President Obama recently appeared on the ‘Funny or Die!’ series “Between Two Ferns.” This sparked (faux) outrage from conservatives about Obama demeaning the office of the President. This is not a new line of attack; the supposed lack of respect for the Presidency is chronically complained about by FoxNews folks. It’s silly. The very first iteration of this attack was that Obama didn’t wear his suit jacket in the White House Oval Office. The fact is that conceptions of what is proper change and, at any rate, every President has filled the office in his own way. This includes each having his own individual view on propriety. I wrote about this 5 years ago on my old blog.
As the Roman Republic, and later the Empire, expanded to incorporate more far-flung territories and peoples it had to confront and overcome the myriad problems associated with stitching together a multiethnic, multinational polyglot nation. It managed this complex task quite well, as evidenced by the fact that its duration can be measured in millennia, and not mere centuries or decades. They did much better in this respect than, for example, their Greek predecessors who operated with an open disdain for non-Hellenistic cultures. (we get our word “barbarian” from the Greek insult that all non-Greek speaking peoples sounded the same, apparently only ever saying ‘bar bar bar bar’)
One sentiment that the Romans encountered is something that Americans know quite well; as new peoples were absorbed protectors of the old order took offense whenever the new peoples clung to old customs. For example, as the Romans pushed out the Gauls from the Transalpine, they encountered peoples who wore braccae, or pants. The Romans thought that pants were effeminate, preferring to wear tunics. Over time, though, the old tribal residents of the Transalpine became Roman citizens, and some of them took places in the Senate. The newly minted Roman aristocrats had to don togas, the traditional vestments of the Roman nobility. Though bad college parties have taught us otherwise, togas are not just white bedsheets tied around the waist with a cut extension cord. Rather, they are fairly complicated and one must be expert in how to put them on and wear them. Indeed, like most clothes of distinction (think, tuxedo, kimono, hoop dresses, the white Princeton dinner shirt, etc.) they are intended to portray the wearer’s station through their sheer impracticality. One cannot plough a field in a toga, do housework in a kimono, or work in a factory in a dress that takes four attendants to put on. Anyway, over time, naturally, these new Romans eschewed the toga for their preferred braccae, something that caused great outrage among those who took this as an insult to the history and honor of Rome. These fears were unfounded, and the Republic did not crumble because northern Italians preferred pants to skirts.
As I am wont to do, I offer this as an unnecessarily lengthy lead-in to what is really on my mind. The internet is abuzz with criticisms made by Andrew Card, Bush’s former Chief of Staff, because Obama and his administration often remove their jackets in the Oval Office, and even have casual dress on weekends. This, to hear Card express it, is a grave insult to the dignity of the Office of President and the men who have occupied it. I think that he is, obviously, over-reacting. More importantly, Card has a rather incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the history of the clothes of the men who occupied the White House. For reasons that I won’t reveal just now, this is one of those few subjects about which I have something like a comprehensive knowledge, so forgive me as a dwell on this point at some length.
First, it needs to be noted that there has been a long and varied relationship between Presidents and fashion. Washington made a point to remove his martial attire and instead wear the silk knee britches and longcoat of a civilian. This set the standard for the day, and Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the handsomest and most nattily-dressed Founder refined this look by also eschewing European kid gloves and adopting a slightly gussied-up version of the colonial three-point hat. These choices were important because they signified that the new nation would be run by men who had, like Cincinnatus of Roman fame, put down their weapons and lent their efforts to the construction of a democracy. Colonial hats, like Franklin’s decision to go wigless and wear a pelt hat, paid homage to the yeoman who would provide the foundation of the American Republic. Though, in a fit of inexplicable silliness John Adams, who had no real military experience, took to wearing a sword, these general approaches to dress held firm. In fact, in the early American Republic, one did not want to come across as too European or aristocratic in their dress. Even Thomas Jefferson, who loved European fashion and was as close to a patrician as early America had, took to wearing fur hats and shuffling about the White House in slippers. And, in those days if you knocked on the front door of the White House, Jefferson would often himself answer the door in a robe looking unkempt.
