#GE16: How to look good in public

As election posters comandeer every available pole and window in the country, here’s how to avoiding the pitfalls of dressing for important photographs and public appearances


Appearances matter; and at certain times they matter more. With an election coming up, clothes can be a silent yet powerful visual language, a weapon that tells its own story of what their wearers stand for and their self-presentation. How politicians look when campaigning can be a persuasive form of communication. Some break the rules and go against the grain, and their appearance can reflect that.

It is not just politicians unsure of their sartorial style who need help at key stages of public exposure. There are times when it’s important to get our own image right, whether it’s for a passport, a job application, a rail pass or a wedding album.

According to communications consultant Jackie Gallagher of Q4, substance is what matters, but getting what you wear right matters too.

“For men, the grey or navy suit always work, but not with white shirts because they drain so much colour,” he says. “Ties with optical dots or complex patterns distort and distract. People underestimate how hot TV studios are, especially if you are under pressure; you need strong anti-perspirants such as Mitchum so that you are not a distracted, hot mess.”

During campaigns, politicians have to be alert to being photographed every day, even outside of studio or other media appearances. “Women are better at being always ready. Men should always leave the lower buttons on their jackets open to make them look trimmer,” Gallagher says.

In TV discussions, he advises men to pull up their jacket before they sit down and then sit on its tail to keep it in place. It’s important to remember that shoes and socks can be on view and to keep hands in check. “Decide where to put them in advance.”

Many politicians, in his experience, need advice, but a lot get more caught up with appearance rather than their message. Some always look well. He cites Jack Chambers of Fianna Fáil as a young politician who always dresses smartly, and Michael McNamara of Labour and Simon Coveney of Fine Gael too, recalling how the latter dressed appropriately during the flooding.

“What you wear has to be appropriate to what you are doing and if you project a sunny disposition, you are softening what you are saying. The public like people who smile and look well,” he says.

To look natural on TV, you have to act unnatural, according to Alan Dunne, who with his partner Breda Brown, both experienced broadcast journalists, runs Unique Media consultancy and public relations.

They have an on-site studio to facilitate learning presentation skills. “You need to sit up straight, slouching doesn’t look good. Never lean on the table as it can look aggressive,” they say.

A polished look projects confidence and assurance. Details count: like making sure your tie is straight (if you are a guy) and for women, no chipped nail polish. “Men should have a shave before appearing on TV because it makes you look cleaner and fresher,” says Dunne. Clashing patterns, necklines that are too high or too low, and too much jewellery distract attention.

“Wear a jacket and shirt if that is the style that suits the subject – in the tech sector they may prefer a jacket with jeans and a shirt, but not dishevelled.” Swivel chairs are a nightmare. “You have to sit quite still and move your body rather than the chair when speaking.”

“A tip for looking relaxed on TV or giving a presentation is to roll your shoulders a little bit beforehand. With nerves people tend to fidget. Guys should always accept an offer for TV make-up – take it or otherwise the lights will bleach you out. And always have translucent powder at the ready to remove shine.”

For plinth shots, women in bright colours stand out more, such as Senator Averil Power, and knowing what shades suit your complexion and what clothes fit are very important.

“Guys should pick wide rather than narrow stripes for shirts because stripes zig zag on camera. If you are speaking on stage with a panel, make it look like you are interested all the time. You need to look engaged because you never know when the camera is going to be on you. Strong eye contact makes you look and sound more confident,” says Brown.

In their opinion, those who do get it right include Frances Fitzgerald (“always well turned out – everything she wears suits her figure and style and looks effortless”) and Liz O’Donnell, who has her own style. Of the men, “Leo Varadkar, whether in a suit or dressed down, always looks well, as does Simon Coveney”.


The former politician is now chairing the Road Safety Authority. “Less is more. If you are a woman of a certain age, you don’t show your arms or cleavage and you remember that you are a public representative all the time. 
“I always liked dressing up and felt it was part of my personality and I was always conscious of keeping the side up and not pandering to sexism, particularly if you are a role model for young women coming into politics. I tend to wear suits with a little twist that look feminine and not mannish. We want to feminise politics and I think that a woman should look visibly female and self confident and be dressed for any issue. I prefer block colours to frills or patterns and think that navy is softer than black.”
THE TV STAR: Claire Byrne
The broadcaster has 15 years experience of TV presentation : “You learn from your mistakes. I once wore a dress with a patterned jacket and was asked where I got the sofa material, so my rule is to keep it simple and clean. 
“Classic elegant tailoring which doesn’t distract works for me. I tend to stick to the same jackets again and again, from Theory, Joseph, Louise Kennedy, Heidi Higgins, Rag & Bone, and FeeG by Fiona Heaney. My first rule is don’t wear anything too short. Skirts need to be below the knee.”
The Irish fashion and portrait photographer stresses the importance of keeping it classic. Sharp, well fitted clothes are key to a good portrait. “Maybe some colour on the tie to show a bit of personality and for women simple necklines, no crazy frills or bows.” Female politicians like to make a bold statement and colours such as red or purple can draw the eye on a poster. 
“I photograph a lot of women in black and that highlights the face”. He also advises having two or three outfit changes and to have someone taking care of hair and makeup. 
THE MAKE-UP ARTIST: Christine Lucignano
The Dublin-based freelance make-up artist’s clients have included the Clintons and she is currently working with The Corrs. “Avoid orange or warm-based tones of lip product as teeth will appear dull. Eye drops will make eyes look brighter. A flesh-toned or cream eye pencil on the inner waterline of the eye will also brighten the look. Don’t intensify features like brows, cheeks or lip shape as light will cast shadows. Use matt powder or primer in the centre or T-zone of the face and keep it shine free for a fresher look. 
“Warm up the skin with a sheer application of bronzer, but make sure it doesn’t have shimmer or frost.” 
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