An Ode to Bernie Sanders’s Rumpled Style

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Wrinkled shirt, wide tie, can't lose.
Wrinkled shirt, wide tie, can't lose. Photo: Congressional Quarterly

Now that Bernie Sanders has stirred the crowds in Washington Square Park, it seems like a prime moment to talk about the most revolutionary thing about him — other than his beliefs, that is. I’m talking about his fashion sense.

This has been a weirdly style-centric election. Marco Rubio (remember Marco Rubio?) was raked over the coals for wearing a fairly tame pair of Cuban heeled boots that a Beatle wouldn’t look twice at. Donald Trump’s fluffed-up coif and loud ties have received their own love-hate accolades, and maybe even inspired some designers. And Hillary Clinton has fielded her share of pantsuit jokes, although thankfully not as many as we expected.

Candidates are perpetually caught in a double bind: too fashion-forward and they get dinged for being out of touch. Or, in the case of the Rubio moment, for having an attachment to style that is seen as effeminate. Cue the Beltway panic. At the same time, even a “man of the people” candidate loses points for appearing too dressed-down. And in a race made up of peacocks, Sanders is a rumpled wren. His utilitarian ensembles immediately telegraph that he feels about fashion trends the way he does about the Koch Brothers.

Sanders’s accent may be all barbaric New Yawk yawp, but his fashion sense reflects the place he’s spent most of his career: New England, the land of Merrells and L.L. Bean. Just like anywhere else, people there jockey for sartorial status, but it’s subtle: Fashion cred is centered around things like waterproofing and frostbite protection.

There’s also that classic Yankee thrift: In a People magazine interview, Sanders was forced to rebut claims that he only owns one pair of underwear, which has surely got to be a first for any candidate for the highest office in the land. (He spent the interview doing multiple loads of laundry, which does suggest he sticks to a capsule wardrobe.) The styling toolkit for his recent Hollywood Reporter shoot required a lint roller and not much else. When he made a self-deprecating comment about his GQ look, he was in on the joke. (For the record, GQ pushed back on the accolade.) He couldn’t be more of a contrast to Trump, who dresses like a modern-day Scrooge McDuck.

When I did a forensic analysis of Sanders’s sartorial statements over the years, he was actually less rumpled than I’d remembered. Apparently, having a halo of staticky hair will leave people with the impression that you’re permanently underdressed. Still, he’s hardly George Clooney. He favors un-ironed shirts with the sleeves rolled up for maximum “go-getter” points. (Considering the way those sleeves, folded as neatly as sheets with hospital corners, contrast with the wrinkled, slightly-too-large shirts — I’m guessing a staffer adds that touch. Give that person a raise!)

When Bernie practices the right to bare forearms, it accentuates his favored gestures: finger-pointing and waving both arms at once, often while talking about “the one percent.” He doesn’t wear suit jackets much on the campaign trail. Sometimes he throws on a fleece or a V-neck sweater, from a few that he rotates: “If Bernie has seven sweaters, that’s three too many for him,” his wife told the press. He accessorizes with wire-rimmed glasses and a pocket pen.

If you look at old photos of the candidate, he’s been dressing pretty much exactly like this since he was a University of Chicago undergrad. He might even be wearing the same non-name-brand watch — it certainly looks like it. The overall look says, “Why, yes, I did propose to my wife in a Friendly’s parking lot.”

That’s actually a big part of his appeal. When everyone from candidates to media companies to soap brands are twisting themselves into knots trying to appeal to the fabled millennial, Sanders has managed to engage a huge slice of our supposedly disengaged generation. He’s done that by presenting himself as authentic, unencumbered by Wall Street or the super-pacs. He may be just as much a product of focus groups as any other candidate, but he feels un-focus-grouped.

His no-nonsense style reflects that kind of straight-shooter image: He’s not trying to tailor himself to a particular demographic — in fact, as a fashion editor would tell you, he’s not doing much tailoring of any kind. And his cool fan base appreciates the fact that he’s flagrantly uncool. There’s something comforting about that, for people our age — the fact that he looks like your dad (or your granddad) who’s here to set things right, down to the Men’s Wearhouse wardrobe (or would Bernie be more of a Syms customer?) Who better to salve scared, alienated young people than a member of the Silent Generation who was normcore before normcore?

As tame and nondescript as it is, though, Sanders’s style might be as radical as his politics. Yes, he has upgraded the wardrobe since becoming a senator and now a candidate, but even in his more formal moments, he calls to mind the utilitarian style of the rabble-rousers who came before him. More focused on purpose than polish, his image reflects the no-niceties, grassroots approach he’s brought to his campaign. And that’s why he probably won’t be getting a political makeover anytime soon.