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So merch for all that: how Bernie Sanders became politics’ least likely style icon

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Of all the things we’ll miss about Bernie Sanders, now that he has dropped out of the Democratic race, his style should be the least of it. Not only because his politics are so right on – this is the man who believes in free education and Medicare for all and who has had many Americans, who until recently felt disenfranchised by mainstream politics, feeling activated by it. But also because his clothes are so seemingly unremarkable.

He wears crumpled suits that look borrowed from a slightly larger man and creased shirts with straight-lace striped ties. The inconspicuousness of his geography teacher shoes are matched only by his inoffensive navy round-neck jumpers.

Yet this is also a man who in 2017 received fashion’s equivalent of a knighthood when his logo was riffed on by the one of the biggest names in fashion, the Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia, for his autumn/winter 2017 menswear collection.

He has been the subject of high-fashion meme treatment thanks to Siduations, an Instagram account that first had the industry tickled back in 2017, and his merch, emblazoned with his name and likeness, has been regularly spotted on influencers with Instagram accounts boasting 20 million-plus followers.

Rarely has a politician been so loved by the fashion world, and so vocal in his – at best – ambivalence towards all things fashion. When Sanders was asked on CNN about whether he ever expected to be a muse to Balenciaga, he chuckled: “Of my many attributes, being a great dresser or a fashion maven is not one of them”.

So what is it about the senator that gets fashion’s juices flowing?

Despite his protestations, there is a valid case for Bernie as style icon. It has been said that, as a young man, he had “incredible podcast dude energy”. In more recent years, he has found favour for his massive mittens. Likened to oven gloves, they have merited their own Twitter account, tag line: “Feeling the BERN not the BURN.”

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Sanders has inadvertently become a hero of gorpcore – a trend for all things Mountain Warehouse. Hailing from Vermont, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he has a thing for the kind of big coat that fashion loves, ideal for walks among the Norway spruces and red maples of his home state.

In the world of style, which courts the carefree, his haphazardness has an undeniable appeal. “Bernie always, always turns up in rumpled clothing,” says Lauren Gambino, the Guardian’s US political correspondent. “His jackets never fit, he always has dandruff.” As one Minneapolis-Saint Paul stylist who worked with Sanders for a shoot said of Sanders’ no-fuss style: “I lint rolled and I was out.”

Big coat energy … outside a polling location in Detroit, 2020.

Big coat energy … outside a polling location in Detroit, 2020. Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP

Even the mechanics of his dressing have won him support. In a political landscape where many politicians fail the “how much does a pint of milk cost” test, Sanders marks himself out by his relatable clothes chair. You know the one, piled high with discarded garments you have yet to rehang.

He wears suits from Kohl’s, the US equivalent of Debenhams, in stark contrast to the Brioni or Armani suits hanging in Trump’s wardrobe. And he has been acing rumpled style since before Boris Johnson was out of nappies. Odes have been written to it in which he – “a rumpled wren” – is held up in stark contrast to the usual peacocks of politics. His shirts are strangers to irons and his hair has a windswept quality: a breath of fresh air in the coiffed corridors of the Capitol building.

The Bernie silk-blend scarf on the catwalk at Balenciaga, AW17.

The Bernie silk-blend scarf on the catwalk at Balenciaga, AW17. Photograph: WWD/REX/Shutterstock

But Sanders doesn’t set his sights on dishevelment, that’s just the way he is. And it’s the bona fide nature of his tousled look that chimes with what the Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland says is one of the most important qualities for any politician, especially in recent years: “Authenticity: the sense that you are seeing the real person, rather than a manufactured or polished product.”

In that context, Freedland says, “a politician who does not appear to have been styled by advisers … immediately conveys through their dress that they are different – that they are their own person, that they listen to their conscience rather than to spin doctors and handlers, that they are people of principle and conviction and that, perhaps, they care too deeply about serious issues to be bothered with such trivia as their personal appearance.”

Bernie Sanders’ official merch.

Bernie Sanders’ official merch.

Gambino agrees, linking his rumpled personal style with his personality: “He is just so focused on his message that he doesn’t care about anything else.” The lines of his suit are as blunt as his policies and message are sharp. But she points out the gendered double standard – imagine if one of Hillary Clinton’s suits had not been freshly de-creased.

Merch is a massive part of all politicians’ campaigns in the US – Hillary had her tote bags, Trump has his Maga cap, Obama had the Shepard Fairey “Hope” T-shirt – but Sanders particularly, according to Gambino, relied on his merch for the kind of small-dollar fundraising that turned the wheels of his campaign. “He really knows how to tap into these people who maybe don’t make a lot of money but still want to donate to the campaign.”

Emily Ratajkowski for Bernie.

Emily Ratajkowski for Bernie. Photograph: YouTube

Sanders’s official merch is largely red, white and blue – his name emblazoned on crew neck T-shirts as American as McDonald’s, but with a clearer sense of corporate responsibility. There are Pride tees that switch the colours of the stars and stripes for rainbow hues and affectionate “Tio Bernie” tees aimed at Latino voters.

Sanders has also inspired his fair share of grassroots designs. The dogged proponent of universal free school meals and rent control has appeared on T-shirts that read: “Bernie is my comrade”. On others, cats hugging against zany intergalactic backdrops, and one, as spotted on the model and influencer Emily Ratajkowski as well as fashion-forward actor Chloë Sevigny, that reads “Rage Against the Machine”.

Bernie Sanders cat shirt by: Custom Creations $24.95.

Bernie Sanders cat shirt by: Custom Creations, $24.95.

“It aligns with all kinds of punk and hardcore and subculture ideology,” says Sonya Sombreuil, the artist behind the latter tee, the sales of which made more than $80,000 for Sanders’s campaign. There’s something fitting about that given his decades of railing against the establishment.

Perhaps in part because of his constant “it’s not about me” message, Sanders has inspired an unusually devoted following. “He starkly lacked vanity,’” says Sombreuil, “and in that way it allowed all these different groups to interpret him and see their own vision in him.”

Bernie Sanders Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, $40.

Bernie Sanders Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, $40. Photograph: Publicity image

“I’m not someone who has ever worn any political merchandise,” says the New York-based artist Nicole Ginelli, whose “Bernie Barbie” raised funds for Sanders in 2016 and 2020. “I think a lot of people who buy the Bernie shirts are that way, too. They’re not political nerds, they’ve been put off by the political system here.” It’s one thing to wear a Ramones T-shirt when you may or may not have listened to Bonzo Goes to Bitburg once, wearing a politician on your chest speaks of aligned values more directly.

Having read their fair share of Slavoj Žižek, Sanders supporters may also have a natural inclination to DIY merch. “People don’t necessarily want to get their merch from huge retailers,” says Ginelli, whose T-shirts were made locally: “it’s not in line with Bernie’s values and honouring the workers in that supply chain.”

Bernie Barbie T-Shirt 2020

Bernie Barbie T-Shirt 2020 Photograph: Publicity image

The DIY aesthetic and proliferation of Bernie merch also comes down to the centrality of the youth vote. “He wins the millennials,” says Gambino. “They’re more creative and internet-savvy and so can create merchandise.” Ginelli’s design, fittingly, started as a gif on Tumblr.

But it is also down to the man himself. Gambino points to Michael Bloomberg, who paid meme-ers and influencers to try to make him likable. “Bernie doesn’t have to do that, he’s naturally ironic and funny and kooky.” Kook and irony will never go out of style.


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