Ronald Reagan wore tan suits during his presidency. So did Dwight D. Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
But on Aug. 28, 2014, when President Barack Obama showed up for a White House news conference dressed in beige, the light-colored suit became a matter of national import. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) fumed that the suit pointed to a “lack of seriousness” on the president’s part, cable news shows held roundtable discussions, fashion critics and image consultants weighed in, and TV news reporters conducted man-on-the-street interviews to find out what the people of Northeast Ohio thought of the controversial look.
Five years later, however, Tan Suit Gate has taken on a different meaning, coming to symbolize the relative dearth of scandals during the Obama administration. On social media, just about every news item about potential conflicts of interests within the Trump administration and the president’s flouting of norms is met with some variant of “Remember when Obama wore a tan suit?” In the past week alone, the tan suit comparison has been leveled against President Trump’s assertion that he is “the chosen one,” his demand that U.S. companies leave China, and his desire to hold next year’s Group of Seven summit at his Florida golf resort — just to name a few examples.
In 2014, Time magazine offered a compelling explanation for why the tan suit — specially fitted for Obama by Georges de Paris, the Washington tailor who had outfitted every president from Lyndon B. Johnson onward — commanded such enormous attention. During the first term of his presidency, Obama streamlined his daily routine by whittling down his wardrobe options. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he told Vanity Fair’s Michael Lewis in a 2012 profile. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”
The unintended consequence, however, was that over the course of nearly six years, Americans grew accustomed to seeing the president dressed in either navy or charcoal unless he was at, say, an Easter service. When Obama showed up in the briefing room in beige, it was “tantamount to seeing a performer out of costume,” Time wrote. Reporters and political commentators went berserk, outdoing themselves with puns like “Yes we tan” and “The audacity of taupe.” Before long, style experts were weighing in: GQ deemed the suit “terrible,” and Esquire labeled it a “monstrosity.”
Some looked for deeper meaning, noting that Obama had worn the suit on a day when he was slated to discuss whether the U.S. would step up its military response against the Islamic State in Syria — a question the president sidestepped, telling reporters, “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
“Khaki is a sort of wishy-washy color, neither white nor brown, and hence seemed a particularly odd choice for a discussion of wishy-washy military policy,” New York Times chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman wrote, questioning whether Obama was “trying to purposefully look like a fence-sitter.” On the other hand, she added, khaki “is also a color associated with the military. Was he trying to show his support for real action? Or subconsciously hoping listeners might associate his gear with a more aggressive potential approach, even if he didn’t articulate that?”
The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan had a different take. “It says more about official, federal, political Washington that anything other than a dark suit with a white shirt and red tie counts as some sort of aesthetic heresy,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic told The Fix. “That is a conservative two-button suit in a color that is perfectly appropriate for the time of year and the occasion. This was not a ‘formal’ news conference.” Her one point of contention? The suit was a little too big, “as they always are.”
What likely would have been a blip in today’s news cycle ended up becoming a topic of discussion for days, providing plenty of fodder for Obama’s critics. “There’s no way I don’t think any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday,” King, the New York congressman, told Newsmax TV. The Republican was mostly agitated by Obama’s unwillingness to commit to increased military operations in Syria, but it didn’t help that the president had walked out in “a light suit, a light tan suit” to deliver that message.
“ISIS is watching,” King said. “If you were the head of ISIS, if you were Baghdadi, if you were anyone in the ISIS, would you come away from yesterday afraid of the United States? Would you be afraid that the United States was going to use all its power to crush ISIS? Or would you think here’s a person who’s going to go out and do a few fundraisers over the Labor Day weekend?”
Later, in an interview with CNN, King doubled down on his criticism, saying that Obama “looked like he was on his way to a party at the Hamptons.” Informed that other presidents had worn tan suits before, the Republican replied that Obama “could have worn whatever he wanted” if he had taken a stronger stance on ISIS. “I thought the suit was a metaphor for his lack of seriousness,” he concluded.
For further commentary on the subject, the Associated Press reached an image consultant in Los Angeles, who thought the suit failed to convey the message that the president was a power player, and a Republican campaign strategist, who thought the tan suit was fine. The discourse arguably reached its apex when the ABC affiliate in Cleveland sent its reporters to stop random Ohioans on the street and find out what they thought of the president’s outfit. The overarching theme of the two-minute segment was that absolutely no one cared.
“If he wants to wear a tan suit, he can wear a tan suit,” one woman said. Another asked, “Why are we so concerned about the color of a suit?”
The administration, meanwhile, remained unfazed. “The president stands squarely behind the decision that he made yesterday to wear his summer suit at yesterday’s news conference,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters the next day. “It’s the Thursday before Labor Day. He feels pretty good about it.”
Months later, when the 2015 State of the Union rolled around, staffers tweeted out a picture of the infamous tan suit and suggested — facetiously — that the president might wear it to deliver his speech.
Cracks about the suit became part of Obama’s repertoire of dad jokes: He told attendees of a September 2014 awards dinner for the Congressional Black Caucus that he would have worn his tan suit if the event wasn’t black-tie, and joked at his final news conference in January 2017 that he had been “sorely tempted” to wear a tan suit for the occasion.
By then, the controversy had started to feel like a memory from a more innocent time, when a beige jacket was the most important issue dividing the nation. “Remember when all we cared about was President Obama’s tan suit?” HuffPost asked in August 2017, when the three-year anniversary of Tan Suit Gate arrived. Earlier that month, Trump had declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” at a white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville where a counterprotester was murdered. Amid the ensuing uproar, Cody Keenan, a former Obama speechwriter, reminded people that not too long ago, giving a speech in light-colored clothing was “classified as a press conference disaster.”
Five years after its White House debut, the tan suit has taken on a life of its own. Trump critics cite the dust-up as proof that Obama was held to a different standard than the current president — due to his race, his political affiliation, or both — so often that it’s almost become a cliche. Comics have also turned the flap into a punchline: Earlier this year, Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” produced a look back at “the worst scandal in presidential history,” complete with montages of the breathless cable news coverage and a clip of Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs saying that the suit “was shocking to a lot of people.”
Fashion critics, for the record, still largely agree that the suit was bad. But they’re shocked, in retrospect, that it came to dominate an entire news cycle.
“To say that Obama had a flawless presidency is to gloss over his penchant for drone strikes and unpopular immigration policies, to name a few,” Esquire, which had initially panned the suit, wrote in August 2018. “As far as personal ‘scandals,’ though? The suit was pretty much it, which makes the attention it drew even more insane."
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