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Mark Shields: Hats Off to Our Presidential Trendsetters of Fashion

If patterns hold true, don't expect the 2012 Republican field to sport neckties

Politics may well be the most imitative of all human activities. To this day, there are state legislative candidates campaigning in Massachusetts and pronouncing the word “again” so that it rhymes with “plane.”

Why? Because that’s the way John Kennedy pronounced it, and he never lost an election. Every president since Ronald Reagan has tried — and failed — to be as self-deprecatingly humorous as the Gipper could be.

Once, when the animosity between first lady Nancy Reagan and White House chief of staff Donald Regan had become widely known, the president was able to break the tension at a media dinner with a quip: “Nancy and Don Regan at one point tried to patch things up. They met privately over lunch. Just the two of them and their food-tasters.”

More than just political style, American presidents also can shape and influence popular style. Look at the pictures of U.S. chief executives before 1960, when Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon: On their heads, American presidents all wore hats. True, perhaps because so many American men had spent World War II in uniform where they had been forced to always wear a service cap or a helmet, that custom was beginning to change by the time JFK was sworn in. (You can check the photos of Inaugural Day 1961 and see that, for that formal occasion, Kennedy did in fact bow to tradition and wear a silk top hat.)

But from that day forward, it was hats off! The young president may not have single-handedly caused the move to American males going bareheaded, but he certainly hastened that change. With the exceptions of their home-state 10-gallon models occasionally sported by Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush, U.S. presidents post-Kennedy swore off homburgs, fedoras and bowlers. Baseball caps don’t count. Let it be noted that as we American men paid less attention to our hats, we began to pay more attention — almost certainly too much — to our hair.

What Kennedy did to the American hat industry, President Barack Obama has done to the necktie business. Yes, the casual Friday and the West Coast informality of the high-tech world predated the 2008 election of the Illinois senator. Necktie sales had been falling and presidential candidates had regularly campaigned in sport shirts and casual slacks. But candidate and now President Obama has brought a different sartorial wrinkle out of the presidential closet — the well-tailored suit with open-collared dress shirt.

If you want to see the Obama fashion fallout, look at the most recent pictures of Republican front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. In 1988, Romney ran as and dressed the part of the successful businessman he had been. To be honest, Romney looks both totally at home and very good in a suit and tie. Actually Romney, who seems incapable of sweating and whose shirts do not dare to be wrinkly, would probably look good in a Hefty trash bag.

But Obama in 2008 went tieless in both a sports jacket and a suit, and won big. Now three years later, Romney, while insisting he still treasures his ties for their color and individuality, dramatically defends his signature public policy achievement and greatest intra-party vulnerability, the Massachusetts health-care law he sponsored and signed, while wearing a blazer, slacks and no tie.

It’s a good bet that among the 2012 Republican field, neckties will become almost as rare as derbies or calls for tax increases. Because politics really is the most imitative of all human activities.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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