The Strategic Fashioning of Casey DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has finally, officially, entered the presidential race. The long-anticipated Trump-DeSantis matchup is about to hit prime time. Which means that so, too, is what Mr. DeSantis himself called in his recent book, “The Courage to Be Free,” the “Ron and Casey traveling road show,” a Camelot-meets-Mar-a-Lago by way of Disney series that is now going national. And while Mr. DeSantis may be the nominal star, it is his wife, in her supporting role, who has been making the most notable entrances.

At least judging by the previews that have been playing for the past few months at most of Mr. DeSantis’s major public events, including his re-election night celebration in November 2022, his inauguration in January, his State of the State speech in March and his trip to Japan last month. Throughout, Ms. DeSantis, 42, a former television news anchor, mother of three and breast cancer survivor, has demonstrated a facility with the power of the visual statement, and the way it can tap into the national hive mind, that has been as strategic, and big picture, as that of any political spouse in modern memory.

“She understands the image game and how to play it,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican strategist who masterminded communications for the confirmation of the Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. “How to maximize the levers of attention and the media.”

Put another way, while Mr. DeSantis may be talking presidential policy, Ms. DeSantis has been making him look the part, primarily by “dressing her part,” said Kate Andersen Brower, the author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.” By using all sorts of synaptic cues to connect what we see to what we think, she triggers associations with terms like “Kennedy” and “Trump” and even “royalty — not as odd a grouping as it may first appear, given that Kennedy was the first TV president, Trump the first reality TV president and Ms. DeSantis clearly a student of both.

She has the bouncing, glowing Breck locks of Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” (the 1991 animated version) and Catherine, Princess of Wales mixed up with the full-skirted pastel wardrobe of a well-mannered debutante, some fleece and a cape or two. She’s “dressing to be either princess of the world or first lady,” said Tom Broecker, the costume designer for “Saturday Night Live” and “House of Cards,” who has made something of an art of studying and replicating the style of first ladies. “There’s so much intentionality and purpose behind everything.”

To acknowledge that is not to undercut her substance — the work she has done for mental health, cancer research, hurricane relief — but to credit her with understanding a basic truth of modern campaigning. “Presidential campaigns are M.R.I.s for the soul,” said David M. Axelrod, the founder of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and a former senior adviser to Barack Obama. “Folks are not just evaluating your positions, they are evaluating you as a person.” To that end, he said, “spouses play a really important role in filling out that picture.”

Picture, in this case, being the operative word.

The Camelot Connection

Though Ms. DeSantis has always been a considered dresser, a lesson from her days as a local anchor with WJXT in Jacksonville, Fla., when she and Mr. DeSantis met, she has ratcheted up her style over the past year. On election night in 2022, she wore a floor-length gold and yellow one-shoulder ruched gown that made her look as if she were on her way to a state dinner, rather than simply taking the stage in the Tampa Convention Center.

It was her outfit on inauguration day in January, however, that really foreshadowed the couple’s ambitions in the public eye: a mint-green dress by Alex Perry, an Australian label, with a built-in cape flowing from the shoulders, worn with white gloves. In its color and line, it seemed to draw its lineage straight from the Kennedy era. This was only compounded by the bright pink dress Ms. DeSantis wore to her husband’s State of the State address, with a portrait neckline and more white gloves, another seeming nod to Jacqueline Kennedy, one of the most recognizable, revered and stylish first ladies in American history. Ditto the ice-blue dress she wore to accompany Mr. DeSantis to Japan, another caped style, this time with floral epaulets at the shoulders.

It’s a smart move, even if it can also seem like a cliché (clichés are clichés, after all, because they are part of common parlance). As Michael LaRosa, a communications strategist who was Jill Biden’s spokesman during her husband’s 2020 primary campaign for the White House, said: “Americans love glitz, glamour and attractiveness, celebrities and TV. Casey DeSantis understands all of that.”

Déjà vu dressing: (clockwise from top left) Casey DeSantis at the governor's State of the State address in May; Jacqueline Kennedy on a boat ride in Udaipur, India, in 1962; Mrs. Kennedy at her daughter's wedding in Hyannis Port, Mass., in 1986; Ms. DeSantis at the her husband's inauguration in January. Credit…Clockwise from top left, Phil Sears/Associated Press; Cecil Stoughton/FK Presidential Library/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images; PL Gould/Getty Images; Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

By connecting herself and her husband implicitly to the Kennedy tradition, Ms. DeSantis connects to myriad ideas rooted in the American narrative: youth and generational change (not incidental when two of the other candidates are setting records as the oldest in history), glamour and taste. Blink, and a button deep in the cerebral cortex gets pushed.

