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Inside Baltimore's mayoral candidates' style

You'll be surprised by what Baltimore's mayoral candidates have to say about their style.

Succeeding in politics means researching policies, pushing through legislation — and holding up to public scrutiny of one's appearance.

President Barack Obama's "mom jeans," Fidel Castro's sporty track suits and John Edwards' $400 haircuts have made easy fodder for news cycles, online memes or late-night talk-show jokes.

And that holds true on the local level. Baltimore's chief executives and their attire have prompted headlines and water-cooler chat, whether the topic was Martin O'Malley's bared, buff arms in a sleeveless T, the auctioning of Sheila Dixon's seized furs or Stephanie Rawlings-Blake making Vanity Fair's list of the 10 best-dressed mayors in the world.

"I was very honored" by the distinction, Rawlings-Blake said. "I'm not sure I would have made the list if they knew how cheap I am. ... I probably haven't spent more than $100 on any item — suit, dress or shoes — in more than five or six years."

Style plays a role in the job.

"When you have a tough job, it's tough enough. The hours. The pressure. When I look good, and I feel good, I have my armor on for the day," she said. "It helps your spirit. It certainly helps to encourage me to feel my best when I look my best."

Baltimore's current crop of mayoral hopefuls may have a tough time trying to fill those stiletto heels. They need to strike a balance between expressing their sense of style while appearing relatable, confident, competent and professional.

Rawlings-Blake had a few words of advice for Baltimore's next leader.

"Don't overlook style," she said. "Baltimore is a very artsy town. It's a town that is known for its uniqueness and personality. I wouldn't overlook the opportunity to represent the city and how you represent yourself."

In advance of the primary election April 26, we rounded up the candidates who are leading in fundraising (all Democrats) to ask about their approach to style and recruited fashionable experts to weigh in on those sartorial choices. Karen Ciurca-Weiner is the former buyer for boutiques Vasarri and Jones & Jones. Jen Hausner is art director at the marketing and communications firm Illume Communications. Lana Rae heads the Annapolis-based KISS Modeling Agency and is the founder of Fashion Awards Maryland.

Sheila Dixon

Dixon, 62, knows firsthand what role style plays in being the mayor of Baltimore.

"The clothing that I wear reflects the importance of my role as mayor and leader," she said. "You have to portray yourself as serious. I try to show my many personalities. Depending on the circumstances dictates how I dress."

Dixon thinks that balanced approach is required when it comes to the position's attire.

"I don't think I have to be in a suit and heels every day," Dixon said. "On Friday, I might have on a pair of jeans, flats and a jacket. I might go to a community meeting after going to the gym with sweats on. That's happened a couple times."

Dixon said she does better in bright colors.

"It helps me to feel energized," she said. "It helps brighten that up."

Dixon said she typically spends anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes each morning figuring out what she's going to wear.

"I dress based on my mood," she said. "I wish I could be the type of person who picks out clothes for the week. I decide that morning."

On the campaign trail and in office, "I like to feel comfortable," she said. "I like to be relaxed."

Our expert: "I love that she knows what colors look good on her," Hausner said. "When women dress their best, they are happier and therefore convey confidence."

Elizabeth Embry

The 39-year-old lawyer has quickly learned what works and what doesn't on the campaign trail.

"A day in the life of a candidate — or mayor when I become one — is one of ever-changing demands, so I always need to be prepared," Embry said.

On the day she was photographed by The Baltimore Sun, Embry wore a purple Kasper dress, black patent-leather pointed-toe pumps by Ivanka Trump and a statement necklace that she purchased at a beach shop in Long Island, N.Y.

"People who know me well know I value substance over surface, and this comes through in what I wear," Embry said. "A smart, businesslike, functional wardrobe reflects who I am and my management style — getting things done rather than making them just look good."

Her sister, Katherine, dispenses style advice.

"She helps me pick clothes that are flattering and well cut."

Other family members chime in.

"I've never received more advice from my parents," Embry said with a laugh. "They give me appearance advice from my hair to makeup. Sometime it's positive. Sometimes negative. Someone will say something. It's all kindly meant."

"I like basic bright colors," such as purple, blue and red, and embraces an aesthetic of clean, simple lines, Embry said. She described her style as "simple, practical and versatile."

Our expert: "The outfit looks librarian-ish," Rae said. "It doesn't go together. She doesn't look completely put together. The color is great. But If I looked at her, I wouldn't take her seriously."

DeRay Mckesson

No other candidate's wardrobe selections have been as talked about as his blue down vest.

"It's one less decision I have to make every day," Mckesson, 30, said. "I'm very consistent with my look."

Mckesson wore a light-blue button-down shirt from American Apparel, slacks from Uniqlo, tan dress shoes from Aldo and the vest, which has more than 5,000 followers on its own Twitter handle, @deraysvest.

He bought the vest in 2009 during a trip to New York City when he forgot to pack a coat. Afterward, it remained in his closet until protests in 2014 related to the death of Michael Brown* in Missouri.

Since then, the vest has become part of Mckesson's signature look.

"It makes me feel safe," he said.

He's patched it a number of times — but only washed it twice.

"It takes about four hours to clean," said Mckesson. He'll only launder it with eco-friendly detergents, then toss it in the dryer with tennis balls.

"The tennis balls makes sure the down doesn't clump," he said. "I have to be awake and make sure it dries."

Mckesson dismisses claims that wearing the vest isn't mayoral.

