Dressing the part: the art of GOP style

Republicans, at least when gathered for a national convention, tend to dress up, and to dress alike.

"GOP" fashions from CivicFest at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Photo: Staff Photo, Star Tribune

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The Republican convention has brought a seismic sartorial shift to the streets of both downtowns. And I'm not talking about the funny hats and colorful campaign buttons.

Republicans clean up nicely, especially when they're representing their party. No untamed hair, no rumpled, loose-fitting skirts and trousers made from varying blends of linen, hemp and flax. On men, no shirttails hanging out or low-slung, baggy shorts and pants.

On Labor Day, when the Twin Cities remain full of tank tops, cargo shorts and flip-flops, a record was set in both downtowns for sightings of dark suits and wingtips, pantyhose and closed-toe heels, no matter the 90-degree weather.

A mix of Sunday best and business best is the GOP style code -- pinstriped suits with Repp ties for men, and for women, modestly tailored if brightly colored skirt suits (apparently the pantsuit has been decisively commandeered by Hillary Clinton). More Talbots than Limited, more Escada than Prada.

It's a look straight out of the upscale 1980s, at times even the early 1960s, a la "Mad Men," without the skinny ties. The group wardrobe motto seems to be the less change, the better. There's more at work here than the sense of tradition that pervades conservative philosophy. The visual message is clear: We are part of the same club, exuding unity via a uniform appearance that reinforces a united mind-set.

But the tradition had to begin somewhere. Which trend-setting fellow first donned the navy blazer, striped Oxford and pressed khakis? We know that precursors to the look originated in Britain, tied to wealth, privilege and the desire for both. Brooks Brothers began making sport coats and blazers in the 1920s, then the striped shirts to go with them in the 1940s. But the look really become the official costume of the Republican male in the 1950s, when the clothier came up with its Ivy League concept, including different looks for Harvard and Yale.

Republican women of this era have experienced more style evolution than men, often taking cues from Republican First Ladies, especially Nancy Reagan in her signature red Adolfo. Both Barbara and Laura Bush, while always smartly attired, set a more matronly tone. If Cindy McCain becomes the next top woman in the White House, expect a return of the controlled flash and dash evident among many of the female legislators and lobbyists in town this week.

After ideology, the biggest contrast between the conventioneers and the protesters marching past them is mode of dress. Each side wants to look as little like the other as possible. Color-coordinated crispness, meet chaotic campwear -- and a legion of casual code-pink separates.

Most of us need to feel like a part of a tribe, and what we wear sends signals to others like us -- or not. For this tribe, there's safety in sameness.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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