Style Seminar: What to Wear When Running for Office
One of my favorite moments of 2017 was traveling to Fort Worth, Texas with Alison Gary of Wardrobe Oxygen. We produced and ran a two-day seminar geared toward women running for political office. When two of Alison’s readers contacted her for some expert style advice for women political candidates, she approached me to partner with her. I didn’t have to think twice. I knew it was a great opportunity to work with Alison and help women put their best foot forward running for office. So off we went for a weekend in Texas!
As Alison summarizes in her blog post, when you Google “What to wear when running for political office,” “What to wear for a political campaign,” or any other similar search almost all advice is dated and geared towards men. At the October 2017 Women’s Convention in Detroit, Emily’s List stated that over 20,000 women so far that year decided to run for office, and about 40 percent of those women were running in local elections. We wanted to provide women with easy-to-access, affordable style tools that would empower them during their political campaigns.
Our Dress for Respect workshop included a presentation and interactive one-on-one with each attendee. We prepped participants with an email to find out if they had any of the pieces outlined in the capsule we created. If they did own similar clothing options, we asked them to bring them to the seminar. Our philosophy at DC Style Factory is we only want to add to our clients’ closets what is needed and will provide value. Sometimes an easy tailoring fix makes a garment new again. We wanted to be able to make those same personalized recommendations to our candidates. We provided a sample capsule wardrobe, detailed mix-and-match looks, a professional evaluation of items they brought from their own closets, and an onsite DC Style Factory Style Memo, which included a budgeted and prioritized shopping list for their campaign looks.
First, we gave our attendees the recipe for campaign dressing: an easy 14-piece capsule wardrobe with mix-and-match options for canvassing, town hall speaking engagements, fundraising, and cocktail party events. This capsule wardrobe provided the roadmap to their campaign style. You can purchase these exact pieces or similar ones, but they don’t have to be identical colors or even styles. For example, if the ladylike style of the tailored jacket pictured below is not your thing, it can always be substituted with a collarless v-neck blazer that accomplishes the same style goal.
To shop this capsule, Alison has provided links for all the pieces. Shop them right here or head over to her post.
solid colored sheath dress with sleeves (plus size option) | slim belt | loafer or structured flat with almond or pointed toe (option with widths) | block heel pump with almond or pointed toe (option with widths) | small pendant necklace or signature everyday piece of jewelry | dressy statement necklace | black straight leg or “cigarette” pants (plus size option) | dark denim jeans with a straight cut and free of embellishments or distressing (plus size option) | dressy clutch purse | sheer hosiery(plus size option) | soft jacket (plus size option) | another soft jacket with a bit more structure (plus size option) | silky solid-colored blouse (plus size option) | another blouse with good drape (plus size option)
After introducing the capsule, we jumped into the specific combinations for various campaign events, assigning key words to help attendees visualize the message they wanted to convey with each look.
The key word for this look was “Relatable.” This is the most casual of the four looks we created. Candidates go from door-to-door pitching their message and vision directly to voters. They are connecting with people right at their front doors. The look had to be something anyone could and would wear — but elevated. We decided dark denim because it is a casual, everyday garment that is accessed across all ages and demographics. Note that the denim in this photo reads a little lighter since we needed to contrast it with the black pants in the capsule. We recommended a dark straight-leg pair with no distress and no whiskering for a clean, polished look.
No t-shirts for this activity. Opt instead for a draped blouse in a poly-crepe, poly or silk fabric that dresses up and elevates the denim. If weather permits, layer with what we at DC Style Factory call a “soft jacket.” This type of jacket has the seaming and structure of a blazer, but wears like a cardigan. We don’t want this look to be too formal so the layering piece is a bit more relaxed. Be careful with waterfall cardigans that are too casual and can appear sloppy.
Our canvassing candidates are walking many miles a day! We said no to sneakers, though. It easy to make mistakes with sneakers. You are presenting yourself to potential voters not running Sunday errands or walking your dog. Wear a structured, walkable flat. There are many options these days for loafers and flats that provide support and comfort when you are on your feet for long stretches.
Finally, don’t forget to accessorize. Keep it simple, with a small pendant necklace. By dressing up the denim with the right top, shoes and accessories, this smart casual look strikes the right balance for a candidate going door to door.
Also note there is no bag as part of this look. We thought long and hard about this, and discussed with our seminar attendees. In the end, we stuck with our initial recommendation — purses can be a distracting element. We wanted to keep our candidates’ hands free as they converse with voters. No fidgeting with a crossbody. A backpack reads junior. A tote is a work bag. A hobo looks like you are headed to the grocery store.