"I know that a suit and tie does not make one strong or equipped to handle tough situations," he said. "I've met with the president of the United States wearing this [outfit]. I've met Bernie [Sanders] and Hillary [Clinton] wearing it. …I've stood in streets wearing this. I've been in meetings across the city and country wearing it. All have been productive. A suit doesn't make me a more skilled leader."

Our expert: "DeRay's vest and shirt is too casual for this important position; even a casual blazer or cardigan would be more appropriate," Ciurca-Weiner said. Still, "his outfit choice conveys a message to the people that he can relate to them and is ready to make radical changes."

Nick J. Mosby

The City Council member, 37, believes that style plays an important role in the position of mayor.

"It means evoking leadership, being put-together and professionalism," he said.

Mosby has about 25 suits in his rotation this election season — mostly in blues and grays. He typically shops at Jos. A Bank, Nordstrom, Marshall's and Christopher Schafer Clothier in Harbor East.

He adds subtle flashes of style with colorful socks and ties and pocket squares that always oppose the patterns of his other accessories.

But Mosby also wants to communicate that he's equally comfortable in more relaxed attire.

"I'd like to consider myself a versatile dresser," he said. "I am very comfortable in a suit. When I was in the private sector, I supervised hundreds of people and managed multimillion-dollar budgets, so suits were apropos most days. However, I am equally comfortable in jeans and sneakers. I'm a very busy father of two, so comfort definitely takes precedence these days."

Mosby's daughter, ages 5 and 7, provide additional style pointers—especially when it comes to accessories.

"My youngest particularly wants me to wear a bow tie," Mosby said. "My daughters are always fighting over what tie I wear. Of course, I have to wear [what they pick out]."

One person who doesn't weigh in on fashion choices in the Mosby house is his wife, Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby.

"I help her pick out her clothes," he said. "She really doesn't do much shopping for me."

Our expert: "He fits a suit nicely," Rae said. "The pop of color in his tie gives character, while the rest of the suit reminds us that he means business."

Catherine E. Pugh

Dressing the part comes automatically to the state Senate majority leader and president-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

"I enjoy dressing up," Pugh, 66, said. "I just like to look a certain way. It's specific to who I am. "

Pugh traces her style back to being a child and watching her style icon — her late mother — and father preparing to vote.

"The reason I knew that voting was important was because she and my father would dress like they were going to church," Pugh said.

It was Pugh who helped found the Baltimore Design School, a public middle-high school in East Baltimore. Pugh — along with Baltimore Comptroller Joan M. Pratt — own 2 Chic Boutique, a Pigtown-based consignment shop that specializes in designer labels such as Chanel, Gucci and Prada.

Pugh has also sketched a clothing line for babies that she hopes to eventually manufacture.

"I love fashion," she said.

Pugh incorporates "a little bit of everything" when it comes to building her wardrobe.

"I'm a Neiman Marcus shopper and a Goodwill shopper," she said. "I also beat my customers to some of the things there."

Pugh has a predilection for Chiara Boni La Petite Robe — she wore an aquamarine dress by the designer when she sat with first lady Michelle Obama during the State of the Union address in 2015.

"I like color," she said.

Our expert: "I love the pop of color on this classic jacket," Ciruca-Weiner said. "The message she is conveying with her classic knit suit is one of experience and knowledge."

Carl Stokes

The City Council member, 65, has a background in menswear. He owned Everyman's Son, a clothier that specialized in suits, ties and jackets for boys. The business, which operated from 1977 to 1985, had locations in Waverly Towers, Mondawmin Mall and Reisterstown Road Plaza.

"I wear a suit and tie every day with purpose," Stokes said. "I owned a store that sold formal clothing for young men when young men wore suits to church, family gatherings and special occasions. We don't see that so much anymore."

Stokes co-founded two charter schools for boys. Both have a dress code that includes wearing a tie every day, he said.

"Much of my life has been spent emulating leadership and pride partly through my appearance," Stokes said. "I see myself as a role model, as the mayor should be. What do they say? 'Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.'"

Stokes said he's most comfortable in suit and tie.

"I never wear jeans," he said. "I don't own a pair of jeans. I've never owned a pair of jeans."

When it comes to his suits, Stokes has a proclivity for charcoal, navy and brown in winter and lighter shades of gray, tan or beige in the spring. He typically buys his suits off the rack at Macy's.

"You will also notice that I often wear yellow and blue — not only the colors of my campaign, but colors of my alma mater, Loyola Blakefield," he said.

Our expert: "Carl's smart professional attire shows his confidence and determination," Hausner said.

David L. Warnock

The businessman, 58, expresses his style in subtle ways.

He loves to wear his Natty Boh cuff links, purchased at Angel Park, a menswear boutique in Fells Point.

"My cuff links say I care about Baltimore and what we represent to the country, and they say I care about attention to detail," he said.

Warnock favors cowboy boots and would prefer to be dressed more casually.

"My suit and tie is what I wear most often, but, well, the truth is that's not my favorite thing to wear," he said. "A good day to me means I'm in my jeans and my Green Street Academy T-shirt — those are the things that make me feel good."

But he knows that there's a time and place for everything.

"[I hope to convey] common sense and comfort — my style is practical, versatile and, when it comes to fashion, voters can feel I'm approachable and authentic," he said.

Warnock purchases his suits at Jos. A Bank and Neiman Marcus Last Call.

"Because I'm a short, I have to be picky," he said. "It's not so easy for me to buy stuff off the rack."

Outfitted in a navy suit, he said, "My team says I look good in blue. I don't mind brown."

Our expert: "David's look is polished without being pretentious," Hausner said. "I love the cowboy boots. He seems approachable and down to earth."

* This story has been updated. An earlier version referred to Eric Garner.

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