Connie Schultz | A Brief Tutorial on Blue-Collar Menswear

To state the obvious: I am not a man.

So I don’t know what it feels like to be a guy who makes his living wearing a hard hat and flannel shirts. I do, however, know what this sort of person looks like, as I am the daughter of just such a man.

After seeing a couple of recent political ads, I thought a brief tutorial in labor menswear might be helpful.

Please note: A hard hat is meant to protect, not accessorize.

I keep my father’s hard hat next to his lunch pail in my home office. His yellow hat is filthy from all those years at the electric plant. It sits on a bookshelf as a gentle reminder that I have yet to know a hard day’s work.

Contrast Dad’s hat with the lily-white number that plays a starring role in Ohio Republican gubernatorial candidate John Kasich’s ad. You may have seen this ad no matter where you live because bloggers and pundits across the country have had too much fun pointing out that the steelworker holding the hard hat isn’t a steelworker at all, but rather feature actor Chip Redden.

Apparently, Kasich couldn’t find a real steelworker willing to play one on TV. Seeing as I’m on a roll in stating the obvious, I offer this observation: If you have to hire someone to play a steelworker, then you aren’t fighting for steelworkers. And if you’re going to use a fake steelworker, you don’t want him to look like a stripper for Chippendales.

I don’t expect an actor to look as if he just walked out of a blast furnace, but I’ve got coffee mugs more scuffed up than the hard hat this guy’s carrying. It’s so shiny, so new. It looks as if someone peeled off its plastic packaging, shoved it in Redden’s hand and shouted, “OK, now look manly!”

His flannel shirt is pretty, too.

Which brings me to my second helpful hint in workwear.

Four years ago, my dad’s 69-year-old heart called it quits, and after we buried him, I inherited one of his old flannel shirts. I bought it for him when I was still in my 20s, and I wear it occasionally when I’m working in the yard. I cannot help but smile whenever I pull it on. It’s an Arrow XL, and it’s plaid, like all his flannel shirts. It stood out in his closet, too, because it was a palette of pastels — light blue, dusty cream and pale teal.

Dad never would have picked out this shirt for himself, which you could tell by the look on his face when he unwrapped it.

“It’ll look so nice with your red hair,” I told him.

He looked at me as if my head’s last marble had just dropped to the floor and rolled under the couch. I left convinced he never would wear the thing. It was only after he had died that I discovered he’d worn it down to its sturdiest stitches. The collar is split and frayed, and the colors have faded to the soft hues of a newborn’s blanket. It’s all worn-out, just like all his other flannel shirts.

Whenever I think of Dad in one of his tattered flannel shirts, several words come to mind: Rugged. Strong. Stubborn.

I never, ever think of the word “hicky.”

Yet here was the casting call for a political ad airing in West Virginia and produced by the National Republican Senatorial Committee:

“We are going for a ‘Hicky’ Blue Collar look. These characters are from West Virginia so think coal miner/trucker looks.” The memo also suggested “Dickie’s type jacket with t-shirt underneath” and “John Deer hats.”

Good Lord. At least, spell it right. It’s John Deere.

If you think America’s blue-collar workers are “hicky,” then you never have worked with your hands or known anyone who has. Or, worse, you’re betraying the people you came from, and how sad is that?

The “hicky” ad was supposed to support Republican businessman John Raese in his U.S. Senate race against Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin. The actor who drew the most fire was Philadelphian Damian Muziani, who showed up in the ad with a crisp plaid shirt and lots of negative opinions about Manchin.

Turns out, Muziani has his own thoughts about the best candidate in the West Virginia race, which he shared Monday with Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s “Hardball”: He likes Manchin, the Democrat.

“I kinda hope he wins,” he said.

He was wearing a suit and tie at the time.

Make of that what you will.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.

Copyright 2010