Robert Redford as Bill McKay, charismatic lawyer-turned-senatorial candidate
San Francisco to Los Angeles, Summer through Fall 1972
Film: The Candidate
Release Date: June 29, 1972
Director: Michael Ritchie
Costume Design: Patricia Norris
Costume Supervisor: Bernie Pollack
Tomorrow is Election Day here in the United States… though I doubt anyone has missed the memo given the barrage of emails, texts, social media posts, and more designed to serve as reminders and instructions.
Avoiding any discussion of this year’s contentious political arena, let’s step back nearly 50 years to the early 1970s when Robert Redford was seeking to work again with director Michael Ritchie after their first collaboration in Downhill Racer (1969). The duo reportedly former political writer Jeremy Larner to pen what would become an Academy Award-winning screenplay chronicling “a candidate who sold his soul.” Larner had worked as a speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy during McCarthy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, using this experience to draft the story of Bill McKay, the activist lawyer from California tapped to challenge the popular Republican incumbent in the battle for a U.S. Senate seat.
The twist? McKay is assured that he has no chance of winning and will merely be paraded as a figurehead candidate so that the Democratic party can put in a respectable showing against the Republican in office, and thus can feel free to use the “campaign” as an opportunity to spread his own idealistic dogmas. Of course, McKay’s handlers underestimated the power of his populist platform and he becomes a rising star in California, celebrating his victory at the Democratic primaries complete with a bevy of dancers singing McKay’s praises to the tune of “California, Here I Come” as well as a special appearance from Natalie Wood.
The Candidate was released less than two weeks after the Watergate break-in, the circumstances of which directly led to Redford taking on his even more ambitious politically oriented follow-up project, All the President’s Men (1976), in which he stared as famous Nixon-busting reporter Bob Woodward.
Despite the ongoing Watergate investigation, Richard Nixon sailed to an easy victory in 1972, winning his home state of California as well as every other state excluding the District of Columbia and Massachusetts. However, not every California voter was sold on Tricky Dick and it’s been reported that “McKay” received more than a few write-in votes in the state primary, perhaps in response to the film’s promotional posters that featured only a photo of Robert Redford with his character’s oft-seen campaign slogan, McKay: The Better Way!
What’d He Wear?
McKay leaves behind his more rugged everyday threads—corduroy suits, chambray shirts, and coarse woolen jackets and ties—as he rises in the political world, graduating into the characteristically unremarkable sartorialism of American politics with a rotation of navy and gray business suits. This includes flannel suits in gray and navy as well as two additional suits in striped dark blue worsted.
The most frequently worn between these two navy blue suits is patterned with a single white pinstripe and a gray double-stripe that is more prominently seen from a distance. McKay wears this businesslike suit while campaigning everywhere from shopping malls to school gymnasiums, withstanding the excitement of getting punched in the face and being asked to sign breasts.
As with most American politicians’ garb, there’s little that differentiates McKay’s suit from how most men’s suits have been styled for the better part of a century, the cut and styling consistent with—but not directed by—prevailing fashions of the early 1970s. The suit jacket is single-breasted with notch lapels and a two-button front, perhaps the most basic configuration in menswear, with an equally commonplace welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, and single vent. The sleeves are finished with two vestigial buttons slightly spaced apart on each cuff.
With the appropriate rise to Redford’s natural waist, the suit’s flat front trousers have straight pockets along the side seams and jetted back pockets, and the bottoms are finished with turn-ups (cuffs).
No longer does McKay wear that massive belt buckle that worked so well with his corduroys and chambray, either. With his businesslike suits, the candidate wears a typical black leather belt of ordinary width with a brass-finished rectangular single-prong buckle.
Coordinating his shoes to his belt and again eschewing any nontraditional choices, McKay wears plain black calf leather oxfords with a squared toe cap.
McKay cycles through a limited “road closet” of shirts and ties while working his way up and down the Golden State on the campaign trail. Naturally, one of his shirts is classic plain white cotton with a front placket, breast pocket, and squared barrel cuffs; only the larger point collar with its extended room for tie space betrays that this is a politician of the early ’70s.
Given his “clean-cut” presentation, McKay makes frequent use of that most classic of Ivy neckwear, the Brooks Brothers #1 repp tie. The Massachusetts outfitter had pioneered the “reverse-stripe” tie in 1902 to differentiate its products from the British regimental and school ties that inspired them, assigning a model number to each of its varied stripe patterns that all followed the “downhill” direction from right shoulder down to left hip.
While I can’t confirm for sure that Redford sports a genuine BB #1, the stripes on McKay’s favorite tie follow the same pattern; the tie alternates between navy and white block stripes, the latter split into three sections by twin rust-colored stripes.
After months of campaigning on a populist platform, Bill McKay and his team celebrate his victory at the Democratic primaries, where he debuts a second navy, white, and rust-striped tie that would only be seen again with his solid navy suit on Election Day… perhaps suggesting that it’s McKay’s “victory tie”. Though the colors are similar, this tie differs from the BB#1 with its wider navy stripes and slimmer white bar stripes, of which every other stripe is nearly filled by a rust-colored stripe in the same direction.
The Democratic victory forces McKay’s team to restrategize with a more centrist approach so that their candidate can begin to try winning voters away from the incumbent rather than just rising in popularity within his own party. In order to “go after the rest,” as Melvin Lucas puts it, McKay continues his campaign harder than ever, even when it meets giving speeches to mostly empty auditoriums.
