede belts and shoes
Fashion Keywords: preppy, conservative, smart, classy, tasteful, refined, understated, neat
Comments: Business casual is good look for leaders who want to give off a workman-like appearance, or who want to appear relaxed without sacrificing their authority and professionalism. Since business casual makes politicians look more accessible than when they’re wearing full suits, it’s the ideal level of dress for knocking on doors, events that are open to the public, and low-dollar fundraisers.
Semi-Formal / Cocktail
Purpose: To dress up for cocktail parties, galas, and other “red carpet” events.
Examples: fashion-forward suits, exotic belts and shoes, colorful ties, skinny ties, seersucker suits, visually striking patterns, non-traditional cuff links. Similar to formal wear but with more eye-catching colors, fabrics, shapes, and lines. Depending on the occasion, tuxedos may be optional.
Fashion Keywords: chic, dashing, fitted, glamorous, bold, suave
Comments: In most places the distinctions between formal and semi-formal wear have been lost, so a well-tailored suit will often work in both settings. Nevertheless, fashion-conscious cultures in places like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas expect a bit more glitz and glamor, even from politicians. The difference between formal and semi-formal wear is the difference between being on the cover of Time and being on the cover of GQ. Ask for help if you don’t know how to dress to the nines and need to.
Formal / Business Attire
Purpose: To do business and show respect on formal occasions.
Examples: conservative business suits, Oxfords and other dress shoes, classic ties and belts, fine leather accessories, cuff links
Fashion Keywords: formal, classic, tailored, prestigious, traditional, confidant
Comments: The designation “formal wear” is sometimes used to indicate that tuxedos are optional. But in most cases, a dark business suit and tie will suffice. Note that darker colored suits are usually worn at somber/solemn events, as well as during cold weather. Lighter colored suits are more appropriate in warm weather and on festive occasions. Most of the time, political leaders will wear business suits to work.
Purpose: For ceremonial occasions like weddings and state balls.
Examples: tuxedos, bow ties, and cummerbunds
Fashion Keywords: sophisticated, iconic, made-to-measure, bespoke, debonair
Comments: When an event is black tie, tuxedos are not an option. Political leaders should stick to classic styles and accessories with neutral colors, and are strongly advised to buy their own tuxedo rather than rent. Rentals generally look cheap, don’t fit right, and cost more in the long run. To keep the look fresh from season to season, buy different shirts and accessories.
Purpose: To signal authority or membership in a specific profession.
Examples: military dress uniform, judicial robes, religious ceremonial garb, etc.
Fashion Keywords: dignified, polished, decorated, distinguished, reverential
Comments: It’s rare for political leaders to appear in uniform, unless they are performing official duties. Usually there are well-established protocols regarding uniforms and other ceremonial garb. All it takes is a little research to find them.
For more advice on what to wear, check out our forthcoming article in Campaigns and Elections: Sartorial Success on the Campaign Trail. This post may be updated from time to time in order to reflect the most current fashions and trends.