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Rob Walker

Santorum’s Tragic Sweater Vest


Via RickSantorum.com

I admit at the outset that this is a frivolous, silly topic. But I have to get it off my chest. And you know, it's the weekend, so why not?

In my never-ending fascination with the primaries as entertainment (a possibly-not-admirable trait that I’ve fessed up to elsewhere), I’ve been inexplicably fascinated by Rick Santorum’s sweater vests. Of all the visual/material signifiers of the campaign, this is the one I find most perplexing, even bizarre.

In recent weeks, particularly after Santorum mounted an odds-defying surge in Iowa, the vest has been widely scrutinized, becoming the most buzzed-about candidate-style object since Sarah Palin’s glasses. Time called his vests (jokingly) “the unsung heroes of his campaign,” noting the Fear Rick’s Vest Twitter feed, Tumblr, Facebook page and YouTube video. The candidate began to sell “official” Santorum sweater vests for $100, claimed that he was boosting sweater-vest sales in general, and took to wearing one emblazoned with his campaign logo.

What are the semiotics of this particular garment? Demetri Martin once joked that life vests protect you from drowning, bulletproof vests protect you from gunfire — and sweater vests protect you from pretty girls. The popular reading of Santorum’s vest, however, seems to be that it makes him identifiable: a regular guy, down to earth, approachable, a man of the people. The candidate himself offers a talismanic explanation for the style, noting that it was while wearing a sweater vest at an Iowa campaign event that he felt his electoral fortunes beginning to change.

Possibly all of that can be rolled into a reading of the sweater vest as signalling geeky charm, dulling Santorum’s extremely hard-edged rhetoric. As anyone who’s been watching the debates knows, he deploys sharp elbows to underscore his uncompromising views on a variety of social and political issues. And if he was known for much to the general public prior to this election, it was mostly for inflaming ideological opponents. To be blunt, he largely comes across as angry, and sort of a jerk. Given that his more liberal enemies paint him as narrow-minded hate monger, maybe a sweater vest de-fangs that image a bit, at least visually. How threatening, after all, can a man in a sweater vest really be?

Via GQ.com

But it reads differently to me, particularly in considering the logo-ed version. Writing on GQ’s site, self-professed sweater vest-wearer Mark Byrne judges Santorum’s “baggy ass” logo-stitched version “an ugly good luck charm-cum-promotional devise.” E, my wife, says it reminds her of the uniform of a big-box retailer. I'll go along with that, though I'd say valet at a terrible hotel and multilevel marketer also work as comparison points. Broadly I'd say the thing signals a soul-defining lack of authority, a man sadly resigned to the indignities of the assistant manager passed over for promotion. Nobody cares what a guy in a logo-ed sweater vest thinks about trade deficits or foreign policy; we just want him to check in the back to see if any more air filters in the size we happen to need are in stock. Presidential candidates speak often of “serving” the nation, but this is not what they mean.

The last time a sweater played a semiotic role in political discourse, it was Jimmy Carter’s fireside cardigan, signaling (intentions aside) a compromise before nature, a material admission that a time of sacrifice was at hand in the struggle to balance energy policy and personal comfort; this message was received as weak-kneed cowardice.

The logo-emblazoned sweater vest is similar in that it is difficult to imagine someone genuinely wanting to wear such a thing. The reading that it makes Santorum resemble the common man misses the fact that the common man finds himself encased in such garments only under duress: The job requires it; it's in the employee handbook; corporate said I had to; the boss would frown upon me if I didn’t. It is in fact an object of tragedy. It speaks of acquiescence, capitulation, a bitter surrender to cruel fate.

It speaks, in a word, of losing.

Photo by Lars Tunbjork via Bag News Notes Tumblr

Note: The site Bag News Notes has been offering consistently worthwhile commentary on photojournalism from the campaign, and has gathered a panel (photographers, journalists, academic experts) for an online discussion of electoral imagery tomorrow (January 29); details here. Among the topics the panel will consider: "What makes Santorum’s sweater such a icon?"