For many of his appearances, McKay again wears his BB#1-style tie, this time with a cotton shirt in a balanced navy and white hairline stripe, styled with a point collar, front placket, and button cuffs.
McKay also enlists his father’s support and connections, leading to a meeting between the younger McKay and a labor representative, Floyd J. Sharkey (Kenneth Tobey). Unimpressed by the old-school union official, McKay surprising wins the man’s backing and thus the much-needed Teamster endorsement that brings him within three points of his opponent.
For this meeting, McKay wears a slate-gray shirt with thin, narrowly spaced white stripes that is otherwise similarly styled to the white shirt with its large point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and squared button-closed cuffs. The shirt’s subtle striping compliments—rather than clashes against—the more substantial stripe of his BB#1-style tie.
A Malibu wildfire presents an ideal photo op for McKay, who diverts his planned return to San Diego in order to make a public appearance connecting with his fellow Californians in need. In his scarlet red satin silk cravat—the classic “power tie” of American politics—McKay is perfectly dressed to play the quintessential politician as he takes the opportunity to expound some of his campaign points about preventing watershed erosion against the backdrop of the burning forest.
By the eve of the election, McKay dresses up his all-American red, white, and blue with his tie, shirt, and suit respectively, wearing the same scarlet silk tie but with a dressier white shirt finished with double (French) cuffs. The shirt and tie indicate McKay prioritizing performative patriotism and professionalism over his initial populism, a natural shift when an underdog becomes a bona fide political contender.
McKay had started his campaign with a somewhat awkward attempt to “connect” with blue-collar Californians. The inclement weather requires a raincoat, so McKay wears a beige gabardine thigh-length coat with a single vent, set-in sleeves, a plain Prussian collar turned up against the wind, and a fly front worn mostly buttoned to the neck.
While not exactly rumpled like Columbo, the look doesn’t inspire confidence as McKay hesitantly presents himself to potential voters, looking more like a man out of his element (which he is) rather than the confident and collected champion whose “better way” will save California.
Despite the subdued suits and style McKay wears once he had started his campaign, he maintains the affectations of not one but two rings. Likely standing in for a wedding ring on the third finger of his left hand, Redford wears the silver Hopi tribal ring that he had traditionally worn on his right hand. As McKay, Redford dresses his right ring finger with a silver ring with a turquoise-filled ridge around the center.
The silver Hopi ring isn’t the only piece of Redford’s own collection that makes it to the screen as the actor wears his personal Rolex Submariner on his right wrist. The stainless steel watch has a black dial, a black rotating bezel, and is worn on a steel Oyster-style link bracelet.
Some shots, including McKay working the crowd during a ticker tape parade, shows Redford wearing another watch. This plainer steel-cased watch with its round white dial and expanding band appears to be the same as a piece he had worn three years earlier in Downhill Racer, suggesting that this too is from the actor’s own horological collection.
Tucked away for most of his buttoned-up campaign appearances, Redford also wears his usual turquoise-accented pendant on a silver rope-style necklace.
McKay’s Other Navy Striped Suit
Hey, when you like something, buy more of it! Bill McKay clearly has a penchant for dark blue suits with subtle yet unorthodox stripe patterns. For a few segments in The Candidate, McKay wears a suit with a stripe pattern that differs only slightly from the suit described above and, were it not for my diagnosed OCD and high-definition version of The Candidate, I may have just assumed it was the same one.
This second navy striped suit is most prominently featured in the days leading up to the election as McKay’s team is hitting the campaign trail hard, beginning with a rushed TV spot on channel 44’s Point of View, sponsored by Rolex (fortuitously the very watch buckled to McKay’s right wrist!), where the still-green candidate can’t stop himself from laughing as the boom mic is slowly lowered down.
This suit’s pattern of bold and subtle stripes against a navy blue ground differs from the other by consisting of a pattern consisting of a prominent gray chalk-stripe, a thinner gray pinstripe, a barely discernible scarlet red pinstripe, and another thin gray pinstripe before the pattern repeats again with another bold gray chalk-stripe.
For both of this suit’s major appearances, McKay wears it with the aforementioned American politician’s “uniform” of a plain white shirt and red tie, this time a wide-bladed cravat in solid scarlet silk.
Both white shirts have the expected large point collar of the era, though the Point of View shirt has barrel-fastened squared barrel cuffs while the ticker tape parade shirt is finished with double (French) cuffs that McKay fastens with pearl-surfaced gold cuff links.
How to Get the Look
As the titular Senate hopeful at the center of The Candidate, Robert Redford’s charismatic Bill McKay frequently campaigned in a dark navy striped business suit worn with the actor’s own Rolex Submariner, making the case not only for his “better way” but also blending three types of stripes without clashing.
- Navy alternating-stripe worsted wool suit:
- Single-breasted 2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, straight flapped hip pockets, 2-button cuffs, and single vent
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, straight/on-seam side pockets, jetted back pockets, and plain-hemmed bottoms
- White or thin-striped shirt with point collar, front placket, breast pocket, and button cuffs
- Navy Brooks Brothers #1-style repp tie with rust-on-white “downhill”-direction stripes
- Black calf leather squared cap-toe oxford shoes
- Black socks
- Silver ring with turquoise-filled center ridge
- Silver tribal ring
- Rolex Submariner ref. 5513 dive watch with stainless steel case, black bezel and black dial, and steel Oyster-style bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Everything that happens is a complete surprise to me.