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For the President, A Dilemma Regarding Denim

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, July 26, 2009

The public's recent fascination with the unfortunate dungarees President Obama wore to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in St. Louis reveals how conflicted folks can be about the silent symbolism of the commander in chief when he is not in formal Oval Office attire. Few people want him to look like he spends his afternoons thumbing through his subscriber editions of GQ. But most folks would like to think he has at least heard the phrase "dress for success."

The overarching aesthetic problem with Obama's jeans was they seemed to have only a passing acquaintance with the dimensions of his body. They were too short; one could see the tops of his sneakers and a hint of white socks when he was at a standstill.

They were baggy -- but lacking in old-school urban swagger or beachcomber, loose-limbed ease. To be technically correct, the jeans sagged. It wouldn't be surprising to discover that the jeans were "relaxed fit." This is the silhouette stores such as the Gap sell online -- because a shopper can find anything on the Internet including acid-washed jeans -- but not in its stores because space is at a premium and there's the company's image to consider.

Adding to the jeans' unattractiveness: They had creases. They were light blue. Practically stonewashed.

Obama's jeans sat relatively high on his waist and so some have referred to them as "mom jeans" because they managed to make the lanky Obama look . . . well, not so lanky. But really, these are the jeans of middle-aged dads who have thrown in the towel and decided that when they get home from the office and take off their suit, all they care about is comfort. Because they cannot wear their pajamas in public, their 20-year-old jeans are a viable alternative. And by God, they still fit!

This is all fine and good for those middle-aged men who do not fly on Air Force One and rule the free world. But on men who travel with a posse that includes sharpshooters, we can impose a higher standard.

When NBC's Meredith Vieira -- God bless her! -- asked Obama about his poor choice of jeans, the president at first deployed the clueless defense: "I hate to shop." Then, with a smile on his face, he got ever-so-slightly snippy and defended his self-proclaimed frumpiness, and in the process seemed to imply that the only alternative to his 1980s pre-washed jeans were a pair in Japanese denim cut for a man with the physique of a hungry rock star. "And for those of you who, you know, want your president to, you know, look great in his tight jeans, I'm sorry, I'm not the guy."

Tight jeans are not the point. They are not even on the table. No one wants to see that. But for a president who has prided himself on his forward-looking philosophy, on his embrace of the new, on his youthful vitality and on his ability to project an air of reassuring cool in the face of economic meltdown, those sad-sack, grandpa jeans were off message.

The Oval Office attire of most presidents is virtually interchangeable, seeing as how they have all been men. Aside from Ronald Reagan's brown suits and Bill Clinton's low gorge Donna Karan ones, presidents wear basic dark suits: nicely tailored, crisp white shirts, etc. The clothes convey a clear message of control and power.

It's only when they stray from that uniform -- and stray they must when they head off to Camp David, do a bit of glad-handing with working folks or throw out those ceremonial pitches -- that some hint of personality, of their skill at image-making, comes through. Comfortable as he was with the concept of costuming, Reagan was adept at evoking expansive Western optimism in his casual clothes, which consisted almost solely of jeans, cowboy hats and denim jackets. His clothes spoke of the swaggering machismo of Hollywood's cowboys. George W. Bush was obsessed with Western style as well, favoring cowboy boots, belt buckles and hats whenever possible, and steering clear of anything that suggested familiarity with a certain Kennebunkport compound.

Clinton's early casual wear -- the skimpy jogging shorts thrown together with T-shirts -- underscored the perception that he was disorganized, but that he was also a big-tent guy and a proponent of "come as you are." He didn't seem concerned about how he looked as he was jogging, only that he was comfortable. But after significant mocking, it became clear that it always matters how the president looks, even when he is sweating his way along the Mall with the Secret Service trotting at his side.

It's easy to see how a president could get confused about how casual is too casual. Presidential candidates spend so much of their time on the campaign trail trying to demonstrate the many ways in which they are Everyman -- or Everywoman. When they're angling for votes, they know any hint of rarefied tastes or an aesthetic sensibility that is more Barneys New York than Macy's raises questions about whether they are fit for the job of representing all the regular folks. When it comes to clothes, the president must appear to be as mass market and main floor as possible.

So Obama cannot display the old-money, preppy informality of John F. Kennedy. His administration was the last time citizens applauded a president -- and a first lady -- for looking obviously wealthy. For looking as though they breathed cleaner, fresher, more rarefied air than the average person. George H.W. Bush looked rich. He summered. He sailed. He expressed patrician curiosity over a supermarket scanner. And he was not celebrated for it.

In the years that followed Kennedy, people have become increasingly suspicious of grandeur and of highfalutin ways. Looking too dashing can be problematic. Yet the need for the president to make people feel better about themselves, to present a dynamic and impressive face to the world, persists. The president still has to look a cut above at all times.

It's so much easier to do that in a suit. Suits don't send mixed messages. Casual clothes do. When Reagan and Bush shed their suits, they used the mythology of the West to convey a sense of American greatness and confidence. Clinton finally settled on golf attire -- khakis and windbreakers -- that fit his stocky build and that made him look like a retired chief executive, not of an investment bank, but of, say, a mom-and-pop pizza chain.

Obama has not found a foolproof casual wardrobe that combines accessibility with clout, that mixes ease with presidential authority. When Obama wears a suit jacket over a polo shirt or with an open-collar dress shirt, he strikes just the right note. He looks like a Silicon Valley titan, a player in the new economy. And in this bad economy, that's a look that's reassuring.

But there will be moments when a jacket is not required, when it is, in fact, inappropriate. There will be more baseball games and the inevitable photographs of him on vacation. And when he is not cutting a fine figure in board shorts -- and managing to exude vim-and-vigor in that JFK way -- he will need an alternative uniform. The blousy polo shirts will not do. And neither will those beloved jeans. They may be comfortable and they may be neatly pressed, but they are not in the least bit presidential.

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