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Rob Walker Rob Walker is a technology and culture columnist for Yahoo News. He is the former Consumed columnist for The New York Times Magazine, and has contributed to many publications. He is co-editor (with Joshua Glenn) of the book Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things, and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.

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Comments [9]
Could there be a simpler (and vainer) explanation, now replaced by the talismanic one? He thought the vest, in its original dark version, was slimming. I gather it is easy to gain a lot of weight on the campaign trail, and with our thin president, no challenger wants to look unhealthy.
Akexandra Lange
01.28.12
02:23

"I'd say the thing signals a soul-defining lack of authority, a man sadly resigned to the indignities of the assistant manager passed over for promotion. Nobody cares what a guy in a logo-ed sweater vest thinks about trade deficits or foreign policy; we just want him to check in the back to see if any more air filters in the size we happen to need are in stock."

yes! although i think i look quite commanding in mine. curiously, though we consider the raglan and the cardigan two less than virile sartorial choices, they get their names for quite ruthless british military figures, their origins, like the balaclava, traced to the crimean war. so let's just say the sweater, worn by an appropriate figure, can be quite manly indeed.
Mark Lamster
01.28.12
03:27

His problem isn't the vests, it's that he's mixing them with the wrong shirts and pants. Too much contrast, shirts that are designed for dress jackets, and khaki pants are out, period. Grey on grey, grey with black, and black & white combos look much better. And it doesn't help that he's a totally clueless reactionary.
CH
01.28.12
08:17

Mark, I think Alexandra is saying that you're fat! Just kidding. More seriously:
Alexandra: You may be right about that, though he actually looks slimmer in a suit.
Mark: I am certain you look commanding in yours -- but I'm also guessing you do not rock logo-ed versions. Fantastic info about the manly history of sweaters!
CH: Agreed, and well said.
Thx all...
Rob Walker
01.29.12
09:23

I'm not sure what this adds to the mix, but Philippe de Montebello sported a sweater vest in his final years, and his wannabe, Gary Tinterow, took to wearing one ... not sure if it had anything to do with age(ing) or attitude, or was it simply to combat the a/c at the MMA? Theirs had buttons, however, which says what? Politicians prefer pullovers?
Maureen Cassidy-Geiger
01.29.12
02:44

Funny because I was just talking to my fiance about why Santorum is such a "back seat" candidate. This sums it up. Thank you!
bettiehorne
01.29.12
03:22

We Pennsylvanians kicked Santorum out of office, in part, because he stole money from the taxpayers of Penn Hills School District to pay his childrens' cyber school tuition when they had long ago stopped being residents of our state. Of course Design Observer is not a place for politics, so I won't go on. But it is his politics everyone should be looking at--and should not distracted from that by the frivolous topic of his attire!
Rob Henning
01.30.12
04:13

At first this just stuck me as shallow and mean - as any attack on a person's fashion choices usually does, but ONE LINE in this piece is brilliant enough an observation to make me think the author should give up on the snarky Joan Rivers bit and use his powers for good instead of evil: "The reading that it makes Santorum resemble the common man misses the fact that the common man finds himself encased in such garments only under duress"

That, and what comes next, are the observations of a brilliant populist political mind - one that could be better utilized over at the Daily Kos or Salon.com
JaundiceJames
01.31.12
07:07

The problem isn't the sweater vest per se, but the particular sweater vest and the particular wearer. If I recall correctly, the last Brooks Brothers catalogue I received featured more than a few young to middle-aged men in sweater vests. Thanks to their own healthy good looks, the fit and quality of the sweaters, and the talents of the stylists and photographers who created the images, they couldn't have looked better. The images evoked a world of ease, optimism and affluence, of gentlemen's C's...of Greenwich before hedge funds. Not a chick-repellent, down-market look at all, but quite the opposite: think the worlds of F.Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara and Giorgio Bassani. A seventeen-year-old prep school Mitt Romney would have looked great in a sweater vest, perhaps he actually did.
Tom Beauchamp
02.03.12
11:51



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