Never more so than when she dons her capes and gloves, accessories from the costume department freighted with meaning, trailing whiffs of kings and queens as well as old-fashioned morality and gender roles. The clothes both act as a “disguise for how political and strategic she is,” Ms. Brower said, and support her husband’s position as a warrior for conservative values.

So while Ms. DeSantis may be, as The New York Post called her, the governor’s “not-so-secret political weapon” and, according to Politico, a “superstar of a political spouse” who is “unusually important and uncommonly involved,” with her own portfolio, the broad-stroke portrait is of the classic helpmeet smiling charmingly in the background.

“She has been able to use her position to showcase what they could be,” Mr. Bonjean said.

According to Mr. Broecker, she is “manifesting the message.”

Beyond Trump

And the image-making is not limited to herself. Like Catherine, Princess of Wales, Ms. DeSantis is adept at color-coordinating the couple’s young children for their public appearances, the better to present a snapshot of family unity: the two little girls wearing matching dresses and pinafores, their brother echoing their father. She and Mr. DeSantis even wore matching white rubber shrimp boots when viewing the damage after Hurricane Ian.

It all makes for an implicit contrast to the current Republican front-runner, Donald J. Trump, whose own children have been divided during the campaign (Ivanka staying away, Tiffany largely absent) and whose wife, Melania, has been largely absent since his announcement.

And though Ms. DeSantis shares a certain style ethos with Ms. Trump, her clothes are more aspirational than elitist, sourced largely from the contemporary, as opposed to luxury, market, with an emphasis on brands like Ted Baker (the blue coat she wore for her husband’s first inauguration), Badgley Mischka (the caped dress and white floral pantsuit she wore in Japan) and Shoshanna (that gold and yellow ruched gown).

All of which fits with the more accessible narrative the campaign is building around her — especially when combined with the zip-up athletic jackets with the Florida state flag on the breast that she tends to wear with jeans when meeting constituents on the road.

Put another way, both Ms. DeSantis and Ms. Trump may have worn Republican-red caped gowns at different times, but while Ms. Trump’s was Givenchy, Ms. DeSantis’s appears to have been Trina Turk. Ms. Brower called the effect “Melania lite” — easier for most people to digest.

Yet Ms. DeSantis also chose a label for her official portrait — Chiara Boni La Petite Robe — that is the unofficial uniform of the women of Trumpland, a favorite of Lara Trump, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Kayleigh McEnany and Jeanine Pirro, thanks to its ability to play to both boss lady and the male gaze. All of which underscores her husband’s pitch that he is the palatable alternative to Trump: familiar, but less baggage.

The DeSantis team declined to comment on Ms. DeSantis’s role, but for those who think her image-making is simply happenstance or a fortuitous coincidence, consider the fact that in his book Mr. DeSantis notes that it was Ms. DeSantis who asked him to wear his naval “dress white uniform” for their wedding, complete with all his medals, though he had planned on wearing a tux.

She also held an on-air competition, he wrote, so viewers could vote on what wedding dress she should wear. When it came time to walk down the aisle, Mr. DeSantis wrote, she looked “less like a TV anchor and more like a princess.” Together, however, they looked like nothing so much as cosplay from the triumphant finales of both “An Officer and a Gentleman” and “A Few Good Men.”

In other words, from the beginning Ms. DeSantis was thinking about the images that would be captured for posterity and their public repercussions, and “I was happy to defer to my bride on that call,” Mr. DeSantis wrote. Odds are that pattern will continue.

After all, when you can deploy a spouse in a primary, Mr. LaRosa said, “it’s the equivalent of having the advantage of two candidates.” You get twice the airtime and twice the eyeballs.

Indeed, Mr. Bonjean said, “The team will do everything they can to get attention. And she will be a big part of that.”

Vanessa Friedman has been the fashion director and chief fashion critic for The Times since 2014. In this role she covers global fashion for both The New York Times and International New York Times. @VVFriedman

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