Simon Doonan decodes political spectacle

The Democratic and Republican conventions differ in substance, but they create a similar spectacle. In studying the clothing and staging of the 2016 conventions and the candidates, humorist and fashion observer Simon Doonan says we must ask, "what are these people doing in order to manage our perceptions about them? They are carefully orchestrating their appearance."

Speakers, among them, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, addressed the crowdn the first night of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center on July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia. (Natalie Keyssar for TIME)
The staging of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia (Natalie Keyssar for TIME)

How much is a political convention about the message or the messaging?

The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia is underway, and while its content differs from last week’s GOP convention, it has a lot in common with its rival in terms of attention paid to styling.

Simon Doonan is a writer and creative ambassador for Barneys New York who once designed the Christmas decorations for the White House — giving him the gravitas to hold forth on politics. 

Last year he wrote a hilarious article for Slate in which he photoshopped fashion brands onto presidential candidates that he felt reflected their characters. For example, he clad Hillary Clinton in Gareth Pugh’s Goth empress gown, on the grounds that “nothing would communicate her take-no-prisoners attitude better.”

So DnA went back to him to opine on this year’s conventions and the candidates’ clothing. Read on for some of his pithy comments, or listen to the interview above.

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The Republican Convention had a bigger video screen and a more abstract design than the Democratic one, but hewed to the typical “car show” style — lots of shiny surfaces, oodles of balloons.

On the Staging of Political Conventions

(The political convention) is its own genre. The sets look a like a car show at the Javits Center in New York or something like that; they definitely have the feel of a big commercial presentation like you get for the launch of a new web company. Lots of shiny services, flashing lights, oodles of balloons.

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Hillary Clinton has to incorporate a complex agenda in her fresh, optimistic pantsuits.

On Hillary Clinton’s Attire

Women (aiming for high office like head of state) have to look interesting, pleasant, engaged but not too vain. They can’t look like a wicked stepmother; they have to look warm and maternal but also highly competent, so the agenda for Hillary is infinitely more complex (than for a man) where she has to incorporate all these things in one fell pantsuit. I think she tries to look fresh, optimistic; the colors are good.

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The uniform for male presidential candidates: dark blue suit that fits, white shirt, tie.

On Male Politicians’ Attire

You know a man just has to look nondescript and wear a nice dark blue suit that fits and a red tie and a white shirt and he’s done.

On Donald Trump’s Very Long Jackets with Long Sleeves and Long Ties

It’s the right thing to do because if a man wears a fitted jacket with slightly shorter sleeves and a French cuff and cufflinks he automatically looks like a dandy; there’s too much peacocking going on. Donald Trump dresses like one of the detectives on The Wire.

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If Trump is “the frame”, the Trump ladies “are the picture.”

On Trump’s Wife and Daughters

In the Trump situation it’s all on the Trump ladies. It’s like ballroom dancing. You know, they say the man is the frame and the lady is the picture. I think that is definitely the case in the Trump camp because there’s a lot of female glamour that is eclipsing any interest in anything he’s wearing.

On Melania’s Dresses Worn Onstage at the Conventions

Sleeve detail is her thing, isn’t it? Because on both dresses there was some noteworthy sleeve structure. You know she doesn’t try and look mumsy in order to be appealing.

No flashy jewelry, a distinctive sleeve, but no mumsy style either.
No flashy jewelry, a distinctive sleeve, but no mumsy style either.

On Why Style Matters

You have to look at it through the lens of, what are these people doing in order to manage our perceptions about them? They are carefully orchestrating their appearance. So, for example, the Trump ladies look glamorous but they weren’t dripping in jewelry. I didn’t see anyone trailing a fur coat on stage. It’s a complex dance between the electorate and the politicians where the politicians are trying to communicate with us. So it’s up to us to decode what they’re saying — and wearing. That’s what makes it profound.

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What does that stuffed eagle mean? Read the Time story behind Martin Schoeller’s picture here.