The most striking visual over the two-night Democratic presidential debates was the sheer number of candidates voters will have to choose from come primary season next year. But an arguably more important visual was the sight of the most diverse US presidential debate in history by a factor of, well, a lot. It was, in fact, the first time that more than one woman candidate was onstage.
That diversity could change the way the American public thinks about what a presidential candidate looks like. Conversations about the aesthetics of politics no longer rely on simply whether one candidate chose a red or blue power tie (because of course all the men are wearing suits), but about how their image reflects their platform and character, be it in Andrew Yang’s notable tie-lessness or Kirsten Gillibrand’s demure dresses.
What candidates look like has always played a role in politics, but when those candidates are as diverse as the slate of 2020 Democratic hopefuls — in race, age, gender, height, and experience — their clothing, accessories, and beauty (yes, hair and makeup also apply to the men in televised politics) all play a similarly interesting role in creating the candidate in the public eye.
The Democratic debates were the very first time that all 20 of the top-polling candidates faced each other on a national stage, which presented a problem: How do you stand out among the crowd while proving to America you’re qualified to run the country?
Many candidates did so by sticking to the clothing that has come to define them in the relatively short time they’ve been in the public eye. Of course Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur candidate, was the only man onstage who showed up without a tie, which reflected contemporary expectations of what business casual looks like. Pete Buttigieg, too, carried on with the crisp white shirt and navy suit and skinny tie he wears almost every single time he’s in public.
Candidates that have been on the national stage for years, too, went with their most defining looks. Elizabeth Warren wore one of the many jewel-toned jackets atop a black shirt and pants that she’s worn throughout the entire campaign (this time it was purple). Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden looked like they always do: Dark suits with blue ties, the former’s white hair slightly tousled, the latter’s white hair surrounded by a film of orangeish foundation. Neither one, incidentally, made much of an impact on night two of the debate: Instead, they were outshone by candidates who weren’t around for the elections of 2008, 2012, and 2016.
Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris both leaned into the more feminine looks that they’ve tended toward on the campaign trail thus far. Gillibrand, in a teal blue short-sleeve dress, sparkly earrings, and a blonde bob, spent the night giving her fellow candidates a history lesson on abortion and doubling down on her platform of gender equity and family policy. Harris, meanwhile, wore navy blue eyeliner and her signature string of pearls, yet neither were distracting: Harris had one of the best performances of either night and was quick to jump on Biden’s record on race by reminding him that she was among the second class to integrate her public school in California, two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.
As Lyn Paolo, a costume designer for Scandal and The West Wing told the New York Times, political aesthetics are, “about consistency. If you are consistent, people get an image of you in their heads, and you have carved out a specific space.
“I use the Halloween rule,” she added. “Could someone be dressed for Halloween as this candidate and be immediately recognizable?”
Candidates who have found a look that works for them and their platform and rely on it as a slogan, almost like a visual meme, have been able to stand out in ways that others haven’t. Jay Inslee, for instance, has used his green ties as a signal to his climate-change-first policies; his was the strongest voice onstage for environmental policies on night one, despite the fact that the debate spent just 15 minutes out of four total hours on the subject.
The physical similarities of many of the rest of the lesser-known white male candidates, on the other hand — Michael Bennett, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, John Delaney, and Eric Swalwell — made them seem interchangeable. These men, who certainly have no problem looking the part of a “traditional” president but who had little to add to the conversation that other candidates weren’t already talking about, only made the diversity of the panel of candidates more exciting. Watching them almost felt like an unwanted distraction from the frontrunners.
Instead, the questions of “Who?” ended up focusing mostly on Marianne Williamson, the quirky self-help author whose old-fashioned accent, airy blue suit and floral patterned shirt stole the show, if only for how she paired next to the things she said. Together, as Emily Stewart writes for Vox, it gave the impression of “a cross between your local psychic, the hippie lady who runs the town secondhand store, and your mom (or, um, you) two glasses of Chardonnay deep.”
But race and gender weren’t the only factors that showcased the diversity of the Democratic candidates. As much as age was a point of contention in the 2016 campaign with both Democrats and Republicans arguing that the other candidate was too old, frail, or senile for the presidency, many of the 2020 candidates were striking in how young they appeared onstage. Julián Castro, 44, and Cory Booker, who is 50 but looks much younger, were two of the standouts of night one; they provided visual reassurance for anyone concerned that the Democratic Party had grown too old and too white.
Tulsi Gabbard, too, with the (very cool) streak of gray in her hair, piqued interest in the American public, according to Google Trends. Her hair looked nothing if not chic, recalling What Not to Wear host Stacy London’s, and reflected a modern desire among women to embrace gray hair rather than use dye to hide it.
In total, the Democratic debates were a refreshing contrast to presidential debates of the past, which have typically featured a slew of largely older white men in suits. And as a result, the discussions around issues like abortion, equal pay, race inequalities, and immigration felt less like talking points meant to pander to audiences and more like the urgently important topics they actually are to American voters.
Of course, the purpose of the debates was to narrow down the field to find a candidate who can take on the sitting president in the 2020 elections, but who also embodies the values that voters care about. That’s a tall order. So far, the only candidate with a solid lead in the polls is Joe Biden, who doesn’t exactly look the part of an agent of progressive change, despite his repeated efforts to compare himself to Obama.
We’ll continue to see the Democratic candidates using clothing and appearances to play to their advantage over the next year and a half. How they perform in the primary elections, in fact, may end up coming down to how easy it is to remember what they look like.
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