Some politicians need no introduction. The rest are running for the Republican nomination for president.
Ron DeSantis has the words “Ron DeSantis” plastered across the breast of his fishing-style shirts. On sunny days, Tim Scott wears a white baseball cap that says “Tim Scott.” Vivek Ramaswamy’s polo shirts read “Vivek,” and Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson wear hats and shirts with their names on them.
Even Donald J. Trump — so recognizable that he didn’t need a mug shot after his first three indictments — wears the famous red hat emblazoned with his name, along with his Make America Great Again slogan.
On the 2024 trail, nearly all of the Republican presidential candidates have turned themselves into human billboards for their campaigns. It’s a fashion choice that would be more typical for a state legislator, and it hasn’t been seen before on such a broad scale during a national campaign.
Why are the candidates doing this? For the relative unknowns, it may be a necessity. For others, it may be yet another reflection of the trickle-down influence of Mr. Trump, the branding impresario leading the polls by a mile.
To be sure, this batch of presidential candidates is hardly the first to don easily identifiable uniforms. Four years ago, Democratic primary candidates wore the same clothes all the time. You might vaguely remember Pete Buttigieg’s white shirt and blue tie, Elizabeth Warren’s black pants and cardigan or blazer, or Beto O’Rourke’s jeans and sweat-stained button-up shirt.
To get a sense of what these Republican candidates are telling us with their stump-speech outfits, I checked in with Vanessa Friedman, the chief fashion critic at The New York Times. Our sartorial chat has been lightly edited.
Reid Epstein: Hi, Vanessa. Why do you think these candidates feel it is necessary to wear shirts and hats with their names on them? If people come to see you when you’re running for president, shouldn’t you expect them to know who you are?
Vanessa Friedman: They all understand that what they are selling at this point, more than any specific policy platform, is the brand that is them. Four years ago, the branding was slightly more abstract. Now, in our social-media-everything moment, it’s totally literal.
They are using their clothes to frame themselves as relatable: You like a slogan tee? Me too! Especially when it is my slogan on the tee.
Reid: When Donald Trump ran for the first time, he made the red MAGA hats a ubiquitous best seller. Now his 2024 competitors are taking the self-branding a step further. Ron DeSantis hardly goes anywhere without a fishing shirt or vest that says “DeSantis for president.” At an ice cream shop in Iowa, even his 3-year-old daughter wore a T-shirt that said “DeSantis for president.” Don’t we know who DeSantis is by now?
Vanessa: Everyone has to emoji-fy themselves. That is one of the legacies of Trump. He was doing it even before the hat — with the hair, the tan, the too-long ties — but at this point, the hat causes an almost Pavlovian reaction in anyone seeing it. It’s instant semiology, and that is worth its weight in votes. The rest of the Republicans have to distinguish themselves from the pack any way they can.
I was struck by the fact that at the first Republican debate, every candidate except for Nikki Haley was in the Trump uniform of red tie, white shirt, blue suit — which made them all look like Mini-Me versions of the guy who wasn’t there. The DeSantis gear is probably an attempt to stand out. I don’t think it’s an accident that he has stuck his name on fishing shirts and fleece vests. Those are uniforms of two very specific constituencies.
Reid: Right, there are plenty of Republican men who spend a lot of time fishing and doing whatever people do in fleece vests. I must admit here that I do not own any fleece vests.
It must make it harder for DeSantis to stand out by wearing his name on his shirt when everyone else is doing it, too. That may be a metaphor for his larger problem in taking on Trump in a crowded Republican field.
Vanessa: You know who famously wears fleece vests? The Sun Valley crowd. Many of whom fled to … Florida during Covid. Many of whom DeSantis wants to woo for their deep pockets and connections. All of these clothes are attempts at camouflage, ways to communicate subconsciously to specific groups that you share their values because you share their outfits. It sounds silly, but it’s true.
The risk in doing so, I think, is that you look inauthentic — that you are literally trying something on. John Fetterman is fine in his Carhartt and Dickies because they are clearly his clothes. But imagine Mike Pence? It would be ridiculous.
Reid: OK, let’s talk about Mike Pence.
Vanessa: And the leather biker vest?
Reid: At the Iowa State Fair, he wore a blue-and-white striped shirt. No name! But on an earlier trip to Iowa for Senator Joni Ernst’s motorcycle-ride fund-raiser, he wore a leather vest with too many patches to count. Including one with his name on it.
Vanessa: It was the most incongruous garment-person combination I have seen in this campaign — though a photograph of Mike Pence riding with the Hell’s Angels might do interesting things for his image. To me, the Pence signature is the perfect head of immovable white hair. Also, if we don’t know his name by now, he has a bigger problem.
Which brings me to … Vivek! What do you think of his branding?
Reid: Nobody in this campaign has tried to copy the Trump model more than Vivek. He’s got signature hats — they say TRUTH, rather than MAGA — and wears shirts that say “VIVEK 2024.” It fits with his broader attempt to cast himself as a millennial Trump.
His branding uses his first name, Vivek, which is easier for people to spell (if not to pronounce — it rhymes with “cake”) than his last name, Ramaswamy.
Vanessa: Definitely. Also, he has made good use of the “V” in terms of design, which is pretty catchy (even if I am partisan when it comes to Vs). It reminds me a bit of Andrew Yang’s “Yang Gang,” the same way Vivek’s “TRUTH” reminds me of Yang’s “MATH.” And it’s effective. Whatever happens to him in this primary, people are going to remember the symbols.
Interestingly, the one candidate who refuses to play this game, as far as I can tell, is Chris Christie.
Reid: I’m not sure that Christie has changed his wardrobe much over the years. He still wears shirts with his initials — C.J.C. — monogrammed over the chest pocket and on his cuffs. In my conversations with Christie before he entered the race, he was very proud of the idea that he was better known than anyone in the field except Trump.
Vanessa: Christie is indeed recognizable because of his reputation, and his slightly rumpled self (“I’m a real person, not a media-trained bot!”). Also, his campaign website doesn’t sell any merch, which is interesting. He doesn’t have any “Christie 2024” shirts close at hand.
Reid: The lesser-known candidates have a lot more work to do in introducing themselves to voters. Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota and former Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas have been doubling up — wearing both a hat and a polo shirt with their names on them. Outside the Iowa State Fair, Burgum, who is very rich, had his campaign handing out free T-shirts that said “Who is Doug?”
Vanessa: Yes, he’s making a joke about his anonymity, which is a good idea. Humor is always a boon in politics, though I am not sure it’s going to be enough, in this case.
Reid: Also, Doug is a fun name to say. Doug!
Vanessa: Remember … Jeb!?
Reid: We should talk about Trump.
Vanessa: One of the problems with the name merch is that it all seems a little flimflam. A little cheaply made (even though it is all Made in the U.S.A., according to the candidates’ online stores).
Reid: Trump’s look remains enduring and, like so much of his political enterprise, just about impossible for anyone else to pull off. The power ties, the hats that declare him both the 45th president (true) and the 47th president (false … for now). The man who slapped his name on buildings around the world seems to be above putting it on his own shirt.
Vanessa: He’s just doubling down on his look. Everyone made fun of it, but he got the last laugh, because, whether we like it or not, no one can forget it.