John Fetterman has a new suit.
On January 3, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, whose penchant for Carhartt sweatshirts, Dickies, and baggy shorts were as much a part of his political brand as any stump speech, was sworn in as part of the 118th Congress in a relatively custom, formerly unseen light gray number with two buttons. This is a major problem, in part because Mr. Fetterman, during his time as Lieutenant Governor, had emphatically pointed out that he only one dark suit.
On a day notable for the chaos surrounding the election for Speaker of the House, that suit, along with the light blue-striped tie and polished black lace-up boots that Mr. Fetterman also wore, was arguably the biggest political fashion statement of the incoming election. class. It was even more symbolic than Nancy Pelosi’s bright pink outfit for passing the baton, or the pair of suffragist whites worn by some of the women in the House, or even JD Vance’s Trumpian uniform of navy blue suit, white shirt, and glowing red tie.
And it cements Mr. Fetterman as one of Washington’s more unexpected image makers. It’s not that he dresses particularly well, although the new suit was a step up. It’s that he dresses purposefully.
Indeed, Mr. Fetterman’s new suit was as eye-catching as any of the fashion statements made by various members of Congress since clothing began to play a larger role in election communications. To wit: January 2019, when a large group of women from the newly elected 116th Congress wore white to their swearing in honor of their suffragist predecessors (and as a counter-attack to the Trump administration’s imaging focus).
Or for that matter, nearly every State of the Union and major public event since then — most recently in December, when a number of lawmakers wore yellow and blue during Volodymyr Zelensky’s congressional speech. When a photo session is involved, there is generally a premeditated fashion decision.
Silent communication through clothing has become an integral part of the political toolbox. It’s wielded with increasing dexterity by, say, elected officials like Kyrsten Sinema, who used her goofy wardrobe of sleeveless tops, colored wigs, and the occasional denim vest to telegraph her independence from political norms long before she officially became independent.
Also Jim Jordan, who symbolized his willingness to fight during committee hearings by leaving his jackets behind and rolling up his shirtsleeves. Washington’s wardrobe is so standardized that any deviation from the norm is noticeable, especially on TV.
Unless, of course, your default position is a departure from the norm, in which case a return to business as usual becomes the surprise. As Mr. Fetterman knows all too well.
Before he left for the Capitol to be sworn in, he tweeted, “For those of you asking, yes, there will be a Fetterman in shorts today, but it’s not me.” (It was one of his sons who bravely continued the family campaign to free the knee.) Instead of denying the idea that he thinks about what he wears, or that his staff denies it for him, Mr. Fetterman changed his wardrobe a long time ago in an asset: the subject of self-deprecating funny asides, social media jokes, and pretty powerful public appeal.
He has blogged that he can’t roll up his sleeves because he only wears short sleeves. He tweeted that his outfits “Western PA business casual” and celebrated his new “Formal hoodie.(His wife, Gisele, has laughed at him before; political couples – they’re just like us.) He was never really a working man – he was a mayor with a master’s degree from Harvard – but he dressed like one, and it helped humanize him, get him recognized and a name to make for himself that resonated beyond the Pennsylvania borders and into the realm of nighttime TV even before he won his election. No doubt it helped win the election.
And it meant that when he showed up on Capitol Hill in November for his orientation in a dark suit and blue tie, he received the kind of excited attention not usually given to a senator-elect as he passes by his new place of work. He seemed more like a semi-celebrity of sorts, though his willingness to abide by the Senate dress code and fit in cannot have escaped his new colleagues.
Nor could the sleight of hand that managed to make wearing a conservative suit look like a radical move. And where this comes from, they can expect more: According to his office, the new suit is one of three that Mr. Fetterman bought, along with six – count them – ties.