‘It’s powerful’: how John Fetterman’s hoodie won the popular vote in Pennsylvania
Even as detractors portrayed him as a ‘bum’, senator-elect’s clothing summed up beliefs, says sociologist
Morwenna Ferrier, Fri 11 Nov 2022 10.26 EST
By his own admission, Pennsylvania’s new senator-elect, John Fetterman, does not look like “a typical politician”.
Just over 6ft 8in with a goatee, tattoos on his forearms and a strong tendency toward workwear (for his official portrait, he chose to sit in a creased, grey Dickies camp shirt in front of the US flag), Fetterman has been described as the state’s first “workwear senator” as well as “a dude in shorts”.
Yet in spite of this – or perhaps because of it – he broke the Republican grip on Pennsylvania’s white working-class vote while wearing a black Carhartt hoodie, a garment “that isn’t fancy, is well made, and crucially will last – all qualities that a politician like Fetterman probably wants to convey in what he’s wearing”, says Erynn Masi de Casanova, professor of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati and author of Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White-Collar Masculinity. “Put simply, this hoodie is an easy way to read what he seems to stand for”.
Fetterman’s unreconstructed wardrobe – which also includes a lime green neck gaiter, indigo Levi’s 501s, oversize board shorts and, in a strange quirk, a pair of Maison Margiela side-zip boots that cost several hundred dollars – has become something of a talking point since the former mayor entered US politics.
Hailed as a style icon by GQ in 2020 while still lieutenant governor, he responded on Twitter that he had “negative fashion sense”. Pressed for further comment, he wrote a blog on Medium in which he stated: “I do not look like a typical politician, nor do I look like a typical person” – alluding to his height – before explaining why he has tattoos: on his left arm is 15104, Braddock’s zip code, the mining town where he was previously mayor, and on the right are the dates of five murders committed in the town since his election.
But it’s the hoodie that has dominated the narrative. Casanova says: “It’s strange that we continue to imbue an item that almost everyone has in their closet with so much meaning.” Still, context is everything. Rishi Sunak was mocked by most of the British media for wearing a grey Everlane hoodie (roughly the same price as Carhartt, though more gym-friendly) at his desk, while in 2019, the Québec Solidaire politician Catherine Dorion was so derided for wearing an orange hoodie in the legislative chamber that she had to leave the room. But since none of the above wore theirs to cast their vote, campaign or even to meet President Biden, in wearing one, Fetterman has “brought a certain visibility to himself”, says Casanova.
The fact it’s from Carhartt only adds to its visibility. Originally based in Detroit, Carhartt began making workwear, often triple-stitched for durability, for workers in labour-intensive industries during the great depression. Today, the label’s core customers are split between hipsters and these blue-collar workers. Fetterman may have got a master’s degree at Harvard, but he comes from a mining town; in wearing a Carhartt hoodie, however authentic this choice may be – “and I think it really is what he wears rather than a costume”, says Casanova – he’s recognisable to many of the people who vote for him, and is capitalising on that. In the run-up to the midterms, his Republican opponent, Dr Mehmet Oz, described Fetterman as a “basement bum”. When Fetterman retaliated by mocking Oz’s “Gucci loafers” for being out of touch, the post went viral.
Hoodies like Fetterman’s are 10-a-penny across the western world, yet the media climate still dictates that it is unusual for a politician to wear one. “Pennsylvania is its own unique thing with a very strong history of labour, which is more important than the costume,” says the US political commentator Luke O’Neil. Fetterman is not unaware that he is conferring the dignity of blue collar workwear on to the act of politics, yet as O’Neil says, he’s also “just some guy wearing what feels comfortable”.
Hoodies are the final bastion in the gradual casualisation of political attire, which began when JFK eschewed a hat for his 1961 inaugural address and was last deployed when Barack Obama rolled up his sleeves to sit with diners on the campaign trail. In his Medium post, Fetterman alluded to the fact that he lacked “the political metaphorical sleeves to roll up – all I ever wear are short-sleeve work shirts because hard work is the only way to build our communities back up”.
What happens to his wardrobe if Fetterman progresses remains to be seen. In the House of Representatives, men must wear a coat and tie at all times while Congress is in session. Fetterman owns a suit – most publicly worn when he was sworn in as lieutenant governor in 2019 – but insists that he mostly wears it at Halloween.
What politicians wear has the power to invent and even sustain their identity, and Fetterman’s hoodie is a case in point. “If that means it’s pathologised for some nefarious reason by his critics then it’s all the more powerful”, says Casanova. “It’s clearly working for him, though, so he’ll probably be laughing all the way to the Senate.”