Everybody Knows This Is No Wear  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 1994

Everybody Knows This Is No Wear   

Journalists don't win many prizes for their fashion statements.

By Unknown
     


Besides Tom Wolfe, journalists aren't usually known for their sense of fashion. On a rare occasion, though, they can make as strong a statement with what they wear as what they write.

Take Jim Naughton. In 1976, Naughton, then a New York Times reporter, was covering Gerald Ford's presidential campaign.

For Naughton, Ford was a frustrating subject because he seemed to be more interested in fluff than the issues at hand. During a San Diego political rally, Naughton saw Ford point to a man dressed in a chicken suit (who went on to become the famed San Diego chicken) and say, "I love this guy."

"Whereupon the chicken did a little dance across the stage and hugged the president," recalls Naughton, now executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I said to myself, 'I have to have that chicken costume.' "

He bought a spare head from the San Diego chicken for $100 and continued on the campaign trail. The next stop was Portland, Oregon. Naughton donned the head and walked toward Ford's press conference. Two fellow reporters sneaked up behind him and lifted him above the crowd.

He did get the president's attention, something the press corps had despaired of ever doing. Unfortunately, Naughton says, he was too flustered to ask anything.

His behavior, however, was not becoming of a Timesman, and Naughton expected some fallout from the home office. Not only was he not disciplined, he says "the bean counters at the New York Times even offered to pay for half of [the chicken head]."

To understand this reaction, consider the context. In the mid-1970s, a chicken head was probably classier than what most journalists were wearing. Wide lapels, wide ties, pointy collars – even double-knit polyester suits – were de rigueur. Some would even say it's classier than what is seen in most newsrooms today. Although it's a different story for broadcast journalists, especially those coiffed, tanned and designer-suited anchors, many journalists would rank their sartorial instincts just above Seattle grunge.

Perhaps that assessment is too harsh. Mr. Blackwell, the fashion critic famous for his annual top-10 worst dressed list, is much more charitable in assessing journalists' sense of style – at least when they're out covering an event.

"Generally, the reporters make every intent to look as opulent as the affair itself," he says. He doesn't even rank journalists at the lower end of the professional scale. Fashion buyers, he says, dress worse.

Even so, many journalists concede they don't dress with as much care as other professionals.

"Most reporters dress a couple of notches below business attire and a couple of notches above college attire," says Dan Rosenheim, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

That rule holds true at both large and small newsrooms.

"Definitely, the business offices dress a lot better than us," says Amy Dunkle, managing editor of the Brookings Daily Register in South Dakota.

There are a number of reasons, reporters say. Chief among them is money. Most journalists make far less than executives. The average newspaper reporter earns about $31,000 after 12 years in the business, according to a recent study. That hardly leaves much for Giorgio Armani.

There's also the question of comfort. The Tacoma News Tribune in Washington has no dress code, but it has informally designated Friday as a "casual dress day." It's a tradition many newspapers have followed because the weekend editions are planned then, making it a long work day. Weekend crews also tend to dress with comfort in mind.

Weekends were casual affairs years ago, too, but during the week a suit and tie, albeit ratty and rumpled, was the male journalist's uniform of choice – even among the long-hairs of the late 1960s and early '70s.

"They might have worn their hair six inches below their collar, but the tie hadn't disappeared yet," says Craig Ammerman, who started his career in 1962 in Richmond, Kentucky. Ammerman, once editor of the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, owns the Health Ink Publishing Group in Moorestown, New Jersey.

What kind of tie was another question. Richard Oppel, Washington bureau chief for Knight-Ridder, says when he worked for the Associated Press in the 1960s there was a drawer full of ties that reporters shared. "If the fashion was wide ties, they would be narrow, and if the fashion was narrow, they would be wide," he recalls. "We also had a black jacket in the office in case anyone had to go to a funeral."

Changes were in the offing by the early 1970s. While reporters tried to look business-like in the 1950s and '60s, "counter culture" influences began to filter into newsrooms.

"For many people, dressing was a way of showing your individuality," says Ken Bunting, managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "There were a lot of flower children turned reporters who wore strange things: Nehru jackets with ties, beads with ties, pin-striped suits with backpacks."

While men struggled to catch up with fashion trends in the mid-1970s, many women were – and still are – slaves to the fashion of the day.

Mary Hargrove, associate editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, says wo-men weren't allowed to wear pants when she started as a reporter at an Ohio newspaper in 1973.

"It was freezing cold up there, and it was the fashion to wear short skirts," Hargrove said. "I got frostbite in places you can't mention."

But some female re-porters have used the prevailing fashion to their advantage.

Three years ago, when then-recent j-school graduate Andrea Monroe landed her first job reporting for the Wilmington Morning Star in North Carolina, she covered a rural county not unlike where she grew up. Monroe, who has a penchant for short skirts and high heels, says the locals referred to her privately as "Legs."

That suited her just fine. "I'm just a good old Southern girl, and they were good old Southern boys," Monroe says. "It's easy to control some men if they think you are attractive. You hook them with that and then you have them in the palm of your hand. You can get them to tell you anything."

But she notes that what passes in one place won't necessarily work in another. Now a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina, Monroe says she has toned her down her wardrobe. "It just de-pends on the atmosphere," she says.