The modern Presidential attire owes most of its stylistic influence to George Bryan Brummel, one of the great fashion figures of all time. A dandy, raconteur, unrepentant gambler and near unequaled conversational wit, in the early 19th century, he did away with short pants, replacing them with long trousers, introduced the plain blue or black waistcoat, and insisted on simple and elegant white shirts and ties. This new look initially scandalized the London fashion scene until Crown Prince, and future king, George IV took a liking to it, thus relegating the knee pant to history’s dustbin. (but if you’ve seen Frank Kapra’s 1927 movie ‘Long Pants’ you know that short pants remained the favored dress for children for some time) Though he likely did not intend it, Brummel’s innovative approach to fashion had the effect of democratizing fashion, and many of the people who constituted England’s growing class of merchants, industrialists and professionals could now afford to dress like an aristocrat. More importantly, perhaps, was that the new fashions did not require much in the way of learning how to wear the clothes.
It is because of Brummel that portraits of Lincoln, for example, show him in long pants and long jacket, rather than the short pants of the kind that Washington wore. And, in case Card thought that Obama’s sins were unique and particularly horrendous, he should remember that Lincoln often did not wear shoes in the Oval Office, and his dusty and ill-fitting clothes and unruly hair led more than one person to compare him to a clothed ape. But, Lincoln nonetheless managed to steer the ship of state effectively despite his fashion deficiencies.
FDR became the first President to leave behind the long coat for the short coat. In a minor historical irony, in so doing he followed the example of Gustav Streseman, the German Chancellor and Foreign Minister who secretly rebuilt the German army during the 1920’s. At the time, the short jacket was seen as a more informal style of dress, and no respectable politician would make an official appearance out of his long coat. Gustav, annoyed by having to change coats depending on the function, instead chose to always wear a jacket that resembles what we today wear, though he always wore a waistcoat or vest with it. For someone like Roosevelt trying to hide his Knickerbocker roots and come across in a slightly more everyman fashion, ditching the long coat was smart politics.
If you look at how Presidents have dressed, you in fact do not see a consistent pattern. Rather, each President uses their dress to convey important messages to the nation. For example, at JFK’s inauguration, he wore a morning coat and top hat, something that had in fact been long out of fashion. But in doing so, he told the nation’s 30 million descendants of Irish immigrants that they had arrived in the fullest sense. Clinton often went jacketless in the Oval Office, and indeed sometimes wore jeans and golf shirts on weekends, projecting a more Baby Boomer sensibility that was less concerned with rules and conventions for their own sake. Bush, in establishing a stricter dress code was intentionally attempting to counteract this sensibility; it was a decidedly and intention conservative move, attempting to hearken back to a mythical past that never really existed.
I see Obama’s dress code in much the same light. Obama probably saw that, yes, Bush had an exceedingly well-run White House. Meetings began and ended on time, and things within the White House went smoothly and according to plan. Of course, the Bush administration also demonstrated rather comprehensively that a well-run White House can produce a disastrous series of outcomes. What use, after all, are meetings that end on time if they produce foolish decisions? The Obama approach seems infused with the kind of pragmatism that has served as the guiding principle of his campaign and style of personal leadership. His dress code is strict enough to prevent the sort of frat-house disorganization that permeated the Clinton administration while avoiding the unnecessary stuffiness of Bush’s approach.
Of course, like the Roman Senator who bristled at the sight of braccae, this is not really about suit jackets. The real issue is that conservatives are upset about a new people in government using a new style of government that is, for better or worse (something that I have previously discussed, no need to ruin a nice moment of Obama praise with me a curmudgeonly quip) distinctly different from the one that preceded it. The aesthetics are an excuse for criticism, not a real cause for it.
