Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the most attention-getting independent candidate for president since Ross Perot, may not have the poll numbers to end up on the debate stage next month. But he increasingly has something else: a reputation as the electoral “X factor.” Which means it is increasingly impossible to ignore what may be termed his “P factor.” Or even “K factor.”

“P” being prep and “K” being Kennedy. In an election fought partly through the images that inundate social media and pit archetype against archetype — Donald J. Trump, the 1980s red-tie-wearing sultan of reality TV, versus President Biden, the aviator-clad deal maker of D.C. — Mr. Kennedy offers a Rorschach test of a different kind. At least stylistically speaking.

His look — skinny rep ties, button-downs, shrugged-on suits, shock of gray hair and weather-beaten tan — not only sets him apart. It also speaks directly to associations with the early 1960s, a golden age of promise that represents “vigor, wit, charisma, change,” said Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton University, and that are buried deep in the American hive mind.

And that comes from what Lisa Birnbach, a co-author of “The Official Preppy Handbook,” calls “the style semiology of the O.G. Kennedy men”: John F. Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy’s uncle, and his father, the presidential candidate for whom he is named, along with all the Camelot-era mythology and hope they represent. Not to mention the classic New England style they assumed as their own kind of camouflage, the better to align their Irish Catholic clan with Boston Brahmin tradition.

And by association, Mr. Kennedy. Fine-tuning his image to evoke his father and uncle, has the effect of making people think they know him and what he stands for. That image in turn gives Mr. Kennedy’s more outré positions an aura of credibility, even when his words do not: He has claimed that chemicals in the water cause children to become transgender and believes that Wi-Fi can lead to chronic illness. There’s also his anti-vaccine stance.

As a result, even as members of Mr. Kennedy’s extended family have formally repudiated him as a candidate, throwing their support behind Mr. Biden, his image-making has worked as a counterargument without his having to say a word.

“He is cosplaying as a Kennedy,” said Avery Trufelman, the producer of the podcast Articles of Interest, which included a seven-part series on the history of preppy, or Ivy, style — doubling down on a manner of dress that is, she said, deeply associated with the Kennedy name, even though that association itself came from its own form of WASP cosplay. At this point, it has become, she said, “a very powerful tool.”

Mr. Kennedy has long been aware of the power of the classic Kennedy image as expressed through clothing, and how it can be used to his benefit. As far back as 2006, he was the face of Gant, the ur-preppy sportswear brand, posing with his family in a $8.5 million campaign in part to benefit Waterkeeper Alliance, then his nonprofit. It was “the first time in my memory that anyone in the political arena has allied himself with any brand in the fashion arena,” Marylou Luther, then editor of the International Fashion Syndicate, then told The New York Times.

Later, he and his family posed for a Gant catalog shoot entitled “Decorating the Kennedy Summer House,” in which he wore khaki shorts and a navy polo while boating, fishing and barbecuing, with red-white-and-blue towels stacked nearby.

At the time, Mr. Kennedy described his style as “jeans and khakis” and “thin ties.” His image-making is, Ms. Birnbach said, all about “nostalgia.”

But nostalgia “refracted through a fun-house mirror,” Mr. Wilentz said.

In large part, that’s because the complications of the Kennedy-prep origin story have faded into history, leaving only the legend behind: the Kennedys, in those clothes, representing generational change, dressing to be the breath of fresh air they promised to bring.

It’s a picture of “the young president rolling up his sleeves on a boat,” Ms. Trufelman said.

It’s football on the lawn. It’s Brooks Brothers button-down shirts, rolled up shirtsleeves, khakis and suits that may have been inherited from a father or a brother. It’s school crests and shirts with the top button left undone. It’s a derivative of New England prep-school uniforms redolent of wealth and legacy; of an effortless ease and birthright that is particularly attractive when times seem hard.

Such sartorial ingredients compose a “set of symbols that represents something friendly, competent, approachable,” Ms. Trufelman said. And it is a signature part of national style. Amid the rise of streetwear and the fall of the suit, preppy style still occupies its own territory in the fabric of the American closet, woven into the romantic history of the country and used as a reference point in movies, ad campaigns and fashion shows.

“That is the part of the legacy he is trying to replicate,” Mr. Wilentz, the historian, said.

If in doubt, consider the February Super Bowl ad that directly mimicked John F. Kennedy’s 1960 electoral ad and for which Mr. Kennedy later apologized after his family complained. He said it had been created independently by a super PAC and not by his campaign, though the fact that most viewers assumed it was his ad reflects the message intertwined with his mere image.

Consider the mimesis involved: his appearance on VladTV, the hip-hop news site, in a button-down yellow shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a skinny navy rep tie. Or the assorted videos of Mr. Kennedy shirtless and in jeans doing push-ups, as if he had just dropped to the ground for some exercise during a game of capture the flag, that he posted on his Instagram page last summer, a not-so-hidden effort to contrast his boyish vitality (even at age 70; everything is relative) with that of Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden.

(The Kennedy campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

Or, for that matter, the fact that his campaign merch store features not only the standard T-shirts and caps bearing slogans like “Make Earth Great Again” and “The Remedy Is Kennedy,” but also the “Resolute Collection,” a line of gear featuring a sailboat logo. The collection, presumably, is a reference to the Resolute, the 19th-century Arctic exploration ship given to the United States by Queen Victoria. The Resolute’s timbers later became part of a famous Oval Office desk used by five presidents, including John F. Kennedy. (A replica is housed in the Kennedy Library.)

The boat illustration, however, looks less like the multimasted warship than a modern sailboat, which makes it hard to see without once again tumbling down the rabbit hole that leads to thoughts of famous pictures of Kennedys sailing in Hyannisport.

It’s a striking detail but also a telling one, suggesting a calculated, button-pushing approach to visual content. One that has been there since the beginning of Mr. Kennedy’s run.

To wit: When he declared his candidacy, he enlisted the help of Tom Soluri, a costume designer otherwise known for his work with “The Golden Bachelor” and on the films “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” and “West Side Story,” and who posted about the job on his Instagram page. Mr. Soluri dressed Mr. Kennedy in his trademark skinny tie, white button-down and dark suit.

“I had the privilege of working with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on his presidential announcement and run,” Mr. Soluri wrote, adding the hashtag #americanstyle to his post, underscoring the point of the look.

The only problem? According to the tags, Mr. Kennedy was wearing Zegna, the Italian brand. Suggesting, once again, that the allure of this kind of WASP-prep royalty is in the eye, and imagination, of the beholder.

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