Off the rack

Judging our elected emperors by their clothes

click to enlarge PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
I took in two things during lunch the other day. One was bean soup. The other was Goethe’s observation that the nobleman “tells us everything through the person he presents, but . . . the burgher simply is, and when he tries to put on an appearance, the effect is ludicrous or in bad taste.” Which is kind of what’s been naggin’ me for months about our Mr. Rauner. Not that he has proven an emperor with no clothes, but that they are the wrong clothes.

During the campaign much was made of his outfits. One must forgive a candidate a certain laxity on the campaign trail; no potential voter likes being harangued by an office-seeker who looks like the guy who turned down his mortgage application. But what is good enough for a gubernatorial candidate is not good enough for a governor. His wardrobe needs a turnaround agenda. Rauner often shows up at official events outside the Statehouse looking like a guy who owns six shirts on the seventh day since he did laundry. (He’s a six-foot-four man whose jeans are six foot eleven.)

The problem of how leaders should dress has been much vexed. According to Shakespeare, it came up in Denmark several hundred years ago.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy – rich, not gaudy,
For the apparel oft proclaims the man….”

So said Polonius, chief counselor to Hamlet. Rauner has his own Polonius, in the persons of his wife and lieutenant governor Eleanor Sanguinetti. Both advise the king against his choice of clothes, apparently in the manner of mom telling a nine-year-old, “You can’t wear that to school!” It seems to have had some effect. When he appears for ceremonial occasions in the Statehouse, Rauner appears in a nice suit. Outside the Statehouse, he still tends to show up at even official functions tie-less, not having noticed apparently that he looks like an accountant trying to be one of the guys.  

Why should we care? For the same reason Goethe did. His nobleman represents not merely himself but the ancient order of rank and privilege of his society. In a democratic society, the people possess the power to elevate even schlubs into our aristocracy of public power. The campaigns to pick whom to ennoble are almost always about presentation, the job of the campaign strategists and his media minions being to invent a self for the candidate to present. You would think that everyone but Fox News viewers knew this by now. Much of Mr. Trump’s appeal lies in his seeming to be his own true self. Americans always fall for this gag – they’re like a kid who never figures out that it’s just dad inside the Santa suit. It was widely assumed that Rauner’s campaign self was so contrived.

However, clothes and the way they wear them tend to reveal the true person eventually. If Life had had a better HR department, Pat Quinn would have been an instructor at community college. At Chicago State University in 2014, President Obama lauded the famously rumpled Quinn as a man who did not devote his life to, ahem, making a lot of money. Certainly his style of dress says “absent-minded professor.” Said Obama, “You can see when you see Pat – you know he’s not spending money on his wardrobe. . . . I was backstage with his staff, you know, and they were, like, trying to iron out like a little – he already had wrinkles on his – they said, we just had that dry-cleaned.” [Laughter] So Quinn and suits are not a natural fit either. But he wore them anyway as governor. That’s the thing about liberals – they at least try to do the right thing.

Quinn, said Obama, is “not trying to pretend to be something he’s not.” But neither is Rauner pretending, we now are told. Those who know him say that this proud Son of Winnetka (median household income $203,995) really is a hick. Which brings me to the lesson of this week’s sermon. In a January interview with Rich Miller, Rauner said that he had been unable to wear what he wanted when he was a businessman because nobody would want to do business with him, but that he now feels “free” to be himself since he was elected. “Now,” Miller wrote in his Feb. 4 column in Crain’s, “he just wants to be himself, and that means droppin’ his Gs and doin’ other stuff like wearin’ the clothes he likes, not the clothes others expect him to don.”

Sorry, Bruce. A governor of a great state is not free to be himself. He does not merely work for the people of the state, he represents them and the office they gave him. If he doesn’t feel obligated to dress up a little out of respect for them or for the office, he might find that few will want to do business with him as governor either.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

Illinois Times has provided readers with independent journalism for more than 40 years, from news and politics to arts and culture.

Now more than ever, we’re asking for your support to continue providing our community with real news that everyone can access, free of charge.

We’re also offering a home delivery option as an added convenience for friends of the paper.

Click here to subscribe, or simply show your support for Illinois Times.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment