Politics Suits Them

Candidates Robert Ehrlich and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend both understand that you have to dress like a governor before you can be one.

October 27, 2002|By Molly Knight | By Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

The last of a parade of models had sashayed down the runway in "Style and Substance," a recent fund-raising fashion show and dinner for gubernatorial candidate Robert Ehrlich. The guests buzzed with anticipation. The lights grew dim. The loudspeaker thundered with the sound of Tina Turner's "You're Simply the Best."

From the corner of the catwalk came the show's grand finale, Ehrlich and his wife, Kendel -- modeling what the emcee called "very sexy Republican clothes." Ehrlich wore a three-piece tuxedo, Kendel a floor-length white evening gown.

For the moment Ehrlich looked surprisingly stylish -- more prom king than politician. Stylish, that is, for a candidate who doesn't give fashion a thought, and who is running against Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a member of what might be the most stylish political clan.

"I am not renowned for my taste in clothes," confessed the congressman. In fact, Ehrlich, 44, said he often commits fashion faux pas.

"Yesterday I screwed up. I was wearing these pants -- they were wrong -- and Kendel took me aside and said 'you really can't wear those with that jacket.' "

Style is one issue that Kendel Ehrlich commands. The fashion fund-raiser is the second she has organized this year. And before a big event like dinner with President Bush, she decides what her husband should wear (for Bush's visit, it was a black suit and red tie).

"I credit the women in my life -- my wife and those who work on my campaign -- for trying to work on my style," said Ehrlich. "It's a joke about me, really."

Consistency is key

For his Democratic opponent, however, fashion is no laughing matter. "Certainly people judge you based on what you wear, so it's important to consider what you put on," said Townsend.

She should know. Back in 1994, when Maryland governor Parris Glendening chose Townsend to be his running mate, she got an image overhaul. She traded in her wide-framed glasses for contact lenses, cut her hair fashionably shorter, and donned new, neatly tailored suits. She even eschewed her white canvas tennis shoes for heels.

Still, 51-year-old Townsend says style is not a priority, especially at the moment.

"Right now I'm so focused on the campaign that I don't make time for it," she said.

And why should she -- or Ehrlich -- care about clothes when there are real issues to focus on? Do voters really care about the color of a candidate's jacket, or the cut of their suit? They say clothes make the man (or the woman), but do they make the candidate?

Absolutely, according to Susan Bixler, president of Professional Image, an image-consulting company in Atlanta. "Voters have a short attention span, and a candidate often has only one chance to make an impression," she said. "This makes their style critically important."

Terry Bell, owner of ILO spa in Georgetown, agreed: "Americans like their politicians to look good." Bell, whose client list reads like a who's who of Capitol Hill, said there are certain fashion rules a candidate should stick to, particularly during a campaign. "Their look has to remain consistent," he said. "Otherwise voters will question their stability."

This look, Bixler said, should follow some basic guidelines. Don't wear distracting patterns like flowers or checks (voters won't concentrate on your words). Don't dress too fashionably (they will think you're vain). Do stick to "power" colors like red and black (pastels can make you look cowardly).

For the most part, both Ehrlich and Townsend adhere to the rules. Although Ehrlich favors a more casual look of sport coats and slacks (which he wears high on his waist), he knows when to shed his relaxed style.

"There's a uniform that men are supposed to wear for big things," Ehrlich said of his dark suit and red tie combination. "I don't alter that rule."

Except, that is, on occasions like Primary Day, when he turned up at the polls in a T-

shirt and khaki pants. "It was hot and we were running around like crazy working the polls," he explained. "I like to wear things that say that I'm relaxed and comfortable, but some people don't think it's appropriate."

The 'Un-Kennedy'

Townsend, who describes her look as "basic," also sticks to sartorial standards. "About five days a week I dress in business outfits, but if there are picnics and street festivals, I'll wear something more casual," she said of the khaki slacks and button-down shirts she sometimes wears.

When it comes to style, Townsend is very much the "Un-Kennedy." Jacqueline Kennedy made the family name synonymous with style -- setting worldwide trends with her pillbox hats, dark sunglasses and Capri pants. John Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Caroline Bessette, were one of New York's most stylish couples. Even President Kennedy influenced fashion when he stopped wearing hats to public events, and men across the country shed theirs.

Townsend is very much aware of the kind of image her name calls to mind.

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