By Robin Givhan
Friday, December 14, 2007
One of the most distinctive elements of Barack Obama's public style comes down to what he so often is not wearing: patriotism on his sleeve. Whether he is speaking at a campaign rally, attending a fish fry or debating his Democratic challengers, he comes across as the candidate least willing to drape himself in the usual symbols of nationalism and politics. No flag pin on the lapel. No hand on heart during the national anthem at Tom Harkin's Iowa steak fry. And he generally shuns bold red ties.
Obama refuses to dress the part of the presidential contender, with all of its safely prepackaged banality. He has never fully embraced the stereotypical uniform of Washington. Even in the glossy pages of Men's Vogue in September 2006, when he was positioned as Kennedy, Santa Claus and the Messiah all rolled into one, he was never pictured in the traditional political costumes or doing any of the glad-handing that is standard practice.
As a candidate, he favors pale-blue ties for more formal events. When he wants to look polished but less formal, he chooses a dark suit paired with an open-collar shirt. And for those occasions when he must gorge on trans fats to prove that he has the common touch, he selects khakis -- pleated, of course. (Candidates do not wear flat-front trousers. That would bring them dangerously close to indulging in fashion, and the only thing more self-defeating than that would be trying to order a caffe macchiato at a diner.)
The most distinctive style in the Obama repertoire is his tieless suit. He rolled out this look for appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Oprah." The look is not exactly business casual. It's a cross between the style of a 1950s home-from-the-office dad and a 1990s GQ man about town. It is warmly, safely, nostalgically . . . cool. Has that tiny word ever been applied to a presidential candidate? Perhaps when Bill Clinton blew his saxophone on the old "Arsenio Hall Show"? Most definitely not when John Kerry went kite-surfing.
Without the tie, his dark suit and white shirt no longer stand for stiff tradition. On his meager frame, his suit jackets hang jauntily. They fit him in the shoulders but are loose through the torso and move when he walks. He never looks buttoned up even when he is. On Obama, the suit has been reworked into something that remains recognizably authoritative and appropriate, yet flexible.
If the rolling up of shirt sleeves symbolizes a moment of down-and-dirty straight talking, how does the mood of the room change when the candidate removes his tie? The gesture indicates that a man is getting comfortable, that he is shedding the constraints of the workday but holding on to the most recognizable symbol of clout. It reflects the modern professional continuum that connects boardrooms and golf courses. In a world dominated by BlackBerrys, laptops, cellphones and pagers, the boss might be relaxed, but he's never off.