As for water and sustenance, our candidates told us it would work to canvass a specific area, and keep water and supplies in the car for re-energizing in between.
The key word for these looks was “Trustworthy.” At fundraisers, our candidates are asking people to trust that they will work for them and in their best interest if elected — enough to donate money toward their campaigns. Also, the candidates at our seminars are not fundraising at galas. They are running for local offices through grassroots efforts. Their events are at people’s homes, and at local restaurants and smaller venues.
The first look above is for a meet-and-greet fundraising event in a home. Again, candidates are on their feet so comfort is important. The main change we made from the Canvassing look is swapping the denim for a pair of black pants to add a bit of formality. We mixed in the pink blouse as well, but sticking with the blue from Canvassing would work just as well.
The second look is for an event at a public venue, like a restaurant. We still want to keep our candidates comfortable, but add even more formality by introducing the structured, tailored jacket. We brought in the blue blouse for this look because the necklines go to together. The pink blouse has a v-shape, which would not work with the crew neckline of the jacket.
One question we received was about pockets. At an event like this, candidates are exchanging business cards and contact information with potential donors. Keep in mind that any professional look — whether we are talking campaign or otherwise — is about walking the line between functional and stylish. For example, too many bulky pockets can make for a sloppy look. But, using pant pockets or jacket pockets to store cards is fine. We also talked about having a volunteer (maybe the host at the in-home event or a volunteer at a restaurant event) be responsible for gathering attendee information. We asked candidates if they could assign a specific person to gather and keep track of business cards instead of stuffing them in their pockets.
This is one of our two dressier looks and the key word for this ensemble is “Sophisticated.” At these cocktail events, our candidates are shmoozing with other politicians and larger donors. Understated elegance and formality is the name of the game for this look. That means making sure the fit of the dress is impeccable, wearing hosiery, and make sure there are no marks or stains on clothing. But, we told seminar attendees, don’t be afraid to showcase your personality with accessories. We also incorporated heels in this look, but opted for a block heel to help with support and stability. Our candidates are never not on their feet!
Note, this also is the only look that features a bag as an integral part of the outfit. This was not accidental. The clutch is a key element in dressing up the simple black sheath for evening. The other looks, style-wise, do not require a bag. In fact, they can be a distraction. But for this event the bag is part of a cocktail look. Without it, the look is incomplete.
The final outfit we discussed at the seminar was the Town Hall look. The key word for this look is “Authority.” We wanted our candidates to look polished, in-charge, and fierce. Although this is a more formal business look, it is not a suit. We opted for modern separates instead of suits. Separates offer more mix-and-match options plus, image-wise, we are not dressing lawyers for the court room.
Here, we bring back the jacket from the more formal Fundraising look and the black sheath from the Cocktail look. We keep accessories simple.
The key to this look is fit. There was one anecdote during the seminar about a candidate whose sheath dress was a bit snug. She had trouble moving comfortably at the speaking engagement and it showed. You want clothing that fits and flatters your silhouette, and moves with you comfortably when you are front and center in the spotlight. Some easy and inexpensive tailoring fixes that are commonly overlooked include sleeve length of jackets (should hit the bottom part of wrist when your arm is down at your side), dress length (knee-length is always appropriate), a little tapering to the skirt or dress for a more tailored look, and making sure pants are hemmed appropriately to height of shoe. All these tailoring fixes range in cost from $15-$30 and make a major difference in how clothing looks and feels. Even if you are saving on the retail cost of garments, tailor them to fit your body. The garment will instantaneously look more expensive.
We delved into color, pattern and fabric during the presentation as well. When I work with clients one-on-one, we do a brief analysis to discuss what colors are most flattering on their skin tone. For the presentation, we provided examples of colors that are universally flattering, and always look polished and put together. These include cobalt blue, teal, magenta, plum, and emerald green. Black is the easiest neutral to work with because, as you can see, it always looks polished and goes with everything. Colors we steered away from include red, muddy brown, orange, and yellow, which can be a little trickier in a capsule wardrobe and in creating a really polished, professional look.
We also covered ways to step up your hair and makeup in an accessible, authentic manner.
At the end of the weekend we were both exhausted and exhilarated. Meeting and working with these women was inspiring, and we hope to be able to do it again in 2018 with other candidates around the country.
To find out more about our seminar, Dress for Respect: What to Wear When Running for Office, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.