In any case, women have had more options than their male counterparts. In a place like Brookings, South Da-kota, Dunkle says it's easier for the women on her staff to dress comfortably for the area's extreme temperatures.

"There is no way you are going to get me to wear stockings in the summer," Dunkle says. "It's just too hot out."

But Hargrove maintains it takes much more time, money and energy for female reporters to dress for work. Men don't seem to bother, she says.

"I would say anything from a natty rabbit to an unmade bed would describe the way men dress," she says. "The only way to get a guy to dress nice is to give him a title."

For most reporters, how they dress depends upon their beat, the climate and regional styles.

When Knight-Ridder's Oppel started at the Tampa Tribune in 1963, he had what was known as the "horse manure beat." "I covered clubs like the Turkey Creek Farmer's Activity Club," he recalls, "and my job consisted of going to eat dinners at all these club functions." He says his only criteria in clothing was a shirt that could stand up to gravy stains.

Now in Washington, D.C., which Oppel calls a "city of suits," his style has changed dramatically. During a re-cent telephone interview, Oppel described his apparel:

"Let's see, I've got on black wing-tip shoes, a gray wool suit, a red Brooks Brothers tie and a white linen shirt," Oppel said. "Hardly what I would have worn to the Turkey Creek Farmer's Activity Club."

Paul Shukovsky, a Se-attle Post-Intelligencer re-porter who has spent the last 17 years in newsrooms across the country, says what he wears depends on what he's doing that day. "If you are going to be dealing with people who dress a certain way, it's a good idea to dress that way too," he says. "I do a lot of stories about loggers; I'm not going out to logging country in a suit and tie. I wear blue jeans and a plaid shirt."

Caroline Ullmann, metro editor of the Tacoma News Tribune, agrees. "Reporters look the way they look to get the job done," she says. "When reporters go to the scene of a disaster, they are probably more effective in jeans or slacks. If they are going to a funeral, they are most effective wearing something respectful and subdued."

Ullmann says she favors unstructured raw silk suits because they are comfortable, easy to "mix and match," and she only has to shop at one store to find them.

Then there are regional differences. In the South, where the temperatures are hotter and the lifestyle more laid back, reporters have traditionally dressed more casually than Northern news-hounds.

"Very few reporters wore ties in the South in the 1960s because there were very few air conditioners," Oppel says.

The Post-Intelligencer's Bunting, who worked in Los Angeles and Texas for several years, says he never owned a long-sleeve dress shirt until he moved north to Seattle. Shukovsky recalls that men often wore shoes without socks at the Miami Herald, and were less likely to wear ties on the hotter days.

But one can only be so casual in the South, especially if you're a woman. Hargrove says she heard a couple of years ago that a Southern judge had thrown female reporters out of a courtroom because they were wearing shorts. In the Northwest, however, Seattle Times fashion and arts writer Robin Updike says "even women executives [at the newspaper] wear those shorts outfits here." Some Washington state reporters also are known to wear Birkenstock sandals to work.

Television journalists – at least those seen on air – have much tougher standards than their print colleagues.

"People first decide whe-ther they like what they see, then they decide whether they like what they hear," explains Paul Berry, a coanchor for WJLA's 5 p.m. news show in Washington, D.C. "It has nothing to do with journalism but everything to do with the medium."

Berry, who has worked in television news for 27 years, says whenever he varies his dress from the standard suit and tie viewers call the station. Some like it, some don't – and it isn't a controversy that ends when he's off the job.

"A few years ago, I was walking in Georgetown on a weekend and I was wearing jeans," Berry says. On the following Monday, he found out that a viewer had seen him and called to complain about how he was dressed. "She was protesting the fact that I was wearing jeans," he recalls. "She didn't think that it was appropriate dress for a television anchor."

Because television news attracts a wide audience, Berry says formal dress is the standard for reporters as well. "A radical approach in dress usually doesn't work," he says. "People get offended."

At smaller stations, like WECT in Wilmington, North Carolina, anchors also ad-here to a fairly strict dress code. But there is a little more flexibility for reporters than at some big city stations.

"This is a beach town," says Jeff Goldblatt, who co-anchors WECT's morning news show. "If you are doing a beach story and it's 90 degrees outside, you are going to look pretty stupid in a suit and tie."

Unlike on-air talent, camera crews and techies commonly wear jeans and T-shirts, and even news directors and producers dress casually. This is the one thing about journalistic style that drives Mr. Blackwell up the wall.

"At the Academy Awards, the reporters all dressed wonderfully," says Mr. Blackwell. "Then there were the television crews. I know they don't have to – they have a job to do, and we love them for it – but wouldn't it be wonderful if they tried a littler harder? It would make the party so much prettier."

Scruffy camera crews notwithstanding, some armchair fashion critics argue that journalists are no different than anyone else. De-signers of men's clothing are now showing suits that are to be worn without ties, and the institution of Friday as a casual day has taken hold from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

"If it's true that dressing well means coats and ties for men and suits for women, then dressing has declined substantially," says Craig Ammerman. "Then again, society as a whole has gotten a lot more casual. Journalists tend to be young and reflect the style of the times."

And what's the latest style of the times? Grunge, no? n

Leah Kohlenberg, a former reporter for daily newspapers in North Carolina and New Hampshire, is a freelance writer based in Seattle.

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