As CEO of the American Red Cross of Massachusetts, Jarrett Barrios’s job description doesn’t include “style consultant.” But as someone who regularly accompanies elected officials on blizzard or disaster tours, he sees a lot of what could be termed “press conference outerwear.”
“If it’s 20 degrees below zero, you want to see someone in a winter jacket, not a fancy wool coat,” said Barrios, a former politician himself. “If it’s raining, you want someone in a rain coat, not holding an umbrella. You’re trying to communicate that you are pragmatic, effective, and in control of the situation.”
For some officials, like Governor Deval Patrick, that means that when it snows, it’s time to zip on a trim-fitting black fleece vest with the logo of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. It’s a look that has become so associated with disaster that a picture of Patrick in the vest could be texted out as an alert to let citizens know they should brace for something.
Who cares what a politician wears to tell us that half the state has lost power, Boston is under a parking ban, and coastal flooding is feared? We do, apparently. More than 35 years after the Blizzard of 1978 silenced the region, one of the dominant memories relates not to the towering snow drifts, but to the governor’s warm and fuzzy fashion choice.
“Michael Dukakis was born in a shirt and tie. The idea of him wearing a sweater was like, ‘holy cow!’ ” political writer Jack Beatty recalled. “I just remember people saying, ‘My God, he’s going to win” the upcoming election.
Dukakis didn’t win the next gubernatorial election, or even his party’s nomination, the soft appeal of his knitwear no match for the state’s unpopular high sales taxes and property taxes at the time.
Even so, blizzard fashion sends a message, said political observer Larry DiCara. “You want to look professional, but also not like you’re immune from the realities.”
Veteran political consultant Michael Goldman is only partly kidding when he says politicians need to plan their storm outfits.
“If you don’t think about it, you’ll get stuck wearing a brown thing with a hood,” he said. “You need to go out and get a red jacket with black. That shows strength. And you don’t want any fur on the hood. You don’t want to [upset] the animal-rights people.”
“You want to look like you could shovel every citizen out of their house,” he continued. “But you don’t want to look too bundled up. That’s wussy. You want to look like a guy who stepped out of the L.L. Bean catalog and never creases. You don’t want the coat to look brand new, but newish, like this isn’t your first rodeo.”
After 20 years in office, Mayor Thomas M. Menino might not appear to have a defining storm style, but on Friday, after probably the last snowstorm of his mayorality, his spokeswoman revealed that Menino does have a look.
“I think he goes for comfy confident,” Dot Joyce wrote in an e-mail.
What should we expect from Marty Walsh, Boston’s mayor-elect? “Dorchester chic,” said Goldman, Walsh’s senior campaign consultant. Asked to define that, Goldman described it as a “traditional heavy jacket with a good pair of snow boots.”
Walsh’s look, he added, is rugged but not rumpled. “People don’t like rumpled leadership.” But they do at least sort of like a cozy look for their leaders. In a phone interview, Dukakis recalled that after the Blizzard of ’78 he couldn’t go to an event without being presented with a sweater as a gift.
‘You want to look like you could shovel every citizen out.’
“Every time I made a speech they’d come out with another sweater,” he said. “I respectfully and with great appreciation began giving them to people who needed sweaters more than I did. We gave at least some to a homeless shelter. People got darned good sweaters.”
Virginia Buckingham, former chief of staff to Governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, said that in storms, as in the rest of life, clothes really can’t make the man. “Voters can tell if someone is trying to dress like someone they’re not.”
Meanwhile, at least one politician admitted to liking dress down snow days.
“We’re human beings like everyone else,” said Quincy Mayor Tom Koch, feeling happily casual on Friday in a Red Sox sweater and black jeans. “We have to dress the part on a regular basis. Once in a while it’s nice not to be in a suit.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.