John Fetterman has a new suit.
On Jan. 3, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, whose penchant for Carhartt sweatshirts, Dickies and baggy shorts was as much a part of his political brand as any stump speech, was sworn in as part of the 118th Congress wearing a relatively tailored, previously unseen light gray two-button number. This is a big deal, in part because during his time as lieutenant governor, Mr. Fetterman had made a point of stating that he had only one dark suit.
On a day notable for the chaos around the election of Speaker of the House, that suit, as well as the light blue striped tie and polished black lace-ups Mr. Fetterman also wore, may have been the biggest political fashion statement of the incoming class. It was more symbolic even than Nancy Pelosi’s bright pink passing-of-the-baton outfit, or the smattering of suffragist white worn by some women in the House, or even J.D. Vance’s Trumpian uniform of navy suit, white shirt and glowing red tie.
And it confirms Mr. Fetterman as one of the more unexpected image makers in Washington. It’s not that he dresses particularly well, though the new suit was a step up. It’s that he dresses with purpose.
Indeed, Mr. Fetterman’s new suit was as notable as any of the fashion statements made by various members of Congress since clothes began to play a bigger role in electoral communications. To wit: January 2019, when a large group of women of the newly elected 116th Congress wore white to their swearing-in in honor of their suffragist predecessors (and as a counterstrike to the image-making focus of the Trump administration).
Or, for that matter, almost every State of the Union and major public event since then — most recently in December, when a number of lawmakers wore yellow and blue to Volodymyr Zelensky’s congressional speech. If there’s a photo op involved, there’s generally a fashion decision aforethought.
The silent communication that comes via clothing has become a standard part of the political toolbox. It’s wielded with increasing dexterity by, for example, elected officials like Kyrsten Sinema, who used her kooky wardrobe of sleeveless tops, colored wigs and the occasional denim vest to telegraph her independence from political norms long before she officially became an independent.
Also Jim Jordan, who symbolized his willingness to fight during committee hearings by abandoning his jackets and rolling up his shirt sleeves. The Washington wardrobe is so standardized that any deviation from the norm stands out, especially on TV.
Unless, of course, your default position is deviation from the norm — in which case a return to business as usual becomes the surprise. As Mr. Fetterman well knows.
Before heading off to the Capitol for his swearing-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, gamely continuing the family campaign to free the knee.) Rather than deny the idea that he thinks about what he wears, or having his staff deny it for him, Mr. Fetterman long ago turned his wardrobe into an asset: the subject of self-deprecating funny asides, social media jokes and pretty potent public appeal.
He has blogged that he can’t roll up his sleeves because he only wears short sleeves. He has tweeted that his outfits are “Western PA business casual” and celebrated his new “Formal Hoodie.” (His wife, Gisele, has made fun of him for it; political couples — they’re just like us.) He was never exactly 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 make a name for himself that resonated beyond the borders of Pennsylvania and into the realm of late-night TV even before he won his election. Arguably 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 got the sort of excited attention not normally bestowed on a senator-elect making a drive-by visit to his new workplace. Rather he resembled some sort of semi-celebrity, even as his willingness to play by Senate dress code rules and fit into the institution can’t have escaped his new colleagues.
Nor, probably, could the sleight of hand that managed to make wearing a conservative suit look like a radical move. And they can expect more where this came from: According to his office, the new suit is one of three Mr. Fetterman has purchased, along with six — count ’em — ties.