Beyond this, any particular criticism about fashion is foolish if for no other reason than that fashions change, and along with this change comes changes to how people perceive messages sent through fashion. For example, consider the following. Most American men tie their neckties with a four-in-hand knot and pull the tie somewhat tight to cover the top button on a shirt. When one sees the top button undone and the tie loosened, the man is probably either at the end of a long day or otherwise letting it be known that he is relaxing. We even say that when someone is a bit high-strung they are “buttoned up.” But, 100 years ago, this sensibility would not have made sense. The necktie today has no practical purpose; it is purely decorative. But, originally dress shirts did not typically have a top button and the tie actually tied (and thus, the name!) the shirt closed. The only shirts with top buttons were worn by working men who did not wear ties or who wore ties but engaged in activities in which wearing a tie so tightly that it kept the shirt closed was not practical or comfortable. The point here is that the image of the loosened tie as the symbol of the weary and well-worked is an example of the evolution of fashion that speaks more to the fact that ties are a vestigial accessory than to anything else. One does not, for example, see someone in the White House drop their pants to their knees because pants, like the neckties of old, perform a function. (Insert Bill Clinton joke here) Today, someone loosens their tie and unbuttons their top button, but 100 years ago you would not do this because your dress shirt did not have a collar button and, at any rate, you tied your tie a bit looser.
The undercurrent of all of this is that for the most part Americans appreciate that politicians at least attempt to appear like the average working man. This is not a new development, and though it does incur some disingenuousness from politicians and the occasional disastrous electoral decision (ahem, Bush), this impulse is a good one. It’s very democratic and taps into our best republican (in the Jeffersonian, not the GOP’ean, sense) impulse. In every election cycle, there will invariably come a televised debate (usually in a primary) where the candidates ‘get real’ and remove their jackets, roll up sleeves, sit on stools and talk to some borderline moron that they have to pretend to like and empathize with. Though always a completely canned moment, it at least, for a moment, puts the candidates in a position to fear the masses – not the violence of the masses in the way that Europeans kings did, but rather to fear the impulses and fears of the masses who wield their votes like old-time peasants held swords and pitchforks.
But, all of that said, I do have one minor complaint about Obama’s dress policy. He can let his minions wear whatever they want, but he should always wear a suit. Always. He should work in a suit, eat in a suit, bathe in a suit, nap in a suit, make love to Michelle in a suit (I am presuming his suits have well-placed zippers) and work out in his suit. The reason is that he wears a suit better than any President in our history and it’s just a bad aesthetic choice to ever not wear one. In fact, truth be told, I am on a new workout routine that is designed to slim down, get length, lose muscle and fat, and otherwise look sleek because in looking at Obama I realized that in the right hands a well-cut suit is a powerful thing. McCain, who for reasons that I feel bad in faulting him for, looked like Quasimodo next to an unusual and perfect combination of ballerino and two-guard when standing next to Obama, each in their suits. He shouldn’t surrender this advantage.
I don’t want to end my blog here because, in what is already a pretty gay blog, that last paragraph is super-gay. So, I’ll point out two things. We Americans get a great deal of our fashion sensibility from the English. This is a bad thing. As anyone who has ever seen an English court or Parliamentary session knows, the English believe in tradition for its own sake, so they often wear wigs and comical red outfits and huge hats. When the British were the colonial lords of India, their lawn clubs often had special refrigerated rooms because despite 115 degree heat, the British man would nonetheless dress in shirt, vest, tie, jacket, long pants and hat. Upon arriving at the club drenched in sweat, he would change into a set of clothes kept refrigerated at the club. Now that is just stupid.
Finally, a well worn history of fashion joke. A French officer once asked a British officer why they wore red coats. The British officer noted that the British Empire depended on natives believing in the invincibility of the British Army, and a red coat would hide bloody wounds received in battle, making the natives believe that the solder was bulletproof. “You see,” the British officer said, “it acts as a bit of camouflage that in covering our blood makes us seem powerful.” The French officer was impressed, blurting out, “That is a wonderful idea!” The next day the French officer wore brown pants.