There is currently a petition, on change.org, to nominate Dr. Anthony Fauci, the 79-year-old director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the country’s coronavirus medical expert, as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. By the evening of April 7, it had over 11,500 signatures. Dr. Fauci’s face, with his small wire-rim glasses and neatly parted gray hair, has been commemorated on sweatshirts, knee socks and mugs.
His colleague Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House and another regular presence at presidential briefings, has multiple Instagram accounts dedicated to her scarf collection — @DeborahBirxscarves; @DrBirxScarves; @Dr_Deborah_Birx_scarves — as well as a Twitter hashtag, #DrBirxScarves.
And Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York and the anchor of his own daily briefings, has become the subject of essays proclaiming love and faith. Tyler McCall, the editor of Fashionista, wrote an ode to his polo shirt. In GQ, Rachel Tashjian meditated on his “executive crisis uniform.” After a recent news conference, there was a lengthy Reddit thread about whether he had a nipple piercing.
You can dismiss this focus on the appearance of such figures during a crisis as superficial and reductive. And there is no question that how Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx and Governor Cuomo look and what they choose to wear are less important than what they do and say.
But at a time when so many of us are trapped in our homes, or hiding our faces behind masks in the street, these images of authority, up close on our screens, have become a potent point of contact and means of connection. And to focus on the details of those images is not merely a source of distraction from the dire news for those watching (and sometimes a source of levity), but also a way for the subjects themselves to frame their message, to manage our reactions, and how we relate.
They have become role models, and what they are modeling, literally, is trust, reliability, work ethic, familiarity. Their consistency and calm in the face of fear is echoed by the consistency and calm of what they wear. They are consciously not us — not working from home, not resorting to jeans and swaddling clothes — but they embody our official reference points. We look at them and a host of associations spring to mind. By their silhouettes, we think we know them.
That tells us something about our own aspirations and state of mind. When the patterns of life are unrecognizable, the familiar becomes a source of comfort.
In the last few years, those in the public eye, those trying to win support, and votes, have tended to use their image either to emphasize their cool or to express their power. They have sought to trumpet their ability to relate to new generations and new eras by tapping into millennial cool and the techie uniform, ditching the tie or the jacket, rolling up the shirt sleeves.
The choices of Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauci and Governor Cuomo are consciously the opposite: a return to old-fashioned sobriety in clothing and a direct line into our collective historical subconscious. They are not fashion forward. They are fashion backward. With purpose.
As Richard Ford, a professor at Stanford Law School and the author of the upcoming book “Dress Codes: How Rules About Clothes Fashioned the Modern World,” said in an email: “In a crisis, no one is impressed with flashy innovations, big fails or moving fast and breaking things, to take a couple Silicon Valley clichés. We want the security of the tried and true: someone who has expertise and sober competence. Too dressed down looks like you are not taking this seriously, but too polished seems overly concerned with image.”
Dr. Birx, Dr. Fauci and Governor Cuomo stand apart from the controversies swirling around the White House and its handling of this pandemic, from the neck-swiveling assertions of the president in his blowzy power suiting and braggadocio 1980s tie, or of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in his skinny Mod suiting. Instead they connect to some of our most dependable tropes, whether we recognize them or not.
Dr. Fauci, in his button-down collars (so unlike the president’s mansplaining spreads) and brown shoes, his neatly knotted tie and dark jackets, taps straight into the uniforms of academia, as distinct from Wall Street or Washington. He is the family doctor, the med school student, the dutiful brain still wearing the kind of clothes his mother once gave him because, frankly, they work and he has other things to think about.
Though Dr. Birx’s silk scarves may seem decorative, her mastery of an accessory often considered confusing (how do you fling it? how do you tie it?) telegraphs competence. While they are occasionally draped over one shoulder or wrapped around her shoulders, most often they are tied around her neck, making her resemble nothing so much as a Girl Scout leader, especially when combined with the shirtdresses in muted earth tones that seem to be her favored garment.
If you are lost, if you need guidance, they suggest, you can trust her to know what to do.
As for Governor Cuomo, his darks suits, white shirts and various ties, his polo shirts (in white and navy, though they have all but disappeared since the nipple brouhaha), all marked by either the highly visible insignia of New York State or its pin, share a certain frumpy traditionalism. The lapels are neither too thin nor too wide; the ties are evenly distributed among a rainbow of generic shades (blue, purple, yellow, red, pink); and the collars are folded neatly down.
They aren’t armor, and they aren’t showy; they’re neither too slickly tailored nor too rumpled. They are the old-school clothes of an old-school pol who takes his job seriously enough to wardrobe it with respect for his predecessors, and they speak plainly for him, whether he is dressed up or down.
Even when he loses the tie on weekends — blazer, chinos, button-up shirt — the point is less business casual then conscious change, an acknowledgment that if there wasn’t a marker of difference, one day would just bleed into the next, and that we must create structure out of what is available, even if it is only a tie. The through line is seriousness of purpose, empathy, and loyalty — to his state and the people in it. He will work for the ventilators, work for his constituency’s right to know, work to get hospital beds.
In case anyone doubts his resolve, one simply has to look at the ever-present lapel pin and its larger cousin, the logo on the polo shirts. Both were designed by Mr. Cuomo himself back in 2011 just after he was elected and feature the state seal and the message “I work for the people.”
“In Albany, you have to remember why you’re there, and remember what it’s all about,” Mr. Cuomo told The New York Times of the new look at the time. “And you look at that pin — for me, that’s what it’s all about.”
We have been declaring the end of the suit and other such traditional dress, plus all they represent, for years now (at least if they aren’t shrunken, sliced or otherwise styled up into something new), but that trend, as so many others, has been upended by the current reality. It’s a lesson not just for other governors and leaders taking their cues from these particular influencers, be it Gavin Newsom of California or Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, but for us all.