- - Sunday, March 4, 2012

Rick Santorum is known primarily for two things: his social conservatism and his sweater vests. More than his rivals for the GOP presidential nomination, the outspoken former senator from Pennsylvania wears his moral and religious convictions on his plainly visible shirtsleeve.

Although candidates have constructed their images carefully from head to toe, few likely want to be known for their wardrobe choices. The Time magazine cover for May 21, 2007, proclaims that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney “looks like a president.” This election cycle, the unquestionably sharp dresser has been spotted in “mom jeans.” Coincidence?

Mr. Santorum, meanwhile, has embraced the casual, dowdy sweater vest. It might have helped his dark-horse candidacy remain viable in the early nominating contests, but after losing in Arizona and Michigan a week before Super Tuesday, he might need a more dignified look.

Mr. Santorum didn’t plan to make the unpretentious garment his signature look. But once it became an inseparable symbol of his everyman appeal — you know, the down-to-earth family man who does his own taxes at the kitchen table — he cheerfully bowed to the inevitable.

He told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham that he happened to wear a sweater vest at the December forum about abortion hosted by former Arkansas Gov. and 2008 presidential contender Mike Huckabee in Iowa. “All of the other candidates are dressed in suits and ties, and I just walked out and had a sweater vest on,” he said proudly. He received a surge in support after his speech — as did, he claims, his sweater vest, which has since inspired a Twitter feed (@FearRicksVest), a Tumblr, and a YouTube video with images of the be-vested candidate.

“All of a sudden, it was like, ‘Fear the vest,’” he told Ms. Ingraham.

He also said that the sweater vest makes him feel older and, as he told a crowd in South Carolina, “gave me this power.”

The wonderful thing about fashion is that it can make one look and feel more confident and powerful. We all use fashion as armor: our best suit for the interview, our lucky jersey for the game, our sky-high heels for the first date. Mr. Santorum’s sweater vests may make him feel powerful, but would they project the same to tough-minded leaders on the world stage? The unassuming sweater vest — intermediate, indeterminate — would seem unlikely to overawe, say, Vladimir Putin.

Is it a sweater? Or is it a vest? Worn under a sport coat? Or in place of one? Indoors or out? At work or at play? This woven hybrid can’t decide. As a true believer, Mr. Santorum knows his own mind. He deserves clothes that know theirs.

“A sweater vest is, at best, a paltry attempt to combine the casual and the smart,” says Grant Harris, owner of Image Granted LLC in Washington, an image consulting company for professional men. Mr. Santorum may be going for an everyday look, says Mr. Harris, but without a tie, it’s just an “incomplete look.”

“Sweater vests are hard to get right because they’re typically cut too big, drape around the body, and pinch at the waist,” says Pranav Vora, founder and CEO of Hugh & Crye, a men’s apparel company based in Washington that specializes in upscale, fitted dress shirts.

“I think the vest worked in Mr. Santorum’s favor, making him a bit more accessible to the average American, especially in contrast to Romney’s suited, polished, private-equity look,” Mr. Vora says.

The sweater vest is the dress-up attire of little boys and the uniform of the consummate preppy. It’s the choice of football coaches and golfers, who seem to think it hides the middle-age gut but really emphasizes it. It’s a signature of “Family Matters’” Steve Urkel, the irritating geek next door. It can “make you look like a Nickelodeon cartoon character,” says Mr. Harris, referring to Doug, the odd sweater-vested character from the 1990s.

The sweater vest evokes a number of images, but “president” is not one of them.

From George Washington’s ruffled shirt and powdered wig to Abraham Lincoln’s three-piece suit and top hat, John F. Kennedy’s slim-cut Brooks Brothers ensembles and Ronald Reagan’s strong 1980s shoulders, the president’s attire historically has been formal, conveying respect for one’s job and oneself. With a few exceptions — like Jimmy Carter, who wore a cardigan for a 1977 fireside chat — the U.S. president doesn’t perform official duties in a casual knit.

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